The College Survival Guide for Students with ADHD
ADHD and college — it is a formidable combination. It means continued executive dysfunction, but with more complex schedules with challenging courses; It means delayed social maturity and decision-making skills, with temptations around every corner. In short, ADHD and college is trying. Here are 7 expert strategies devised specifically for college students with attention deficit — and a bright future.
It is the norm — not the exception — for college students with ADHD and other learning differences to experience academic, organizational, and social challenges in college. Aggressive course loads, sudden independence, and an inescapable social scene are certainly a source of problems. But compounding all of that is the fact that many teens with ADHD don’t think about how their diagnosis will impact their college experience. Some students don’t realize how much they rely on the support provided by teachers and parents. Others don’t accept their differences because they don’t want to stand out.
Though it takes time, self-awareness is pivotal to finding success in college. The first step: devising a college “game plan.”
To that end, this article offers the following 7-part strategy for college students with ADHD and other learning differences — all of it built on expert advice:
- How to Select the Right Classes
- How to Implement Organization Systems
- How to Develop a Strong Study Plan
- How to Cultivate Focus
- How to Fine-Tune Medication
- How to Set Up Accommodations
- How to Make Self-Care a Priority
ADHD College Strategy #1: How to Select the Right Classes
The course load and class schedule typically recommended for new students might not work for you. Fortunately, college students have the freedom and autonomy to take courses that fit their interests; these options are worth exploring. In her book Survival Guide for College Students with ADD or LD, author Kathleen G. Nadeau, Ph.D., lists these practical and helpful tips for students with ADHD or LD when choosing classes:
- Take advantage of early registration.
- Talk to other students to find out which professors are best for which courses.
- Make use of the drop/add periods, the first week (or two) of the semester when you’re allowed to change classes. If, after the first few meetings, you find a class isn’t working for you, drop it and pick another.
- Talk to your professors about their knowledge of ADHD and LD. Select those who are most informed.
- Review the syllabus of each course after the first class, and evaluate whether the reading and writing assignments are possible and interesting for you, given the rest of your course load.
- Avoid large lectures. Instead, sign up for small classes with lots of group discussion.
- Register for more classes than you plan to take. This way, you can drop a class without having to rearrange your whole schedule.
ADHD College Strategy #2: How to Implement Organization Systems
Many new college students say they could keep everything — schedules, appointments, assignments, and more — in their heads with few problems during high school. They quickly discover that this doesn’t work after 12th grade.
College students’ daily schedules vary from day to day, and include large chunks of unstructured time during the day. Figuring out an effective system for tracking and planning your time is critical to avoiding wasted hours and lost productivity. Here are several effective ways to help keep track of dates, deadlines, and events in college:
- Calendars: Professors don’t typically remind students of deadlines; they expect students to visit the course website and look at the syllabus. Print out all your subject syllabi in the first two weeks of the new semester, and write down the due dates for all big deadlines — also include big social events, like fraternity or sorority rush, or football games — in a master calendar. This way you can see the tough weeks coming ahead of time.
- Technologies: Program reminders into your iPhone or Android device to keep yourself on track. If you tend to misplace your phone or just need a visual back up, write down everything on a large wall calendar or whiteboard.
- Campus Resources: If a coach or tutor was helpful in high school, look for the same kind of assistance in college. The Office of Disability Services can possibly help students tackle big assignments, especially projects and term papers. Some students rely on Resident Assistants in dormitories to create structure for them. And some schools offer very strong peer tutoring programs; begin by searching your school’s website for a point of contact.
- Watches: According to ADHD coach Sandy Maynard, a founding board member for the Institute for the Advancement of ADHD Coaching (IAAC), smart watches can help students get to class, appointments, and other obligations on time. Even low-tech options are effective. Maynard says, “Many sports watches have multiple alarms that can be set to go off before you need to head out for class… They are also waterproof and can be worn in the shower, if you have a habit of leaving it behind when you take it off.”
