Term Paper Time

A step-by-step approach to creating your masterpiece.

A step-by-step approach for ADHD college students to create their own masterpieces. ADDitude Magazine

Stay far away from your teacher's pet topic or area of expertise. Chances are, you won't be telling him anything he doesn't know.

Michael Sandler, an ADD coach in Boulder, Colorado

Be Prepared!

Choose your topic before the topic sign-up sheet is passed around in class. Typically, sign-up day is mentioned in the class syllabus. If not, check with your teacher. Mark the date in your calendar or set an alert in your PDA, and make time before the date to choose a topic you can live with.


To an ADDer, a term paper is a daunting challenge. A dull topic, an avalanche of material, and a fuzzy focus can shut our minds down. But when the subject is interesting and well-defined, our gifts of creativity, enthusiasm, and hyper-focus spring to the fore. Your teachers will appreciate those gifts—they've read dozens of papers about the same thing, written in the same, uninspired way. Use your ADD talents to your advantage, and you'll stand above the crowd.

Step 1. Find a topic that grabs you—and that you can grab onto

An intriguing topic will make research and writing more enjoyable, and your positive energy and effort will be apparent in your work. But proceed with care: A subject that initially seems like the perfect choice can prove impossible to write about.

The key to choosing a topic is to judge its scope accurately. Let's say the general theme for your paper is Saharan wildlife. Choose too broad a topic, such as "Animals of the Sahara," and you'll need another two years of college to finish it. Pick one that's too narrow, like "Desert Hyenas with ADD," and you might not find anything at all. Resist your ADD instinct to pick a highly obscure or difficult topic. If you hear that "no one's written on that before," there may be a good reason why. Go with something that's not too broad or too narrow, perhaps "The Top Three Reasons Animals Prefer Spring Break in the Sahara."

Notice how the right title does double duty, drawing in your audience and focusing your efforts. The words "Top Three Reasons" in the title are a reminder that you'll need to present three main points.

Step 2. Take command of the material

After choosing a topic, we often freeze up. How to begin such a massive job? Don't worry about formal research at first. Take some time to skim books and surf the Web, looking for ideas, making connections, and letting it all percolate. Set a time limit—say, three hours. Unstructured searching can provide inspiration, but it can also lead you far afield.

Next, visit your school or local library, in person or online. Need a book profiling vultures that own timeshares in the Sahara? If you start your research early enough, the library can order hard-to-find books, audiocassettes, professional journals, and other materials. Many colleges also have Web sites and specialized search engines to guide you through the research process, such as http://lib.colostate.edu/howto, run by the Colorado State University Libraries.

In choosing your paper's main points, use the three-to-five rule. Develop three to five subtopics, and find three to five supporting arguments for each. If possible, research one subtopic at a time. If you're proposing that camels choose the Sahara because it's a swinging vacation spot, search for studies, quotations from experts, and brochures from camel travel agencies to prove the point.

When you find relevant information, color-code and flag it, using a different color for each main point. Use sticky notes to mark material in books and magazines. If the information is on the Internet, cut and paste it into a document, or use Excel to arrange the material in column form, using colored fonts or highlighting. Color-coded index cards are another good way to organize information.

As you collect material, resist the classic ADD instinct to do the easy work now and save the citations for later. Always write down the source—it's a nightmare to track it down at a later date. If your professor requires a particular reference style, cite sources in your notes just as you would in your footnotes or references. It will save you from having to look things up twice.

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TAGS: Organization Tips for ADHD Kids, ADHD in High School, ADHD Time Management, Learning Disabilities

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