6 Tips for College Students With ADHD

Student with ADHD
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Each year in August or September, thousands and thousands of students move away from the built-in structure and safety net of home to the freedoms and independence of college life. While it can be an exciting time filled with all sorts of possibilities for learning and growth, it can also be a time of anxiety and overwhelm—especially if you have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Not only do you face greater responsibilities, less structured time, many more distractions, and new social situations, but you face them lacking many of the previous support systems that you may have had in high school.

Qualities of a Successful Student

Sarah D. Wright, ADHD coach and author of Fidget to FocusOutwit Your Boredom: Sensory Strategies for Living with ADD, explains that successful students usually have four main qualities that help them achieve their goals:

  1. Sticking with things even when the going gets tough (perseverance)
  2. Ability to delay gratification and focus on the big picture
  3. Time management and organizational skills
  4. Striking the right balance between fun and work

These particular skills, however, don’t come easily to a student with ADHD. “Poor executive function (organizational problems, impulsivity, and time management issues) are actually the hallmarks of ADHD,” notes Wright. “Students with ADHD can't depend on these skills because these are exactly the skills they are weakest in.”

How ADHD Affects Students

Poor executive function can result in several academic problems for students including disorganization, prioritizing, getting started and completing work, forgetting homework, difficulty memorizing facts, writing essays or reports, working complex math problems, completing long-term projects, being on time, preparing and planning for the future, and even regulating and managing emotions.

The good news is that these areas of executive function can be improved. For most college students with ADHD, the problem isn’t in knowing what to do, it's getting it done. Avoiding sidetracks and keeping focused and on target with the plan can all be a challenge that can quickly derail you from accomplishing what you've set out to do.

Tips for Success at College

Luckily, there are several strategies you can use to help stay on track. If you're a college student with ADHD, these tips provided by Wright are for you:

1. Start the Day on Time

There are three main factors that contribute to being late in the morning: getting up late, getting sidetracked, and being disorganized.

If Getting out of Bed Is a Problem

  • Set two alarms to go off in sequence
  • Put your alarm across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off
  • Put the second alarm where you know it will bother your roommates, which increases the consequences if you don’t get out of bed and turn it off in time
  • Set the alarm to go off earlier so you can be pokier in the mornings

If Getting Sidetracked Is an Issue

  • If certain things tend to derail you, like checking your email or reading the news, make it a rule that that activity has to wait until later in the day.
  • Figure out how much time you need to dress, eat, and get organized and then set alarms or other reminders to cue you that you need to have that task completed. Three ways to cue yourself to stay on schedule:
  1. Although this tip will only work in certain circumstances, some people will find they can use a familiar music mix as a timer. For example, if you have a music mix where each song is 3 to 4 minutes and you have 30 minutes to get going, the schedule might look like this: wash and dress to songs 1 to 3, eat to songs 4 to 6, get your stuff together during song 7, and out the door by song 8. It will work best if you use the same mix every morning.
  2. Use your phone or buy a programmable reminder watch so your alarms are always nearby.
  3. Put a big wall clock in your room where you can easily see it. If your room is part of a suite with a common room and bathroom, put wall clocks in those spaces as well.

If Being Disorganized Is the Issue

  • Create a “launchpad” by your exit door. Collect all of the things you’ll need in the morning the night before (like your backpack, keys) and put them on the launch pad.
  • Leave yourself a note at the launch pad so in the morning you can "reprogram" your brain with what you need to remember that day. Then everything will be ready for you to grab as you run out the door.

2. Work With Your Urge to Procrastinate

Though this may sound counterproductive, if you feel the urge to procrastinate, go with the feeling. Wright explains that when you have ADHD sometimes the only time something gets done is just before it’s due. At that point nothing has higher priority, increasing the urgency and consequences if you don’t do it NOW. Those qualities are what can finally make the task doable. So, work with that.

Plan to procrastinate, but stack the deck so you can pull it off. For example, if you have to write a paper, make sure you’ve already done the reading or research and have some idea of what you want to write. Figure out how many hours you’ll need to write it, block those hours out in your schedule, and then, with the deadline in sight, sit down and do it.