ADHD College Strategy #3: How to Develop Strong Study Habits
It takes time and thought to figure out the study approach that works best for you. There are no one-size-fits-all study systems, especially students with ADHD or LD. Here are some questions to help you start the process:
- Where can you best study and get things done? Can you study in your room? Or in the library? Or do you study better by yourself in a coffee shop or in the dorm lounge?
- Does sitting for long periods work for you? Taking breaks to move or working while standing can improve attention and learning for those with attention problems.
- What are the best times for you to study? Can you effectively read at night when the dorm is quiet and you are using your laptop? Would waking up an hour earlier be better? Does exercising before you study help?
- How do you learn best? Can you understand what you read, or would listening simultaneously to an audio version work better? Should you take notes in class, tape your lectures, or do both? Does writing help you memorize, or does it help to teach the material to someone else?
- What will help you stay focused? Are you distracted by your phone and Facebook? Can you really keep your phone with you? Some students turn off their phones or don’t take them to class. However, you may need your phone or another tech tool to help you do work in class.
The best study habits are cultivated from a student’s own self-examination, but sometimes students with LD need help figuring out what works best. ADHD coaching expert, Jodi Sleeper-Triplett MCC, SCAC, BCC, adds “The most effective plan will be one that your child creates and follows… Few college students want to make plans with a parent, which is why a third party, such as an academic advisor, ADHD coach, or counselor at school, might be of value.” Set up these systems early so that they are running smoothly by the time finals roll around.
Taking a “wait and see” approach can backfire in college. Veteran students warn that it’s easy to get into academic jeopardy, given the fast pace of college classes and the limited number of grades you can earn. A common tip from experienced college students with ADHD and LD is not to wait until you “hit the wall” to look for and get support.
ADHD College Strategy #4: How to Cultivate Focus
College is a notoriously hectic time. It’s difficult to maintain reliable focus on academics. For a high percent of freshmen, newfound freedom and a lack of supervision team up for trouble. Social pursuits trump studying, and soon classes are missed and work is not done. Sadly, about 11 percent of freshman college students drop out because of these problems.
However, students with ADHD have pre-existing problems with maintaining focus. The mental strain of college exacerbates these issues and can make it particularly difficult to keep academics front and center at all times. Use these eight expert tips to help cultivate focus while working and studying in college:
- Narrow your line of sight. “Keep only what you’re working on in front of you.” – Sandy Maynard, ADDitude’s coach on call
- Give yourself a message. “Post a note within view to remind yourself to stay focused: ‘This isn’t the time to clean my room. I’ll do it tomorrow.’” – Patricia Quinn, M.D., and Nancy Ratey, Ed.M.
- Withhold criticism. “Avoid perfectionism or frustration by not critiquing the job you’re doing until you’ve completed it.” – Christine Adamec, author of Moms with ADD
- Make a list. “Take five minutes to write down all the things you have to do. Once these tasks are on paper, you’ll find it easier to focus.” – Thomas Whitmore, Ph.D., and Michele Novotni, Ph.D.
- Ask for a friendly reminder. “Ask a friend who sits near you in class or in meetings to tap you lightly on the shoulder if you appear to be zoning out.” – Khris, teen contributor to A Bird’s-Eye View of Life with ADD and ADHD
- Get regular exercise. “Exercise optimizes brain functions, and is the best way to promote long-term focus.” – Edward Hallowell, M.D., and John Ratey, M.D.
- Know your limits. “When you find yourself drifting, be frank. Tell the person you’re talking to, ‘I’m sorry. Can we stop for a minute?’” – Alex Zeigler, co-author of A Bird’s-Eye View of Life with ADD and ADHD
- Set a goal. “If you have a goal that’s aligned with who you are and what you’re excited about, you’ll move mountains to stay on task and get the job done.” – Michael Sandler, Success at School columnist for ADDitude
ADHD College Strategy #5: How to Manage ADHD Medication Use in College
As a college student with ADHD, you’re responsible for managing medication on your own. Keep these steps in mind as you come up with a master plan.
