Published on ADDitudeMag.com

Keys to Academic Success for ADHD College Students

Learning how to get organized, study hard, and stay ahead academically is as essential as reading Shakespeare for ADHD college students.

By Michael Sandler

College Is a Whole New World

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.  Follow these tips to help you stay the course.

Register for Classes Carefully

Selecting courses well is critical for ADHD students. Be sure to take advantage of early registration if offered by the Disabilities Office. Review the syllabus of each course and evaluate whether the reading and writing assignments are possible, given the rest of your course load. Make use of the drop/add periods by dropping a class that's not working for you. Register for more classes than you intend to take so you can drop without rearranging your schedule. 

Balance Your Classes

Consider your class schedule as a whole. If you have trouble paying attention in large lecture classes, balance them out with smaller classes with more discussions. Find out how each class will be graded – is it based on test scores, essays, group projects? Try to pick those that play to your strengths. If you have trouble with reading, math, or languages, don't take them all in the same semester.  

Meet and Talk With Professors

Before classes begin, talk with professors about the challenges you may face. Even if you are working with the campus disabilities office, let them know about any accommodations you might need. Meet with them again before major tests and papers. Doing so will help you stay on track, study the right material, and manage long-term projects.

Plan Ahead

Get your books before classes begin. Look for copies of your syllabi online, and use them to schedule study and work time for the semester. Make a master calendar of all your tests and assignment due dates, and include social events (such as football games) as well. Professors don’t always remind students of deadlines, so make sure you keep an eye on what’s coming up.

Start Out Strong

In many classes, the first assignment may not be due for weeks or even months. It’s tempting to blow off the first few weeks of the term and assume you’ll catch up later. It never happens. Professors will ratchet up the workload, and, during midterms and finals, you’ll likely have several big papers or tests to prepare for at once. Get a solid grasp of the basics at the beginning of the semester, and you’ll be on solid footing later on.

Arrive Early, Stay Late

Plan to get to class a few minutes early, to give yourself time to transition before class begins. Often the most important points or housekeeping details (such as an upcoming test) are announced during the first few minutes of class. After class, stick around for a few minutes to clarify anything you’re unsure of, and listen in as the professor answers other students’ questions.

Study Smart

Schedule study blocks of no more than two hours at a time—anything longer, and you’ll see diminishing returns. Estimate the amount of time you think you can stay focused on schoolwork – maybe it’s an hour, or maybe it’s 10 minutes. It will vary depending on your state of mind. Set a timer for that interval, and try to stay on task until it rings. Then take a two- to five-minute break. Tackle the hardest subjects first, while you’re still fresh.

Figure Out WHERE to Study

Think about when and where you study best. In your room at night? In the library in the morning? In a busy coffee shop? Do you retain more by reading, or by listening to an audio recording? Does your concentration improve if you exercise first? Is your phone a helpful study aid, or a distraction? It may take time to figure out what works best for you, but knowing your study strengths will help you make the most of your time.

Ask for Help

Colleges usually provide a range of support services, but unlike in high school, you're responsible for making your disability known and requesting accommodations. Don’t wait until you’re in academic jeopardy to look for help. Visit the Disabilities Services office, and get the name of a person to contact for help. Discuss support options and come up with a plan before school starts.

Find Your Passion

Most college students do better when they take classes they care about. For ADHD students, it’s essential. ADDers lose motivation if they can’t find classes that excite them. If you’re not entirely sure where your passions lie (and many young adults don’t), consider taking a skills or interest assessment. Most college career services centers offer assessments or evaluations.

Use Tech to Keep on Track

Have trouble getting to class on time? Use the Wake N Shake and I Can't Wake Up! apps for your smartphone. Do you lose important items? Find One, Find All can help you locate them. Can't keep up with note-taking? Use a Sky Wifi Smartpen, which not only writes but records everything you write and hear. 

Make a Cheat Sheet

When studying math or science formulas, make a “cheat sheet” of all the formulas. During the test, write down the formulas first, before you can forget them. You may want to memorize and write down a sample problem as well, to help you remember the steps.

Make It a Game

For multiple-choice tests, use flashcards. Write down all the questions you can think of, framed in several different ways. Write down the answers on the other side. Quiz yourself, or get some classmates together and make a game out of it.

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