Put the "A" in ADHD!

Practical advice for college students with ADHD

Posted Sep 06, 2018

This time of year marks the beginning of college for many students.  It's a time of overstuffed minivans, tearful goodbyes, and exciting new beginnings.  It's a stressful time for many kids and parents, made worse when ADHD is also part of the picture.  In four-year colleges where kids are living away from home, it’s a real test of whether or not they've developed the time-management skills to survive independently. 

Parents who pay for college are essentially making a bet, and it can be an expensive one.  They are betting at least one semester’s tuition that their child will manage not only increased academic demands but also a whole new set of social demands – and that’s not even to mention their laundry.  Financial considerations aside, college is an emotional investment.  It’s a stressful time under the best and happiest of circumstances, but it’s especially hard on everybody if the student is not prepared to manage new college-level expectations. 

Creativa Images/Shutterstock
The road to a successful semester
Source: Creativa Images/Shutterstock

Here are ten practical tips for ADHD students going to college:

1.        Have a schedule for the day.  Wake up in the morning knowing what you are going to do, if not every hour, then at least with every major chunk of the day – morning, afternoon, evening.  That schedule should include fun, too.  For the past several years your parents have been giving you cues (either subtle such as a raised eyebrow meaning “Shouldn’t you be studying?” or obvious such as “I see online that you have a test this Friday”).  Like it or not, those cues may have been helping you stay on track academically through the end of high school.  Now that you’re on your own in college, those cues from your parents will be replaced by cues from your new friends and roommates saying, “Hey, drop the books and come do ___ with us!”  In those moments all your instincts will say, “Yes! Let’s go have FUN!”  You will need something to check that impulse.  Help yourself by creating and sticking with a schedule that establishes a proper balance between work and play - so that you can have fun but get through your coursework as well. 

2.       On the first days of class, calendar out your major tests and assignments/projects from the syllabus.  Know in advance when your “crunch times” are going to have to be.  Remember, one hour in the class often equates to 3 hours of outside work.  Factor that in.

3.       Take care of your body.  Protecting your sleep is important not only for mental focus but for mental health more generally (including emotional health). Try to eat at least one vegetable a semester (beer doesn’t count), and one meal that isn’t pizza (preferably more).  Good nutrition is essential to feeling healthy.  Exercise.

4.       Know where to ask for help.  During orientation, when you are hearing a lot of words that sound like “blah blah blah,” perk up and pay attention when you hear the phrase “mental health” or “counseling.” Nearly all colleges have free mental health counselors.  Know how to access them before you are in crisis mode.

5.       Find out about on-campus tutoring services and take advantage of them. Again, in many colleges, peer-to-peer tutoring and course mentoring is offered for free.  Any freshman can benefit from a little guidance from more senior students who have just finished the same courses with the same professors.  These are students with direct insight into what you need to do to prepare for the tests and pass the course.  Take advantage of this - don’t reinvent the wheel; that’s not what college is for.

6.       Many college campuses are located in beautiful natural areas.  Slow down for a few minutes each day to enjoy the beauty all around you.  This gives your brain a break and an all-natural boost.

7.       If you’re taking a prescription ADHD medication, keep it safe and secure – and don’t share.  If other students take medication from your bottle, you won’t have it when you need it.

8.       Discuss with your doctor how to get your medication before you leave for college.  Your parents may have been managing this for you until now; believe it or not, bottles of pills do not magically fill themselves up whenever they become empty.  Know how to communicate with your doctor.  Many doctor’s offices these days have secure patient messaging systems that provide a convenient confidential way for you to send your doctor email.  Allow at least a week for refills, because there may be delays either at the doctor’s office or at the pharmacy. 

9.       Remember optimal doses can change – both in amount and in their timing - depending on your workload, your overall schedule, your attitude, and your changing body.  The medication you were on in high school may not be what is most helpful for you in college.  Discuss any changes in symptoms or new challenges you are experiencing with your doctor.

10.   Work hard and play hard (but not too hard)—and do NOT EVER mix ADHD medications with drugs or alcohol!  When you are working, focus.  When you are playing, take a mental break but make sure it is both fun and safe.  Finally, make sure your play time does not overpower your work time – this is about establishing the right balance for both fun and academic success (review point number 1 above).

College is hard. It’s hard for anyone to take all the courses they want and do all the fun stuff they want too.  It’s hard to occasionally say ‘no’ to fun with friends, and instead say ‘yes’ to study and coursework – it’s hard to balance these competing demands properly.   But the patterns of behavior you establish now will set you up for the rest of your life.  Doing something easy isn’t where the rewards in life lie.  It’s when you take on a difficult challenge—and succeed—that you feel good about what you’ve accomplished and so build up your skill, your confidence, your self-esteem, and your reputation with others.   Knowing that you can succeed on your own within the relatively protected world of college will be a cornerstone for your success after college – once you’re out in the world as a fully independent adult with a career, colleagues, friends and family who all depend on you.