Studying Tips for a Successful Semester

How college students with ADHD can overcome three common challenges

Posted Sep 28, 2018

Now that the rush of moving into dorms, finalizing schedules, and purchasing books and supplies has waned, the real work of being in college begins. For students with ADHD, in particular, this means figuring out how to manage your workload, stay up-to-date with assignments, and use your time effectively. If you add seeing friends, extracurricular activities, eating, sleeping, and doing laundry, it can all seem daunting. The trick is creating systems that make sense to you and help you overcome the temptations that lead to procrastination, avoidance, and exhaustion.

 #205038668 | Author: zinkevych
Source: Fotolia File: #205038668 | Author: zinkevych

When it comes to studying, many of the college students I speak with struggle most with the Ws and Hs of budgeting their time—meaning the questions of When, Where, What and How. Questions like “When should I do my assignments?” “Where should I study?” “What needs to be prioritized?” and “How long can I really work?” can be so daunting that many young adults with ADHD will avoid doing anything at all—and opt instead to surf the net or hang out with friends. Unfortunately, procrastination often leads to panic, all-nighters, and exhaustion—all of which can ultimately further procrastination. How can you break this cycle?

To get yourself going, you’ll need a doable plan: one that involves making lists, using calendars and breaking things down into chunks. There’s no denying that these are difficult tasks for most with ADHD because of the executive functioning challenges that come with this diagnosis, but there’s no other way around it. Developing these skills requires time, practice and, above all, compassion. Leveraging the abilities of your ADHD brain—and making lasting changes for academic and life success—begins with having compassion for yourself. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses: things we like about ourselves and things we want to change. If you can shift your mindset from criticism and negativity (“What’s wrong with me?” and “Why can’t I be more like so-and-so?”) to one of curiosity and openness (“What could I do differently here?” and “Who might be able to help me?”), you’ve made a giant step in the right direction.

Here are 3 common challenges for college students with ADHD and practical steps for overcoming them—and paving your way towards a successful semester:

PROBLEM 1: Lack of motivation to do your work:  It's easy to do something you like, and MUCH harder to do something that you don't. When a task—no matter how important—feels big and fundamentally unrewarding, and you avoid doing it as a result, you lack internal motivation. Even if you like a class, doing the required homework or studying might be uninteresting sometimes. When a task doesn't have meaningful deadlines or immediate consequences to get us started, it lacks external motivation. In both cases, we have to find something to get us going. Procrastination occurs when tasks are either unrewarding and daunting (or both).

 #194166781 | Author: Gregory Lee
Source: Fotolia File: #194166781 | Author: Gregory Lee

Solution: Use incentives and break things down: You’ll need to take two important steps. First, create meaningful incentives to get yourself going. These will be your rewards for finishing something that is difficult to do. Make a list of things you enjoy doing and attach them to things you have to do but don’t love. For example, if you turn in a statistics assignment on time, you go for a run or treat yourself to a cappuccino at your favorite cafe.

Secondly, it’s hard to begin something that seems unpleasant when the task seems very large. Create chunks of time to study smaller amounts of work. You want to finish things so you feel a sense of completion and success. Decide on your overall work period and how long you want your breaks to be. Let’s say you can work for 45 minutes, break for 10, and work for another 45 before you call it quits. Set a timer on your phone for your work periods and your break. If you’re studying with or near friends and need some help, ask. They want you to do well and will probably be more than happy to assist you.  

PROBLEM 2: Overwhelmed by too much work: College is a time filled with many demands on your time. You likely have multiple deadlines, a varying workload, and a confusing new schedule. Assignments—and classes—can easily slip through the cracks.

 #100388776 | Author: Kwangmoo
Source: Fotolia File: #100388776 | Author: Kwangmoo

Solution: Create a visual map of your life: People with ADHD respond well to visual cues, so laying things out in a way that’s easy for you to check on what’s happening and what’s due is essential. Whether you do this on your computer or with a paper planner is up to you. Sometimes a combination works best. One of my clients likes to put her academic assignments on a paper calendar so she can see them all at a glance, but puts all of her social events and shifts at work in her phone. Take some to reflect on what makes the most sense to you. Write down everything: the big picture of classes, due dates, papers and tests. Make sure you schedule study time and meals, too. This map will help you navigate your days more smoothly.

PROBLEM 3: Managing your study time poorly: If you have trouble knowing what order to approach your assignments and how to plan your time accordingly, you are not alone. Prioritizing, planning and sequencing are executive functioning skills that challenge many people with ADHD. It’s easy to become frustrated and realize two hours have passed with little to show.

 #164127078 | Author: DragonImages
Source: Fotolia File: #164127078 | Author: DragonImages

Solution: Choose study assignments in advance by degree of difficulty: There two ways to approach doing homework. Doing something hard first and getting it out of the way so you can coast to the easy and medium tasks afterwards. Or, doing something easy first to feel a sense of early accomplishment and then tackling the harder material, followed by the medium stuff. There’s no right or wrong tactic: it just depends on what helps you get into a study groove. Either way, you have look at what needs to be done, based on impending due dates, in advance of sitting down to work. This preview also helps by ensuring that you have the materials you need.

Sometimes it’s tough to do these steps on your own. If you think outside support would be helpful, seek it out.  Whether it’s another student, a learning specialist, an ADHD coach or a therapist, you may well benefit from teaming up with someone. Remember, everyone needs assistance sometimes. There is no reward for struggling on your own.

 #128130222 | Author: Jacob Lund
Source: Fotolia File: #128130222 | Author: Jacob Lund