Dealing with ADHD as an Adult in College

Tips and Tricks to Set Yourself Up for Success

Going back to school as an adult to earn a college degree is a challenging task under any circumstance. This can be even more challenging for those with different abilities, particularly those with attention-deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

As someone diagnosed with ADHD well into my adult life, and after completing an associate and a bachelor’s degree, and subsequently a master’s degree at Excelsior University, I look back on the challenges I faced as a student and realize many could have been eased had I realized why I struggled and how much of those challenges related to my ADHD diagnosis.

How ADHD Can Affect College Workloads

According to the CDC, ADHD has three main presentations: hyperactive, impulsive, or combined, meaning the individual shows ongoing patterns of both presentations. The disorder interferes with functioning and development. This can mean it is hard for individuals affected by ADHD to become motivated or start work on a project, sustain the long-term focus and attention to detail they may need for an assignment, or even keep track of deadlines and due dates.

Strategies to Overcome ADHD as a College Student

It is important to note that ADHD is classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, but it is not considered a learning disability. Many colleges and universities offer accessibility services to their students, which is the best place to learn about the specific accommodations that are available to you as a college student with ADHD.

So, how does someone with ADHD succeed in going back to college? Try using these strategies:

1. Choose an Institution that Understands You

Where you go to school is just as important as the steps you take to make yourself successful. Personally, I was not successful in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting because the in-person classes just didn’t work for me. They offered a lot of distractions, sensory issues, and troublesome noise levels. I found that an online curriculum worked best for finishing my associate degree, and I sought to complete my bachelor’s and my master’s degrees fully online where I could control my learning environment more closely.

Where you choose to go to school and the format of school are extremely important because you need to first make sure you will complete the work and be present with the material.

2. Choose Courses That Interest You

One skill that many people with ADHD possess is the ability to hyperfocus. In a broad sense, the ability to hyperfocus enables someone to become completely absorbed by a topic or activity for an extended period of time. This can be a great strategy to employ when it comes to being successful in school. The ability to hyperfocus becomes a strength when individuals use it to engross themselves in readings and materials, participate in discussions, and work on assignments.

3. Set Specific Time in Your Schedule for School

Another challenge many individuals with ADHD struggle with is time blindness. Time blindness refers to an individual’s unawareness of the passage of time. Particularly, in cases of a topic or activity that is the subject of hyperfixation, it’s not uncommon for those with ADHD to lose hours of time. Blocking specific time periods on your calendar (or digital, planner, etc.) for school work can help ensure there is enough time allotted for you to complete the work you need.

4. Make a List, Check It Twice—or 10 Times!

In addition, those with ADHD can lose sight of tasks they need to complete due to inattentiveness or lack of focus. The old adage, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” comes into play here. To ensure everything gets done on time, it helps to make a list of all the work needed for your courses that week, or even in that day or chunk of time you’ve carved out for yourself. This list helps keep you accountable as you work through the coursework. It also allows for the dopamine hit when you cross off the pieces you have completed!

One way to ensure you don’t fall prey to time blindness is to set alarms. Set an alarm or a reminder on your phone or your computer for each step and task you need to complete, when to start it, and when you think you should be finished. This will help you remember what is next and give you the push to keep going. It also helps you to learn how to manage your time, if you’ve set enough time aside for each type of schoolwork, and to be able to adjust accordingly.

5. Get Comfy and Minimize Distractions

Be sure that you have a comfortable place where you can do your coursework. You’ll be spending a lot of time there focusing on getting the work done. Make sure it has all the supplies you will need, from your computer to the extras, like water and snacks so you don’t have to get up and be distracted by something else. Be careful to avoid inadvertently creating distractions for yourself in your work area, but if there are things you use to help you focus, be sure to have them on hand. For instance, if you need a specific fidget device like a pop fidget toy, or ring spinner; or if you are someone who needs clicky pens, or toothpicks to chew on, have these in your space to help you release that additional energy and increase your ability to focus.

6. Everything Is Better With a Buddy!

Find a trusted individual who can be your accountability partner. By telling someone you have a task to complete and you need to get it done, you’ve created a person who will keep checking in and asking if you’ve been successful.

If the idea of just reminders and check-ins is not enough to keep you on task and focused, use a body double. This person might be a friend, a spouse, a roommate, or a parent. A body double is another person who sits with – in person or via a video call – or web chats with the person with ADHD as they do the task that may be difficult for them to complete. For instance, if you have a hard time completing your discussion posts for a course, call a friend who needs to clean their house. While they clean, you can work on the discussion. This creates instant accountability to the task at hand and support if you need it.

7. Talk It Out

The key to being successful also lies in open communication with your instructors. If you’re comfortable, share your diagnosis with your instructor and where you face challenges. If you’ve requested or been granted accommodations, remind them and help them understand the ways ADHD impacts you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your advisors and your instructors are there to help support you and ensure your success They want to see you thrive in your coursework, but they cannot do that if they do not understand what is going on. Keep the lines of communication open and stay ahead of any challenges that may arise.

8. Be Kind to Yourself

Above all else, be kind to yourself. Going back to school is a challenge and if you have different abilities such as ADHD, it can be even more challenging. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but it’s important to take the time to celebrate the wins, big and small. Create rewarded incentives. When you finish your assignments for the week, treat yourself to your favorite ice cream. When you successfully complete a course, maybe participate in an activity you’ve been looking forward to or a new movie you wanted to see. By creating milestones and rewarding yourself along the way, you’re creating pathways to increase the dopamine your brain is so desperately craving as well as build habits that you can sustain throughout your educational journey.