You're on Your Own: College Success for ADHD Students

Learning how to get organized, study hard, and find balance is as essential as reading Shakespeare for ADHD college students.

Conquering College, Part 2

Academics: No Time to Tarry

Even if you sailed smoothly through high school, don’t be surprised to encounter choppy seas at college. Now it’s up to you to impose the structure, discipline, accountability, and organization needed for academic success.

At the same time, you’re nose-to-nose with an ADDer’s biggest challenges: term papers and final exams. With time at a premium, it’s tempting to skip the practice sets you don’t have to hand in. But falling behind isn’t an option. Instead, follow these tips to help you stay the course, or work with a coach for additional strategies and support. Even at college, you don’t have to go it alone.

  • Keep up with assignments. It’s tempting to blow off the first weeks of the term and think you’ll catch up later. It never happens. Professors will ratchet up the workload; by the third or fourth week, it will double. And if you skip the basics, you won’t have the foundation to understand what comes next.

Get the books you’ll need before classes begin, so you can start the reading in advance. Look for the class syllabus online, and use it to schedule study and work time for the semester. Break assignments into achievable chunks. If you have to read five chapters by Friday, for example, plan to do one a day. Do the same for long-term projects and big exams.

  • Build in rewards. During a work or study session, reward yourself with a five-minute telephone or e-mail break, or a handful of m&m’s. Make rewards tangible and frequent—you deserve them.
  • Make yourself accountable. Being accountable to someone else is a good motivator to work hard. Plan to study with a group, or tutor a friend who needs help. Arrange work sessions with other students, even if you’re doing separate projects. Or ask your professor if you can stop by to show him how you’re organizing your term paper.
  • Prepare for class. If your professor posts class notes online, read over the day’s lesson before you get it in class, or review it with a classmate. The better you know it when it’s covered in class, the more you will retain. Download the notes and bring your laptop to class so you can add to them during the lesson. Or print them out and bring colored pens and highlighters to mark points for emphasis.

If you’ve never had this professor before, take copious notes, or use a cassette recorder. Can’t copy graphics fast enough? Bring a digital camera, and download the image into your computer.

  • Arrive early. Plan on getting to class a few minutes early so you’re ready to listen when the lecture begins. Transitions are difficult for ADDers; giving yourself time to open your book and look through the chapter is a good way to help you shift gears.

Often, the most important points or housekeeping details (an upcoming test!) are discussed in the first five minutes. Hang out for a few minutes after class, too. It’s a good time to clarify something you’re unsure of, and to hear the professor answer other students’ questions.

  • Nourish your brain. You may have long classes or lectures followed by labs. Between classes, munch on high-protein snacks—nuts, beef jerky, a protein bar—to sustain your energy and attention. If permitted, snack during class, too, to keep yourself alert until dismissal.
  • Ask for accommodations. If you have a documented disability, you have a legal right to “reasonable accommodations.” Contact the college disabilities office to learn what’s available. Tutors, readers, note-takers, oral exams, extra time on tests, and assistive technologies can make all the difference if you start to flounder.

Each semester, before courses begin, let your professors know the challenges you may face. Meet with them again in advance of major tests and papers. Doing so will help you stay on track, study the right material, and manage long-term projects.

  • What turns you on? College is a time to discover and follow your passions. Look for classes that intrigue you or will help you reach your goals. Don’t be afraid to take a tough course, declare a demanding major, or pull together a unique program of independent study. You’re likely to work hard and stay focused if you’re inspired.

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