Strategies for success in college if ADHD?
January 13, 2022 7:29 AM   Subscribe

I am interested in learning about strategies work best to achieve success in college for people with ADHD. What works to manage time? Master large amounts of factual material? Write papers? Prepare for presentations? Succeed with group projects? Any individual thoughts would be appreciated, as well as recommendations of insightful books and videos.
posted by mortaddams to Education (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I tried many tactics and scheduling schemes, but honestly the only thing that truly got me through college was an Adderall prescription (and finally picking a major I was interested in.)
posted by schyler523 at 8:51 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

Is this for you or for others?

As someone with undiagnosed ADHD in college, I finished via tears, wasted all-nighters, and existential dread at losing my financial aid. I tried lots of techniques but the best thing would have been a diagnosis and appropriate medication.
posted by homodachi at 8:51 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am an undegrad advisor, I will shout this from the rooftops for anyone with ADHD: GET ACADEMIC ACCOMMODATIONS IN PLACE!!! There is almost certainly an office on campus designed to help you sort this out and to help you succeed. There are probably also learning specialists that will work with you to figure out study skills and strategies for ADHD whether you are diagnosed or not. You probably pay for these things through your student fees and aren't accessing them, change that ASAP.

A specific strategy that I find really helpful for studying/paper writing/any sustained boring-ish task is body-doubling. Find someone to study/work with who is willing to periodically remind you to get back on task.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 9:28 AM on January 13 [8 favorites]

Best answer: This is extremely rambling, by which you can tell I haven't taken my meds yet today.

I had undiagnosed ADHD in college and graduate school, and what worked--well, "worked"--for me was to gravitate towards subjects that came easier and didn't require as much study time. So social sciences and the arts, rather than STEM. Also being fairly laid back and OK with B-, B and B+ rather than As.

Things I know now, that I didn't then: frequent, regular, exercise blows off a lot of the general milling-about electricity that makes me unable to focus. As does exercise right before sitting down to work. I have literally just finished a 100,000 word draft of a novel, and the past 6 months of writing were made possible by having a carefully-curated playlist that I play only while writing and thinking about the project, and before I sit down to write, I pop in my earbuds, put on that playlist, and hop onto the treadmill. 5-10 minutes of walking and I start getting ideas. If I went back to school today, I would do that before sitting down to study or research.

I recommend the podcast Something Shiny, by two therapists who have ADHD, and there are also a number of episodes of the Productivity Alchemy podcast (interviews with people about how they stay productive) that touch on ADHD.

ADHD people often self-medicate with caffeine because stimulants work paradoxically with us, and since routine also helps to stick to a habit, if you drink coffee or tea, a ritual of brewing a cup right before sitting down to study can flip you into Study Mode. (I, alas, have an addiction to sugary sodas from more-or-less this, which is why I recommend coffee or tea instead.)

A strict schedule tends to work best for me, because I don't have to waste brain cycles on the myriad decisions that come at me otherwise--do I sit here and study? which class? check email? reload podcasts? try this book? make a grocery list? we're out of X do I run to the store? oh wait I forgot to bill that client do I do so now? or just sit here and reload Reddit? No! It's 1PM, I take my Ritalin, hop on the treadmill for 10 minutes, and sit down and write!

And to reiterate something I mentioned above about my playlist: creating a specific study routine might work: in this place, with this desk light on, with this lo-fi chill playlist on, with this cup of tea and this woolly hat, with this fidget cube for my fingers, I am now In The Study Zone. OTOH you might benefit more from changing it up: today I'm in the library, tomorrow I'm in the student center, the day after I'm in the park.

Short-term rewards and incentives. Part of ADHD is being unable to work with long-term, far-away rewards. So "I get to do X if I get all As this semester" is bound to fail for a lot of us. But "If I can write this paper and turn it in 24 hours before it's due then I can take the weekend off to buy and play this new video game" is a lot more doable.

The ways I coped, or failed to cope, back in the day, that you might take lessons or warnings from:

I am very last-minute-deadline-driven, and I learned early on that it took me one hour of research and writing time per page to write papers that got Bs, so that I knew exactly when the "last minute" was. For a 10-page paper, 10 hours of work. Due at 8AM? I could get by on 4 hours of sleep for one day, and needed an hour to get ready in the morning and an hour during the process to deal with things like eating dinner, so 4pm the day before was the absolute last minute that I had to start reading and writing. Was this healthy? Absolutely not, but at the time, not knowing I had ADHD and not having any accommodations or coping was doable. (And yes, I got two masters' degrees with terrible work habits like this!) Figure out what makes you get a thing done, and arrange your life so those circumstances arise.

