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Navigating college life with ADHD

Studying with a friend.

Jason Keller
September 12, 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 One of his guide here.

We covered academic strategies in Part One, but college isn’t just work and studying. It’s also about having fun, exploring new things and learning a little bit more about yourself. Everyone’s situation is different, of course, and having ADHD is no exception. I’m going to share a little bit of what I know about navigating the social side of college when you’ve got ADHD.

Don’t get a job (in your first year).

Until you know how you’re going to handle college and being away from home, it’s best to start slowly introducing extra responsibilities. Don’t go all out only to crash and burn. Your first year is as much a test of your physical and mental fortitude as it is about learning. If you want to try adding extracurriculars to your schedule, start out by joining a club.

Set limits on everything.

Everyone has the tendency to go overboard once in a while. It’s part of being human. With ADHD, you run the risk of too much impulsive behavior, which can quickly lead to trouble. To keep yourself in check:

  1. Set a spending limit for excursions or food. Impulse buying is no joke.

  2. Watch your sleep schedule. Don’t sleep too much, and don’t sleep too little.

  3. Study breaks are fine, but time them appropriately.

  4. Monitor your diet carefully.

    Perhaps for the first time in your life, nobody is telling you what you can and can’t eat. Realize that diet is actually a crucial component of not only ADHD, but also your overall health and well-being.

Keep Your Meds to Yourself

According to an article published by USA Today, one in five college students abuse prescription stimulants.

At no time and under no circumstance should you ever sell your medicine to anyone. Selling your meds is completely illegal and a good way to get in a lot of trouble. You can get kicked out of school, lose your scholarships and even face felony charges. 

According to Patrick Gallagher, a sergeant at the UNC Police Department, because most ADHD medications are amphetamines, they are considered Schedule II/IIN controlled substances. Which means being in possession of medication without a prescription counts as a felony. Distributing or selling will even earn you jail time.

“If your roommate asks you, ‘Hey bud, can I have one? I got a final coming up,’ it is not worth it," Gallagher says. "You can say, ‘Sorry man,’ and not have any guilt because it’s such a serious offense."

For some people, it’s not safe to take stimulant medication. You don’t know who it’s safe for, and chances are if a person is illegally buying stimulants, they have no idea if they’re safe for them either. This is a serious situation and could have life-threatening effects.

Some students carry some of their medicine with them, in the event that they forget to take a dose. Gallagher recommends not toting your pills with you without a prescription label on hand.

“We would strongly recommend you keep it in the prescription bottle that it comes in," he says. "That is an easy way to alleviate any sign of wrongdoing or warrant any investigation into the matter." 

If you’re concerned about having your medication stolen, buy a safe. I can personally recommend this one


Your parents told you, your doctor told you, your dog told you, and now I’m telling you: Exercise is crucial to balancing your life and succeeding with ADHD. According to social worker Kerri Golding, exercise has the same effect on the brain as a dose of Ritalin.

Colleges these days recognize the importance of exercise and will likely include use of their recreational facility as part of the tuition-and-fees package. UNC’s rec center can be accessed by all students and is open during the summer.

Limit your drinking.

According the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, almost 60 percent of college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month, and almost two out of three of those surveyed engaged in binge drinking.

The fact of the matter is, alcohol is a reality on most college campuses. Whether or not it should be is a topic for someone else. I’m going to arm you with as much relevant information on having ADHD and drinking as I can, because I’ve been there.

Just about everyone will tell you this, because in general, it’s good advice: If you’re taking ADHD meds, talk to your doctor about what they recommend regarding the interactions between stimulant meds and alcohol.

Bottom line? Be extremely cautious. Alcohol affects everyone in different ways, and the medicine you take is a HUGE factor. The stimulant effect of ADHD meds could mask alcohol’s influence — which is a recipe for alcohol poisoning. 

Maintain your relationships.

The business of being human means that you’re always meeting new people and forming new bonds. In college, you’re among thousands of people. As you make new friends and start new relationships, don’t forget about your old ones. Text your friends back home; call your parents; stop home one weekend, and catch up with old acquaintances or teachers. These simple gestures can help you maintain strong, lasting friendships as you build new ones, and can keep you well-grounded and focused.

Choose order instead of chaos.

When it comes to ADHD and organization, you probably know what a Sisyphean task it can be. It’s not that you’re not trying, but that you’re often trying to do too many things all at the same time. Sure, you’ll start the laundry, but you’ll also try and clean the bathroom. And while you’re cleaning the bathroom, you’ll walk past a pile of dirty dishes and start doing those, only to get halfway done as you take up the job of responding to emails you’ve left unanswered for a few weeks. Pretty soon the day is over, your clothes are still soggy, the dishes are in the sink, the bathroom smells like bleach, your emails aren’t answered and you just remembered you’ve got homework due at midnight tonight. Sound familiar?

Learning early to take things one at a time can be the difference between chaos and order. If you start your laundry, set a timer on your phone to remind you of when it’s done. If you decide to clean the bathroom, see it through. Don’t even take a break (because really, cleaning a bathroom is not that hard). This rule applies for all of your tasks.


College is hard. Who’d have guessed, right? But the thing about college is this: It’s not impossible. If you’re struggling, know that there are resources out there. Doctors, professors, family, friends, tutors and more are standing by, ready to help you back onto your feet and back onto the path for success. All you have to do is ask. If generations of people have gone through the university system, then you can too, ADHD or not.

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.