ADHD in College

10 Back-to-School Tips for Grownups

That’s right: Adults get first-day-of-school-in-a-long-time jitters, too! If you’re going back to finish college or vocational training, nix your worry with these 10 tips regarding schedules, studying, and stress.

ADHD woman's hands typing on laptop researching for school

Are you going back to finish college or vocational school?

Ahead, you will find 10 tested strategies for learners with adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities (LD). The good news is that, as an adult, you’re likely to have more determination than you did as a teen or in your early twenties. Congratulations! You’ve already done it the hard way, and now you’ll do everything in your power to succeed. You know your strengths and your weaknesses, and you have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t in getting good grades. All that growing-up stuff is behind you and won’t get in the way this time.

What you need now are some tools:

Take care of yourself.

Eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising daily may be your most important strategies for success at school. Really. When you don’t do these things, you’re more likely to make careless mistakes or take longer to do academic tasks. Self-care is especially critical the day before a test.

Schedule daily work sessions.

Think of school as you would a job:

  1. Decide how much time you’ll need to spend on school each week. Figure this out by reflecting on how much time you’ve needed in the past, by reviewing course syllabi, and by talking with teachers.
  2. Factor into your schedule other commitments — bowling night, helping your child do homework — and the times your energy level is highest. You might decide that you can spend 10 hours a week on schoolwork and that the best time to study will be between 7 and 9 on weeknights. Block off those two hours in your planner.
  3. Treat your work sessions as you do your for-pay job: Get to work on time, give it your best effort, and don’t leave early.

Don’t try this at home.

Is your home a hive of activity, where distractions can’t be eliminated? If so, work somewhere else, like the library. One of my clients stays late at the office two nights a week and does his schoolwork there. He sits at someone else’s desk in order to resist the temptation to catch up on work tasks.

Use a timer to schedule breaks.

Estimate the amount of time you think you can stay focused on work. 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. Then take a two- to five-minute break. Repeat the cycle during your work session. Use your breaks to recharge: Eat a healthy snack, drink some water, use the bathroom, take a quick walk, listen to music. Avoid checking e-mail or logging onto the Internet. You know what will happen.

Create milestones for projects and tests.

Milestones for a paper might be topic selection, research, rough draft, peer review, and final version. Stepping stones to preparing for a test might be reviewing notes, re-reading text, and having someone quiz you.

Figure out when you need to complete each step by working backward from the test or due date.

Use mind maps.

Writing can be excruciatingly difficult for people with ADHD because it requires us to organize our thoughts and words. A mind map — a graphic way of representing ideas and their relationships — helps. You draw circles, write ideas within each of them, then connect and prioritize ideas. No more staring at a blank page!

Allow time for incubation.

Something magical happens when you set your writing aside and come back to it the next day. You will see potential improvements, as you would see invisible ink under a UV light.

Fight procrastination with small steps.

We put off anything that is overwhelming or unclear. Breaking down an assignment into manageable pieces will help put an end to procrastination. Think super small! Your first step in selecting a topic for a paper might be to check out trade publications from the library. The next step might be to flip through them to generate ideas.

Use color-coding.

One ADDitude reader found that pairing each subject with a color-coded folder and notebook helped keep papers organized through the semester. Another student I know uses different highlighters when he reads, to emphasize different types of information: one color for dates, another for names, and a third for definitions.

Sign up for disability services.

You may be eligible for classroom accommodations such as extended time on tests, shorter homework assignments, or other services. Take advantage of all of them. One study showed that the biggest reason students with ADHD underperform in school is because they don’t use accommodations they are entitled to. They could mean the difference between passing and failing.