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College Students With ADHD

Tips for College Students With ADHD


Updated June 19, 2014

College Students With ADHD

Transitioning to college life and academics can sometimes be a challenge for students with ADHD. Luckily, there are some helpful ways to make this time a little easier...and a lot more productive.

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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 a student has ADHD. Not only does this student face greater responsibilities, less structured time, many more distractions, and new social situations, but they do so lacking many of the previous support systems they had in high school.

Sarah D. Wright, ADHD Coach and author of Fidget to Focus - Outwit 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.”

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 is getting it done. Avoiding sidetracks, keeping focused and on target with the plan – this can be a challenge that can quickly derail a student from accomplishing what he or she has set out to do. Luckily, there are several strategies you can use to help stay on track. If you are a college student with ADHD, these tips provided by Wright and her staff at the Edge Foundation are for you:

Start the Day On Time

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

If getting out of bed is a problem try these tips:

  • 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 suitemates (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 side tracked 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 3-4 minutes and you have 30 minutes to get going, the schedule might look like this: wash and dress to songs 1-3, eat to songs 4-6, 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 “launch pad” by your exit door. Collect all of the things you’ll need in the morning the night before (like your backback, 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 for that day. Then everything will be ready for you to grab as you run out the door.

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.

Tips for College Students with ADHD continued on Page 2

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