Is a Gap Year a Good Idea for Prospective College Students with ADHD?

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Most parents of high schoolers with ADHD have concerns about sending their teen to college – and with good reason. Research shows that college students with ADHD are at higher risk for failing or withdrawing from their classes and are more likely to drop out of college than their classmates without ADHD. While academic accommodations (link to “Frequently Asked Questions about Academic Accommodations in College” post here) and programs designed specifically for students with ADHD (link to “5 Colleges with Enhanced Services” post here) can help increase the likelihood of college success, they may not provide enough support for students who are simply not ready to live independently on a college campus. For these students, a gap year may be worth considering.  

Gap year programs are becoming increasingly popular across the United States. Some colleges even encourage a gap year for their prospective students since they may give teens time to mature, gain a broader perspective on the world, and hone in on what they want to achieve once they begin college. For students with ADHD, this can sound exactly like what they need.

In general, kids and teens with ADHD have delays in skills related to attention, organization, motivation, and social interactions that place them about 2-3 years behind their peers in these areas. In fact, there is substantial research evidence showing a “maturational lag” in brain development corresponding to these delays in skill development. So, it’s possible that having an additional year to mature before college may be very helpful. However, these same skill delays also make it more challenging to ensure that the gap year is productive for teens with ADHD. After all, the year is supposed to be used for developing skills and maturity, and not for sitting on the couch playing video games or watching YouTube. If you and your teen are considering a gap year, it’s essential that structure and supervision are built into the gap year plan.

Here are some tips for making the most out of a gap year for teens with ADHD.

  1. Encourage your teen to set big-picture goals for their gap year. Your teen should identify three things they want to accomplish during the year. This may involve things like the following:
  • traveling to other parts of the US or internationally
  • gaining skills or a certification in an area they are interested in
  • gaining work experience
  • making new social connections outside of their high school friend group
  • taking a few college-level courses that will allow for a lighter course load during their first college semester
  • taking classes in a specific interest area to help them reignite a passion for learning
  1. Consider structured internship programs. There are many structured internship programs available for gap year students, some with internships in the US and some with international placements (check out com and for ideas). Many internships have substantial fees associated with them, so consider cost when weighing your options. Local volunteer organizations may also have internship opportunities that don’t cost a dime.
  2. Pair skill development opportunities with certification programs. Most teens with ADHD do best when they are working toward achieving a specific goal. Help your gap year student stay focused by enrolling in a certification program in an area that interests them. These certificate programs can be an area of career interest (like information technology, engineering, or healthcare) or they can be more hobby-related (like scuba diving, lifeguard certification, or ski patrol). Certification programs provide structure, opportunities for learning, and access to a social network, and they also look impressive on college applications.
  3. Look into a gap year program specifically designed for teens with ADHD. There is one gap year program designed specifically for teens with ADHD: the Gateway Adventure Program at SOAR. The program combines residential living on a campus in Wyoming with adventure travel in the US and internationally. The program emphasizes skill-building in the areas of independent living/life skills, social skills, personal finance management, planning, organization, and time management. Overall, it’s a fantastic program, although the fees may be high for some families.
  4. Consider other accredited gap year programs. There are many accredited gap year programs available that don’t focus specifically on the needs of students with ADHD. However, they do provide structured residential living or travel opportunities, internships or community-based volunteer programs, and opportunities for making new friends and social connections. All accredited gap year programs charge fees (often related to travel and residential living expenses) and it’s important to make sure that the program you choose is accredited by the Gap Year Association.

Overall, taking a gap year after high school may provide a real boost for prospective college students with ADHD. Just make sure you and your teen work together to create a plan for a goal-oriented, productive year that will set them up for success when they are ready to start college the following fall.


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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