ADHD in College

Q: “My Child Is Going to College! How Can We Make Sure He Stays There?”

Here are eight absolute musts for college students with learning challenges.

Focused millennial adhd college student black girl writing something in notebook near laptop computer at park, panorama
Focused millennial adhd college student black girl writing something in notebook near laptop computer at park, panorama

Q: “Nothing about school came easy for my son, who has ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia. But through his determination, he is off to college. I am beyond proud of him but also worried. I know adjusting to the college learning environment can be a challenge. What can he do to prepare and succeed once the school year begins?

A: Congratulations to your son! It’s important to recognize his achievement. Before he goes, express your confidence in him and his learning ability. Point out that college is a different learning environment, and many students need adjustments to succeed. This isn’t to scare him but to normalize the idea that a college freshman may find parts of his first year challenging. IEP and 504 Plans are not available to students after graduating high school, but plenty of resources are available to help students with learning differences.

Here are eight strategies to help him prepare for a successful year.

1. Register with the College Disabilities Services Office

Make sure he has registered for accommodations for his ADHD and learning differences. He doesn’t need to wait until he arrives on campus. I suggest students complete the disability services registration process as much as possible before they arrive on campus. This will increase their odds of having accommodations in place when classes start. (College disabilities services offices are often flooded with registrations once students arrive on campus; it can take a few weeks to complete the registration.)

Some college freshmen want nothing to do with special education after high school. Colleges implement accommodations differently from high schools. The college disability services office will not monitor, make the student check in, or send aides to look after students in classes. The office only provides accommodations.

2. Block Out Classes and Course Work

For many college students, particularly ones with ADHD, time management may be difficult. Setting up a weekly routine can help since it removes the pressure of continuously making decisions about what to do and when which can wear students down. It also creates some much-needed structure, something many students lack in college. For example, they may have no classes on Thursdays or only a two-hour block of classes on Monday. This leaves extra time to manage, which can be challenging.

[Free Guide to Securing ADHD Accommodations in College]

I recommend students create a weekly schedule using a grid. They start by blocking their classes, mealtimes, sleep time, and other weekly events (e.g., rehearsals, club meetings, therapy appointments, etc.) Then they should schedule a time to work on assignments for each class at a specific weekly hour and day.

Common advice says a college freshman should work six hours a week on assignments and readings for each class. I suggest trying to study six hours the first week and adjusting if needed. Some classes may require more study time, some less. To get started, students need to put some hours on their schedule.  Once the schedule is complete, I recommend students try it for one week and make adjustments based on how well it works.

3. Be Realistic About Study Schedules

When making their weekly plan, students should be strategic about when they tackle coursework. If they study better at night, they should plan around that. Or, if they don’t want to take their medication at night because it interferes with sleep, plan work sessions for earlier in the day.

They should also consider the length of study time. Do they prefer designating one hour a day for each class each week or concentrating study times into longer blocks on one or two days?

[Read: “I’ll Study Later! Really!” How to (Actually) Study Effectively with ADHD]

Students who opt for longer study blocks should mix in short breaks. Some students follow the Pomodoro Technique of alternating four, 25-minute blocks of work with a five-minute break and then taking a more significant break. Other students may work better without breaks and prefer to complete a two-hour study block without interruption.

Whatever they decide, students need to self-monitor when they need a break because periods of intensive thinking can fatigue them. It’s also important to balance class and study days to avoid burnout.

So, if students have a few days a week with many class hours, they may decide to use the days with fewer classes to concentrate on getting work done.

4. Reduce Distractions

To make study blocks effective, students will need to reduce distractions. Students with a single dorm room should close their door and hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign. College freshmen with roommates may need to find an alternative location, such as the library, study lounge, or nearby coffee shop for study blocks.

Students should also reduce distractions from their devices. Phones, computers, and tablets should be turned off or muted (same for notifications). Many apps, programs, and browser extensions are available to block distracting websites if the student needs to use the Internet for schoolwork.

5. Set Study Goals

Students should treat study blocks like commitments to get work done. Their weekly schedule should just say “Study Block for Calculus” on Tuesdays from 2-4 p.m. But at the start of each week, students should make a to-do list of the items they need to complete during each class’s study block. Do they need to read the chapter? Is there a problem set to complete? Creating a list of the weekly assignments helps students work toward goals — checking them off once completed gives students a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

6. Be Accountable

Finding a study buddy can be helpful for accountability, too.  Students can schedule a time to meet with their study buddy at the library or student union for study blocks. They can sit together or near but apart to reduce the temptation to talk. Students who can’t find a peer to do this can try body doubling with a parent or a friend from high school studying elsewhere.

7. Experiment with Different Learning Strategies

Students with learning differences may find reading assignments challenging. They tend to be long, and reading is a passive activity. Even if you aren’t interested in the topic, you’ll likely understand it better if you preview it to give you a sense of what it is about. SQ3R is the mnemonic for a technique some students find helpful for reading long passages of text.

  • Survey: Look over the reading first.
  • Question: Create questions about the subheadings based on that initial survey to serve as a comprehension check after you’re done.
  • Read the text: Highlight key ideas as you go.
  • Recite: Answer the questions you created or those your professor has asked. You can use the answers to the questions as a study guide.
  • Review your written answers to the questions you asked: This study strategy isn’t useful if you’re reading something that doesn’t have subsections. In that case, do an online search for a summary of the work you will read to have an overall sense of what it’s about.

8. Find Available Supports — and Use Them

Most colleges provide tutoring by appointment or during drop-in hours. Professors and teaching assistants should have office hours where students can ask questions about the material covered in class or assignments. Some college disability services offices have learning specialists on staff to help students navigate their college studies. Students should make an appointment with a learning specialist to learn more about the office’s support. In addition, some colleges offer academic mentoring or coaching. Students can ask if their school does this.

Some students are hesitant to seek help, believing it is a sign that they aren’t cut out for college. But colleges expect students to be challenged — that’s why they offer such support.

With a few study strategies in place, I’m sure your son will find success in college!

College Freshman Study Strategies: Next Steps

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