- Decide which doctor you’ll use to manage your medication. If your pediatrician has been managing your medication, or if you are attending an out-of-state college, consider transferring your care locally. Some college health centers will take over managing ADHD medication, but they may require that you provide a current full evaluation diagnosing the condition.
- Re-evaluate your dosage. The demands for paying attention escalate in college. Sometimes students discover they need to change their dosage schedule or medication. Before classes start, meet with your doctor regarding your medical needs to develop a college-level medication strategy.
- Design a system to remember to take medication and to refill your prescriptions. When selecting a pharmacy, ask if it offers a reminder system. Some students practice managing their medication before attending college, but most have to develop these skills immediately. Watches, apps, and smartphones with alarms can help you. Consider working with a coach or advisor to practice making this call.
- Think about a fail-proof plan to store medication: If you lose your stimulant, most doctors won’t automatically give you more because it is a controlled substance. Is there a locked file cabinet in your desk or dresser? What if your backpack gets misplaced? Talk with your parents or physician to create a medication storage plan.
ADHD College Strategy #6: How to Set Up Accommodations in College
Susan Yellin, ESQ, the founding director of The Center for Learning Differences, explains that the responsibility for setting up accommodations falls on the college student, not the college. She adds that “However, [colleges] are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which says that individuals with one or more disabilities that ‘substantially limit one or more major life activities’ (including problems with learning and attention) may receive accommodations.”
In order to put the legislation from the ADA to good use, do the following:
- Gather your records, including evaluations and school records.
- Learn about your disability and how it impacts you. Read your reports; talk with your parents and the person who evaluated you. Identify what helped you in high school.
- Practice talking about your disability. Consider writing a practice script.
- Contact the disabilities office on campus. Learn which type of documentation is required to get accommodations and how you get approved.
- Schedule a meeting to determine your accommodations. Be prepared. What do you find challenging in your classes? What helped in high school? Check the college website to identify the accommodations you’ll request. If your requests are denied, ask if there is an appeal process.
- Know what your approved accommodations are and what the procedures are to receive them. Take notes or tape the meeting.
- Meet with your professors to discuss your accommodations. Your professors will either receive notification authorizing your accommodations, or you’ll be given a letter to deliver to them.
- Ask yourself: Are the accommodations helping? Report any problems to the disabilities office. Request changes you think are needed.
- Follow the same process with new professors every semester.
ADHD College Strategy #7: How to Make Self-Care a Priority
Don’t burn the candle at both ends in college: There is so much to do and so much to experience; don’t overwork yourself trying to do it all.
Many students, with and without ADHD, discover that they cannot ignore their physical and emotional well-being in college. Additionally, more than one third of college students around the globe report symptoms corresponding with mental health conditions — like anxiety, mood disorders, or panic disorder — during their first year of college, according to a study published in 2018 by the American Psychological Association. This study analyzed data from the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health International College Student Initiative.
Maybe you already know how critical sleep, eating, daily recreation, exercise, and down time are to your focus. An unbalanced approach to life makes it impossible for many with ADHD or LD to perform well. But make sure you’re not taking too many recreational classes or participating in too many extracurricular activities.
Eating well (not just pizza at midnight) and sleeping well (even on weekends) are underrated but pivotal elements of attaining success in college. Remember, these things take time, and though it’s better to come into college prepared, it’s never too late to come up with a college success “game plan.”
Additional Resources for Managing ADHD in College:
– A Guide to ADHD Scholarships
– Learn about the Game-Changing ACCESS College Program
– A Critical Issue: Half of College Students Stop using Medication; Make Sure You’re Not One of Them
– Could a Summer Program Benefit Your College Transition? Find Great Pre-College Summer Programs for Your College-Bound Teen
Updated on March 26, 2020