ADHD in College

11 Steps To Remedy College Reading Challenges

Reading challenges are common among students with ADHD — especially college students with heavy reading loads. Students can tackle this problem strategically and save time by optimizing their reading environment, highlighting their notes, and giving themselves rewards, among other strategies. Learn how here.

College People Study Learning Reading Lecture Notes
College People Study Learning Reading Lecture Notes

Reading Challenges in College

Do you struggle to get through college-level reading assignments? Don’t beat yourself up. Many parts of the college experience make it understandably hard for students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD):

  •  You often have articles or a regular nonfiction book to read (rather than a textbook designed to aid your comprehension). Without subheadings and questions to answer, it is hard to know where to focus your attention.
  • You may be reading text that is complex or abstract, which can tire you out.
  • Professors don’t typically assign comprehension questions, so there’s no written assignment you have to submit to give you a sense of urgency about getting readings done.
  • The topic may be of little interest to you.

Failing to get readings done puts you at risk when exams come around. And if you’re already a slow reader, you can’t afford to wait and try to catch up in a few days.

[Self-Test: Could I Have Dyslexia?]

Solutions To Your Reading Challenges in College

Given the challenges, what can you do? Try being strategic about readings.

  1. Create a schedule. You need to make reading part of your weekly routine. Create one with this tool. Plan to do the “reading blocks” during the time of day you concentrate best.
  2. Set a goal. You don’t want to read for longer than you can concentrate. Read for 25 minutes, then take a short break. If you stop in the middle of a chapter or an article and don’t go back to it until the next day, it will be hard to engage your mind. Make reading blocks long enough to finish a few chapters of a novel or a whole article in one sitting.
  3. Optimize your setting. Read in a quiet setting if that suits you, or find a place that has the right amount of “buzz” (a coffee shop away from campus so you won’t see friends there). Don’t go to the dorm to read if you know you’ll end up chatting with friends.
    [Download: Learning Tools That Improve Productivity, Reading, and Writing Skills]
  4. Reward yourself. Parents and teachers often tell students to motivate themselves to read by finding something they like about the topic. This won’t always be possible, so don’t worry about it. Acknowledge that you’re not going to be interested in everything you read, and find something else to motivate you. Set a reading goal (example: finish the chapter) and reward yourself with time on social media if you meet your goal. If you get distracted while reading, remind yourself that more time spent procrastinating means less time for fun later.
  5. Burn up some energy to maintain focus. If you’re restless as you read, highlight with one hand and fiddle with a fidget toy in the other. Or if you can do it without colliding with your roommates or tripping over shoes or other objects, walk around your room while you read. Get some exercise before you read, so you’re relaxed (but not exhausted) as you tackle the reading assignment.
  6. Increase your engagement. 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.
  7. Survey: Look over the reading first.
  8. Question: Create questions about the subheadings based on that initial survey to serve as a comprehension check after you’re done.
  9. Read the text, highlighting key ideas as you go.
  10. Recite: Answer the questions you created or those your professor has asked. You can use the answers to the questions as a study guide.
  11. Review your written answers to the questions you asked. This 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’ll be reading, so you have an overall sense of what it’s about.

Lastly, remember to explore available accommodations. Some students are better able to concentrate on text if they hear it as they read. Ask your college’s disability services office if you’re eligible for the accommodation of text-to-speech software and conversion of texts to PDF. If you are, they may give you software that reads text and includes other helpful features. Even if you aren’t eligible, your computer operating system may have a built-in text-to-speech function. There are also free apps to try. See if you concentrate better if you hear and read at the same time.


Highlights About Highlighting to Help Reading Challenges

Highlighting text is a great reading strategy. It saves you from having to re-read to find important information. After you read, take notes on what you’ve highlighted. You can organize new vocabulary terms and their definitions on one page, summarize new concepts on another page, and so on. The information you highlight can be used in creating a study guide for those texts.

What should I highlight? You’re trying to avoid mental disruption while you read, so highlight anything that you think might be important instead of worrying about whether it actually is or not. You’ll decide on its importance when you take notes afterward. Think about the kinds of things you might be asked later. If you’re reading about Napoleon, you probably don’t need to know when he was born or his wife’s name. You will need to know how he rose to power, what he did as emperor, and why he was exiled. If you’re not sure, highlight it anyway.

Here are some guidelines for highlighting text in different courses:

In non-fiction (textbooks, factual articles, case studies):

  • Important facts (dates, people with significant involvement in historical events, important events)
  • Any text that appears in bold or italics (formatting shows you what the writer thinks is important)
  • Ideas/theories discussed
  • Terms/vocabulary you don’t know
  • Formulas or processes you’ll need to know

In case studies or research write-ups:

  • The number of subjects (or whatever was being experimented on, like cell types)
  • What was done (was it a survey? did they inject something into cells?)
  • The findings (get important details from the Results section, and key takeaways from the Discussion section, if there is one)

 In philosophy

  •  Quotes that explain an idea or seem to be someone’s well-known saying.
  •  In fiction
  • Quotes that illustrate something important about a character’s motivation, or that seem to represent the character’s viewpoint

In literary or art criticism

  • Any artists/authors/thinkers and works this author discusses
  • Any statements the author makes that summarize his or her thoughts on someone’s work, or the state of art, literature in general

Should I use different colored highlighters? Some students organize their highlights by using blue for new terms, orange for their definitions, green for formulas. If this approach doesn’t slow down your reading or require re-reading, use it. If you find the multicolor approach awkward or time consuming, use just one highlighter.

Reading Challenges in College: Next Steps


Elizabeth C. Hamblet, LDT-C, M.S., has worked as a college learning disabilities specialist for 20 years. She is the author of From High School to College: Steps to Success for Students with Disabilities. (#CommissionsEarned) This piece has been adapted  from her website ldadvisory.com.


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