College can be a tricky, difficult journey whether or not you live with ADHD. It often requires us to hone in on our focusing abilities more than we ever thought we’d need to. As much as we want to pretend like that paper or midterm will disappear if we forget about it for long enough, it really won’t.
Because people with ADHD process information differently, we have to approach college differently. I attended a quarter system university, which was both wonderful and terrible for me. The wonderful part was that classes were only 10 weeks long and the environment was fast-paced, so there was never a dull moment. The terrible part was that we had to cram information at super-speed compared to those at semester schools.
I was studying multiple different subjects, so I really needed to stay focused and power through my academic work. To say that I struggled would be an understatement.
I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until years after graduating from college, so all the moments where I couldn’t focus while studying (no matter how hard I tried) made me feel like a crazy person. But I’m a problem solver, and so I came up with multiple different studying tricks that worked for me.
Explore the Pomodoro Technique
For college kids, time management is the big, evil boss at the end of a game. We all procrastinate, but boy, was I a master of procrastination. The Pomodoro Technique takes this into account and allows you to procrastinate under a controlled time period with maximum productivity in between.
There are a few different approaches to it, but basically you decide on the task to be done, set a timer for 25 minutes, then break for 3 to 5 minutes, and repeat. After four of these intervals, take a longer break for 15 to 30 minutes, then restart the whole thing.
The key to mastering this technique is being as specific as possible with your tasks and sticking to under five minutes for your short breaks so your mind doesn’t wander too far.
For example, instead of telling yourself “do research,” try “find 10 sources.” Instead of “write paper,” try “draft outline for first three points.”
“I read a whole paragraph, so I deserve a quick 45-minute Facebook break!”
When I would study on my laptop, it was basically muscle memory for me to open a new tab and type in Facebook.com. It was bad. Really bad.
I would spend so long indulging in distractions on Facebook, my phone, or cat videos on YouTube that I’d forget I was even studying to begin with.
I realized I had to force myself to remove distractions. Here are my recommendations:
- Download an app that blocks certain websites. I used one called SelfControl that allows you to block a certain website for a chosen time period. Do this while following your Pomodoro intervals to keep yourself accountable.
- Remove your phone completely out of your line of sight. Give it to your roommate and don’t let them give it back until you’re done.
- If your mind is wandering and you just can’t focus, embrace it and ride the distraction wave. Write down your passing thoughts so that you can get them out of your system and come back to them later.
Reading was my kryptonite in college. Unless I was put into a black room with a single light, no phone, no sounds, and no humans within a 100-mile radius, I just couldn’t focus.
One thing that really helped me with studying was standing. There’s a reason more businesses are investing in standing desks!
On those days where even standing couldn’t help, I would take it a step further and walk while studying. Get your body moving while you study, but keep the movement simple enough that it takes up minimal brain power.
Know your learning type
Some people are visual learners, while others are auditory learners. Some learn with hands-on techniques, while others prefer text.
While I struggled with reading, I was laser-focused during lectures on topics that I found interesting. While many of my friends preferred to skip classes and just read the book, I went to every single lecture and sat in the front row. (Yes, I was that kid.)
Once you know what your learning type is, capitalize on it. If you struggle with learning things verbally, try making visual charts. If you struggle with visual learning, try explaining it out loud.
It’ll take a few tries, but it’s worth it to find a method that works best for you.
I had the same roommate during all four years of college, and our majors couldn’t have been more different. I studied film and theatre, while he was a pre-med student studying physiology.
During finals season, we’d take turns explaining difficult concepts to each other. We’d try to teach the other person until they at least sort of understood it. This helped break down the advanced topics we were studying into extremely simple points.
By teaching the other person in simple terms, we had a more fundamental understanding of what we needed to learn. It was also a fun opportunity to learn something outside of our respective majors.
Fun plot twist: My roommate also received a late ADHD diagnoses years after graduating. Go figure.
Ask questions during lectures
This one might seem obvious, but people always seem to be afraid to ask questions. College is a weird environment where we’re all trying to be cool and act like we have it all together. Luckily, I had no desire to be cool, so I was never afraid to participate and ask questions when something didn’t make sense to me.
Disclaimer: There were a lot of things that didn’t make sense to me.
Every time I’d ask a question, I was nervous that it was stupid or obvious. But, I’d often have someone come up to me after class and thank me for asking a question they were too afraid to ask.
Think about it: If you go to a big school, you might end up in a lecture hall with around 400 other students. You can’t be the only one confused!
Try metaphors or out-of-the-box examples
This was my golden ticket to acing my exams. In retrospect I think that because ADHD allowed me to process information differently, I was always able to make connections between things through word associations or seemingly unrelated topics.
I could come up with strange metaphors to remember things, act out how my professor taught something, or create rhymes and poems to memorize topics.
If you’re struggling to understand a complicated concept, search for examples and metaphors, then start to make your own.
Know what accommodations are available
This one’s obvious, but still worth mentioning. Many schools offer things like extensions for timed exams or extra note space.
Visit your academic counselor and see what resources might be available for you.
Make sure you’re interested
This last one’s a bit more of a philosophical hack, but make sure you’re interested in the major you’ve chosen.
As someone with ADHD, when I’m learning something that I’m fascinated by, my hyperfocus engages and I absorb information like a sponge. When I’m reading about a topic I have little care for, I have to go over the same sentence a dozen times.
Of course, we all have those general education classes we have to take that have nothing to do with what you’ll end up doing in life. Generally speaking, though, it’s important that you’re enjoying what you’re learning.
While it’s easy to get bogged down by statistics about how people with ADHD struggle academically, it is so, so possible to succeed.
Don’t let yourself be a statistic, and don’t lose hope. Yes, there will be classes where you struggle. There’ll be moments where you think it might just be easier to quit.
But I promise you, it can be done. If I can do it, you can, too.
ADHD-US-NP-00031 SEPTEMBER 2018