Faking ADHD Gets You Into Harvard

A growing number of students are trying to be branded as hyperactive. The result? Better test scores, better schools, reports Heidi Mitchell.

Getty Images

Steven decided to dupe his doctor when he returned from his elite boarding school exhausted by the intense competition there. He needed an edge to help him, he felt. So through written evaluations from teachers and his parents, and by deliberately failing tests, he succeeded in getting himself diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and was given both his in-school tests and his SATs untimed. Eventually Steven, which is not his real name, was accepted to a top college in upstate New York, although he no longer takes medication, nor does he consider himself ADHD. The ADHD diagnosis, and the benefits that came with it, he acknowledges, helped him beat the competition.

Welcome to the new way to get into America’s best colleges.

ADHD is a chronic condition that includes difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. Children with ADHD also often struggle with low self-esteem and poor performance in school and can show signs of the illness through adulthood. Yet a growing number of parents want their kids labeled as having the disorder. All so that they can ace their tests and gain entry into the ivory towers of the country’s best high schools and universities.

Although numbers are hard to pin down (most experts are loathe to speak on the record about this trend), according to educational consultant Dana Haddad, principal of New York Admissions, “There is definitely an uptick in children who are being given a full-scale neurological work-up at the request of their parents, as opposed to the schools.” Coached by parents, and by some competitive guidance counselors, these students then “fake-fail” the test, are branded as hyperactive, and are granted leniency, ranging from extra days to complete homework to extra time to take the SATs. Since 2003, those scores, which are higher by children taking ADHD medication, according to a 2008 study published by the journal Pediatrics, are not flagged for admissions counselors; doing so would be considered discrimination. In the end, ADHD fakers look like every other college applicant—only with higher scores and grades. Says one Manhattan private-school senior (who would not identify her school or name on record), “I’d do much better, too, if I had an extra three hours on my SATs.”

A study by the College Board, which administers the SATs, showed an increase in the number of applicants who take tests in nonstandard conditions, and recent data uphold its findings. According to the Center for Disease Control, a million more kids had a parent-reported ADHD diagnosis in 2007 compared to 2003—a 22 percent increase that translates to nearly one in 10 school children. Guidance counselors, notes the College Board’s study, are often “caught in the midst of a highly politicized and volatile process, with guidelines on one side and litigious parents on the other.” In other words, give my kid special dispensation, or I’ll sue your ass for discrimination.

Allison (not her real name), a parent of a student at an elite Manhattan private school, laments that “all the uptown parents claim disability. It’s gross.” Maria, also a New York parent (she did not want her last name published), has considered getting her daughter tested once she hits first grade, now that she’s seen the benefits given to her eldest son, who does have a mild form of ADHD. A parent on her bus route explained to her how to “pass” the test. “It’s tempting, and I know others do it,” she says.

Faking the test that diagnoses ADHD is easy, shows a recent study by Prof. David Berry at the University of Kentucky. His group of fakers was assessed on the ADHA Rating Scale (ARS) developed by Barkley and Murphy and on the Conners Adult ADHD Rating Scale. The test givers could not distinguish between the fakers, who had spent five minutes on Google learning what signs to display in order to trick assessors, and the real ADHD group.

Tricking a doctor, says Janine Pollack, a licensed pediatric neuropsychologist in Brooklyn, shouldn’t be so easy—and schools should never settle for parent-reported diagnoses. Her assessments include a battery of neuropsychological tests that can last up to 10 hours and cost upward of $4,000. Plus, in keeping with the standards of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, “The child has to have a history from before age seven, he has to have a performance on a neuropsych battery that fits the profile, he has to confirm himself that there are features of ADHD present, and the symptoms have to be present in more than one setting.” Still, even Pollack admits that parents are amenable to lightweight diagnoses like ADHD that won’t brand kids with a scarlet letter while applying to schools. She has seen a spike in requests for testing at her practice.

Parents of real ADHD sufferers are appalled by the notion of faking it. Penny Williams, who runs the mommy blog called A Mom’s View of ADHD, says, “My child can't achieve any semblance of academic success without these accommodations. They don’t give him an ‘unfair advantage,’ they level the playing field for a kid who entered the game with an unfair disadvantage.”

The benefits of being labeled as hyperactive can continue well into college. Once they’ve been accepted to competitive schools, young adults who’ve faked it can alleviate the stress of higher education in various ways—which might explain why the number of students with ADHD registered at the UCLA Office for Students with Disabilities, for example, has tripled in the past decade. That number doesn’t even include the kids who have gotten doctors to prescribe them stimulants to help them “focus.”

Last year, for the first time, the Higher Education Research Institute asked a sample of freshmen across the country if they had ever been diagnosed with ADHD. The answer? A full 5 percent of the class of 2015 class had. And the ratio of men to women was two to one. Who knows how many of them had faked it, but George DuPaul, a professor at Lehigh University’s School of Education in Bethlehem, Pa., who consults with the office of disabilities and assesses students, can crystallize the incentives for doing so. “These students get accommodations in the school: extra time on tests, someone taking notes for you, alternative assignments, oral exams vs. written exams. They can get accommodations on high-stakes tests like the MCAT or the LSAT,” he says. “And then there is a third reason: access to medication. If you’re diagnosed with ADHD, you can get Ritalin, Dexadrine, Adderal. Students may be motivated to be prescribed those for professional reasons, but studies show that many of them are using them recreationally, or even selling them”—a practice called medication diversion that has led to a shortage of ADHD meds, such as Adderall.

In an April article published in the journal Clinical Neuropsychologist, 22 percent of patients who took part in the study either exaggerated or faked their ADHD symptoms. Even with fakers, when it comes to ADHD, what starts in youth does extend into adulthood. “If a student has any savvy, he can kind of figure out what to report to fake it,” says DuPaul.