How I Made the Grades
How one college freshman with ADHD established a consistent study routine to reduce distractions and leave quality time for friends.
Freshman year at UC Berkeley!
When I arrived at campus, last September, I was swept up in the Welcome Week of parties, student orientation, and free food. Here I was, a student with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), at one of the most dynamic universities in the world — with rigorous academics, more than 400 clubs and sports, and professors who wrote the textbooks.
The tradeoffs? I didn’t have my own room or a quiet workspace. My mom wasn’t there to guide my schedule, wash my clothes (OK, I still bring laundry home on some weekends), or remind me to take my ADHD medicine.
Perhaps most crucial — I had to develop a new study routine.
By the end of high school, I’d come to depend on very specific study habits – I had to work at certain times, on the most comfortable beige couch in the living room. If I needed to spread out a project, I’d work at the dining room table. But my freshman year found me sharing a suite with three roommates, all of whom were night owls and loved to party.
Between the four of us, we had new friends stopping by to socialize, or tempting us to go out and grab a bite to eat, nearly every evening. And, needless to say, that beige couch didn’t come with me to Berkeley. When a 60-hour-a-week workload suddenly descended, I had to come up with a plan, fast!
The Right Habitat
First, I had to find somewhere quiet to do my work. Some place to call my own. I knew I couldn’t stay focused in my dorm room, so I experimented with working at cafés, or on outdoor benches around campus. Still, I needed somewhere more “solid” to do my work. A couple weeks into my first semester, I discovered a small library, with bay windows, in my dorm building.
During the evening, this cozy space was inhabited by night owls, but, surprisingly, during the day, no one worked there. The solution to my dilemma was clear. Each day, during my long lunch breaks, I’d head to the empty library with my laptop, a textbook, and a couple of PowerBars.
I watched some of my friends fall into the typical college routine — procrastinate and socialize through the evening, pull an all-nighter to finish their work, then show up for class the next day exhausted, and wearing pajamas. That kind of schedule won’t work for someone with ADHD.
It takes a lot of energy to pay attention, and that requires sleep. My friends tease me for going to bed as early as 11 p.m. on school nights (don’t forget we’re talking about college here — 11 p.m. is early), but I know that I won’t be able to stay focused in class if I haven’t gotten at least eight hours of sleep.
I’ve also learned that my brain works best during the daytime – so that’s when I study. During the second semester, I scheduled my classes so that I have long lunch breaks (up to five hours) between morning and afternoon classes. I use that time as my study period, then I’m free to spend my evenings with my roommates and friends.
During my second semester at Berkeley, I joined a fraternity. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Oh, so he’s a wild one in college, a party animal.” Just as I would not forsake friendships and spend my college years as a “library dweller,” I would never abandon my studies to go frat-partying every night.
Ned Hallowell has talked about the importance of a person with ADHD feeling connected to a community. More than 40,000 students go to my school.
Joining a fraternity was my way of creating a situation where everyone knows me. And I was choosy in selecting my frat — I joined one with brothers who share my aspirations to do well in college and go on to grad school. I know that the close friends I make within this community will keep me motivated, and help me achieve whatever I set out to accomplish for the next three years.
So how did freshman year finish up? I completed several required classes, including organic chemistry and calculus. I survived finals, got pretty good grades, and also made some good friends. What about my sophomore year? Bring it on.