3. Study Smarter Not Harder

Boredom and working memory are both issues for most people with ADHD. Research shows that multi-modal learning helps people learn and remember. So, rather than trying harder to force the information into your head, get creative. Wright gives these examples of creative ways to study and remember what you studied:

  • As you read, highlight the text with different colors
  • Make notes and doodle them
  • Make audio notes with iPhones or other recorders and review them as you walk across campus
  • Use mnemonics to create funny ways to remember
  • Try standing up while you read
  • Try reading the assignment aloud to yourself using an expressive (not boring) voice
  • If you can, get the audio version of the book and listen to it while you take notes and/or exercise (a treadmill can help here)
  • Get a study buddy

Not everything works for every person, but do try mixing it up and see what happens. Wright also points out that taking study breaks every couple of hours and getting enough sleep are part of studying smarter, not harder.

Sleep impacts learning in two ways. First, sleep deprivation has a negative impact on short-term memory, which is what you’re using to learn the material when you study. Second, sleep is needed to move short-term memories into long-term memory, which is what you’ll be relying on when it's time to take the test. So be sure to get enough sleep if you want to get the most out of your study time.

4. Schedule Your Study Time

Many students with ADHD are quite smart. They can often pull a passing grade in high school, or even a good one, just by cramming the night before the tests. Odds are that strategy won’t work in college. Wright says a good rule of thumb for college is 2-2.5 hours of study time per week for every unit of course credit.

“Basically, you should think of college as a job and plan to spend at least 40 hours a week on classes and classwork,” she says. “What works for many students is to actually treat college as a job: for 9 hours a day, five days a week, you’re working on school, which means during the day when you’re not in classes you’re somewhere studying or catching a quick bite to eat. Then you get to have the evenings and weekends off. If you like to play sports, you’ll have to make up those study hours spent on sports sometimes. As long as you block out the requisite number of hours somewhere in your daily schedule and remember that school is your job, you should be fine.”

5. Plan Your Time: Assess and Prioritize

It may sound strange, but it's very important to actively plan time to plan. If you don’t develop this habit, you’ll find yourself always being reactive rather than proactive. Wright suggests doing a high-level plan for the week on Monday morning, and for the weekend on Friday. Then do a daily review of that plan over breakfast—possibly adding pertinent details—to make sure you know what’s coming your way that day. When you can assess what you need to do versus all that you could do, then you can prioritize what needs to be done first and take care of it.

6. Stick to Your Plan

With ADHD, this is always the hard part. If you like rewards, use them. For instance, you can tell yourself, “I’ll read for two hours and then go to the coffee house.” You can negotiate rewards for good grades with your parents too. If you’re competitive, use that. Pick some other student in your class whom you want to do better than and go for it. If you know you respond to social pressure, make plans with classmates to study together so you won’t let them down. Make appointments with tutors for the same reason. You may not need tutoring, but you may need structured study time. As these tips illustrate, there are all sorts of ways to help you stick with your plan. Sticking to your plan is also where a coach might come in handy.

ADHD Coaching

There is growing evidence, both research and anecdotal, that ADHD coaching can be a vital strategy in helping students learn to plan, prioritize, and persist (follow the plan). ADHD coaching has been described as a form of life-coaching influenced by CBT-type therapy that involves helping people develop behaviors, skills, and strategies to better deal with some of the symptoms associated with ADHD. Coaching helps students develop greater self-determination and direction. It reduces the overwhelm and anxiety many ADHD students feel and increases self-confidence and self-sufficiency.

Coaching programs typically focus on skills related to time management, target planning, goal setting, organization, and problem-solving. 

What is so powerful about ADHD coaching is that through the process of being coached, students learn how to coach themselves.”They learn the skills they need to be self-sufficient and successful and actually strengthen their executive functioning skills in the process. “If you can develop your executive functioning, you can be more successful in more areas all on your own,” explains Wright. This is the strength ADHD coaching brings into an individual’s life.

While this is still an emerging specialty, research suggests that it may offer promising results:

  • One study on the efficacy of ADHD coaching found that this approach had a positive impact on adults with ADHD. 
  • A 2011 study sample of college students found that coaching led to improvements in self-regulation, goal achievement, and overall well-being .
  • A 2018 review found that the majority of studies showed positive results for ADHD coaching, with participants experiencing improvements in ADHD symptoms and executive functioning.

Another bonus—because many coaches work on the phone, you can take your coach with you wherever you go. Unfortunately, it's surprisingly easy for students with ADHD to fall behind quickly without even realizing it. Being proactive and getting strategies in place early on to help ensure success is so much more effective than trying to dig out of a hole or correct failing grades. Consider getting started with an ADHD coach to help make the transition to college life a happy, successful, and productive one.

The most effective treatment for ADHD is medication. While medication is not indicated for all people with ADHD, you should talk to your doctor about your treatment options in order to decide the best approach for your individual needs.

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Article Sources
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