For subjects that I liked, or could enjoy doing--I remember a multimedia presentation that I spent lots of time on because it was FUN--putting the work in was no problem. It's just the slogging classes that I needed to take to fill in properly that were really hard. So take as many classes as you can in subjects you're passionate about.

Group projects were much easier for me as I had ongoing meetings with people to be accountable for. So I'd say that if you don't have a group project, then frequent meetings with your TAs and/or profs to keep yourself doing the work and accountable.

If you're lucky enough to get profs who understand and are accommodating, see if you can work with them to explore alternatives for papers and exams. (This is more likely in small classes of 10-15 people than large 150-person survey courses.) One of my profs told us she'd once had a student with some sort of learning disability (no details), and she worked with him to come up with a presentation format instead of papers.

And finally, my mom, who suspects she is probably undiagnosed ADHD, spent her teaching life standing up to teach, so standing up or otherwise physically engaging yourself may help while studying. And she failed to tell me her secret study trick until the last week of my last semester of my last stint in grad school (NO I AM NOT BITTER): she typed all her class notes up. She retains things better if she types them, and that helped her. I tried that with my final exams and...I believe it worked for me. I felt I retained things better. So try recopying your class notes and see if that gets them into your head.
posted by telophase at 10:34 AM on January 13 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I teach at a community college. I also have adhd myself, so I can empathize. Sweetchrysanthemum's advice about getting accommodations is definitely a good first step. However, unless you are very clear on what exactly you need, your teachers aren't going to really know what to do to help you, since they aren't experts in adhd. One accommodation I see frequently is extended deadlines. But you still have to do the work, which is what I think your actual question is about.

From a personal perspective, what works for me is having ONE list of everything I need to worry about. I use Dynalist for this, because I can view my one list in many different ways, depending on what I care about at that moment.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:35 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

I'm in disability advocacy and have had clients dealing with similar issues. The biggest things are 1) getting a diagnosis, 2) getting meds if appropriate, 3) getting ADHD specific therapy if available (most of the time it isn't, this is a fairly new field to specialize in), and 4) working with the disability office to get accommodations in place and above all, put everything in writing - you can't get an accommodation that you didn't ask for, and having a paper trail is important in case you have to deal with someone who is hostile to accommodations - sadly, many college professors do not think they need to accommodate, so it's not unlikely that this will come up.
posted by bile and syntax at 2:07 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]

I'm currently reading a book on CBT for ADHD* and one thing the authors stress is that the expression of ADHD is largely shaped by individual experiences--when (or if) a diagnosis was received, if medication is available, what kind of support and training was given, what social stigma someone experienced around their difficulties, etc. So a strategy that might help one person with ADHD might not work for another.

"Adults [including college students] with ADHD, many of whom have gone undiagnosed for most of their lives, very often have unsuccessfully tried to adopt coping strategies used by individuals without ADHD and have not developed a set of coping skills tailored to and understanding of their ADHD profile. In some cases, patients may have been frustrated in their attempts to apply suggestions offered by books or websites devoted to ADHD.... they have often been unaware of the effects of their ADHD and have repeatedly tried to use coping skills that work for other people, but that have not been personalized....We use CBT as a laboratory for researching different coping strategies to find out what works for the individual." (emphasis mine)

So if you are an educator or parent looking to help students with ADHD succeed, ideally you would speak to the student about their specific needs and potential accommodations with an eye to being guided by them. If you are a student with ADHD, you're already doing great by asking for help! College does place a greater demand on your executive function than earlier schooling, and ideally you would be able to get help from your college or university, but in practice that is very often pro forma ADA compliance with no real substance to it and I would not recommend planning to rely on it. If you face this, know that it is their failure and does not reflect your capability as a student or your value as a person. You are entitled to the support you need to flourish--if you have a doctor or therapist you trust you can ask them for guidance and advocacy (in terms of reaching accommodation with your school), or, if you feel it's mainly a skills gap (and you have the resources), there are ADHD coaches who focus on individual skill-building.

Finally, because ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, its effects are likely to be felt widely and any solutions are also likely to be holistic rather than one-and-done: " requires time for adults with ADHD to become familiar with and to consistently implement new coping skills before their effects on life outcomes can be observed.... [it] is more similar to adhering to an exercise regimen in order to improve athletic performance than it is to taking a performance-enhancing drug. That is, exercise yields progressive benefits that can be observed and quantified, but the end points...require persistent effort to achieve and maintain."

(and on preview, what bile and syntax said much more eloquently)

*Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adult ADHD: An integrative Psychosocial and Medical Approach, J. Russel Ramsay,, Anthony L Rostain, 2014
posted by radiogreentea at 2:22 PM on January 13

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