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Succeeding academically in college with ADHD


Jason Keller
September 05, 2017

Editor's note: Thanks to UNC student Jason Keller for sharing this two-part guide for college students with ADHD. You can read Part Two of his guide here.

College is full of new opportunities. New friends, new relationships, new experiences, and of course, independence!

But all of this is not as easy as it sounds. If you’re a student with ADHD, you know just how it can affect many facets of life. High school required strategies and planning, of course, but college is a whole different beast. Here are a few tips from the experts (and from someone who has been in your shoes) that can help you adjust and succeed in college.

Advocate for yourself.

This is perhaps the most important thing you can do when you first get to college. Most colleges offer support services for students with disabilities and can provide accommodations to put you on equal footing with other students. 

Every college will have different options, but I can offer some general advice:

  1. Make an appointment with your college’s support services office.

    UNC’s Disability Resource Center office is open year-round. Check in before classes begin to get started on the right foot.
  2. Bring documentation with you.

    It’s likely that your college’s support services will require something from your healthcare professional. These documentation guidelines provide a fairly well-rounded look at establishing your diagnosis, needs and treatment plan. This doesn’t have to be from a psychiatrist or specialist, so long as it’s a healthcare provider who knows you and your condition well. I got my letter from my family doctor. Bring your 504 or IEP if you have one.
  3. Use your accommodations.

    They’re available to you for a reason.

Take your medicine. 

If you’re prescribed medicine to take, take it. It’s easy to forget. I found putting a reminder on my phone extremely helpful.

For continuing your prescription, find a healthcare provider in your new town or at your university. UNC offers psychiatric services at a low cost. Remember to bring records from your previous provider.

Be strategic in the classroom.

The quintessential image of a college classroom is something like this: a wide lecture hall, possibly hundreds of students, and the professor so far away and quiet that you can’t make out a word of what they’re saying. Not every classroom will be like this, but for a student with ADHD, almost any classroom can feel just as alienating. Here are some things I’ve learned that make this experience a little less daunting:

  1. Sit as close as possible to the front of the room.

    You’ll have the professor’s attention, you’re less likely to play with your phone in front of the professor, and there’s less to distract you.
  2. Take diligent notes with pen and paper.

    Studies have shown that taking notes by hand is actually better than taking them digitally. The internet is a magical place, but it’s filled to the brim with ways to waste time. Don’t be tempted.
  3. Go in for office hours.

    One-on-one time with your professor is invaluable. Usually a professor’s office hours are listed on their syllabus. Take advantage of them as often as you can. Helping your professor put a face to your name can make life easier for the both of you.
  4. Prepare for testing accommodations.

    Aside from studying, if you receive accommodations for test-taking, you may need to provide your professor with a form from your school’s disability office. At UNC, we call these blue sheets, and professors require them at least three days before the exam. You don’t need to disclose why you’re receiving accommodations.
  5. Avoid online classes.

    Try to take classes in person. A physical classroom offers more structure. Whenever you say “one more cat video,” you’re lying to yourself.

Make the most of your study time.

Most of your time spent in college is outside and away from the classroom. It’s also where you may run into problems. Here are some strategies for avoiding those problems:

  1. Work in the library as often as you can.

    Lack of structure is your enemy. I promise you, one of the absolute worst things you can do is sit in your room alone and try to get your work done. A simple assignment will turn into an all-night struggle. Libraries are quiet, classroom-like places that are usually open late. Not only that, but you have the additional factor of being in a public place, where people can watch you work. Yay for peer pressure!
  2. Pace yourself.

    Marathon study sessions are difficult for anyone, let alone someone with ADHD. I’ve found it helpful to work for 20 minutes at a time, then take a short break.
  3. Schedule your assignments.

    Whether it’s a project, a worksheet, a paper or reading, put the due date in your schedule the minute it’s assigned. You can use a physical planner if you want, but I use my phone’s calendar. Letting your workload get out of control is a great way to end up with an F.
  4. Use a tutor.

    Don’t be afraid to use a tutor if there’s something that you’re just not getting. Many universities have free tutoring options available by walk-in or appointment.
  5. One thing at a time.

    Behavior called “juggling” is the act of taking on new and exciting projects and feeling busy without following through and finishing the old ones you’ve started. To avoid falling into this habit, plan exactly what you’re going to do for an assignment, and then devote your time and energies exclusively to that. Follow-through is a skill with lifelong benefits.

Jason Keller 

is a senior at UNC and is planning to graduate in December 2018. He is studying journalism and writing, with an emphasis in news and multimedia. He has a passion for marketing, technology and writing, and hopes to work in marketing after he graduates. When he's not at work, he likes to listen to music, read, study, write and spend time with friends.