As a child, school was my favorite place. Nothing excited me more than learning, which came easily to me. Engaging with the material was effortless, and the success was a constant dopamine rush. But as I got older, the expectations changed: more assignments, higher standards, stricter deadlines - more to keep track of. In middle and high school, I began to dread it; faking illnesses whenever I had the chance to stay home and read. My teachers and parents didn't understand why I was choosing to let my grades slip.
They wrote it off as teenage apathy, laziness, and an infuriating lack of discipline.
At age 16, I dropped out of high school. I internalized the reactions and dialogue of the adults around me: I was lazy, wasn’t trying, and chose failure. I didn’t know until years later that it was never my choice. It was attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
My story isn't uncommon in the ADHD community — many of us have complicated relationships with education. Struggles with executive dysfunction, procrastination, and perfectionism can make it difficult to succeed in an academic environment.
People with ADHD experience higher rates of high school dropout and lower rates of enrollment in and graduation from higher education than neurotypical peers. While our brains are built to absorb and connect information, navigating academia can be incredibly daunting, especially if you have a history of struggling in school.
The great news? Our symptoms are manageable with the right support, a few tips, and some practice!
10 tips for surviving in college with ADHD
1. Take it slow.
If you can, consider a light course load for your first semester. Starting with a lighter load gave me the time I needed to build new, healthy study habits and adjust to the campus environment.
2. Play to your strengths.
Whether it’s your freshman year or you’re returning after a break, creating a strategic schedule can help set you up for success. It's easier to stay engaged with a class that genuinely piques your interest. Look at your school’s course catalog and see what inspires you. If you thrive on dealing with a ton of info in a short amount of time, see if your school offers accelerated courses.
Of course, there will always be course requirements you can't escape; but spicing up your calendar with interesting classes is a great way to play to your strengths.
3. Raise your hand.
Try to actively participate in class as much as you can by asking and answering questions and contributing to peer discussions. Connecting with your professor and other students will help you stay engaged if you tend to have trouble ignoring distractions.
Additionally, you’ll be more likely to retain the information, and maybe you'll even make new friends.
4. Make a connection with Disability Services.
Per the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), USA institutions are required to have an entire department dedicated to the academic success of students with disabilities. Typically, all you need to get started is proof of diagnosis or a note from your doctor explaining your situation.
Services offered by the department vary by school and state, but they should be able to provide general academic support, such as testing accommodations, extended deadlines, priority registration, academic renewal, and more. To learn more about the accommodations you can get as an ADHD college student and how to acquire them, check out this Inflow blog.
5. Build a relationship with your professors.
Professors are people, too! Some of them even have ADHD! If you're comfortable doing so, contact them early in the semester to introduce yourself and discuss the accommodations you may need later on.
6. Explore Student Health Services on campus.
If you don’t have an ADHD diagnosis yet, schedule an appointment with student health services to request a referral to a clinician who can assess your symptoms and execute a treatment plan. This may include counseling, skill-building, or medication prescriptions. You can learn all about your options when it comes to ADHD medication here.
If you already have a diagnosis, you can still find additional mental health support to help you navigate the transition to college and manage any anxiety you may have about it.
7. Invest in a good planner (and use it!)
Whether you choose a traditional day planner or want to try bullet journaling, mapping out an achievable weekly plan can boost your executive functioning. If you’ve had trouble with planners in the past, this Inflow blog can help you find a method that works for you.
8. Join a study group.
Teamwork makes the dream work, especially for those of us who thrive on accountability. Studying with other students is a great way to keep yourself on track and immersed in the material. It provides the orientation our ADHD brains so desperately need.
Plus, it’s way more fun than studying alone!
9. Schedule time to recharge.
Don’t study yourself into a state of burnout. Set daily reminders to take the time to relax, recover, and wind down. Try to schedule at least one full day off from studying and working each week. During that day off, it's important to put schoolwork completely out of your mind so you can truly recharge.
School is hard work, but it’s harder if you’re dealing with exhaustion and depression because you're overworking yourself.
10. Practice letting go of perfectionism.
Some weeks will be harder than others — that’s just a part of life. There will be times when you struggle with due dates or can’t get that essay up to your own standards, even after multiple rewrites.
It’s okay! Sometimes, you just have to turn in what you’ve got and start fresh next week. Not every paper needs to be a work of genius. A lot of going to college is really just getting through the weeks. Conserve your energy by allowing yourself to turn in work that is simply good enough.
Final thoughts: You can totally do this
University can feel scary and overwhelming. Believe me — I get it. Before my diagnosis, the thought of willingly going back to an academic environment was unimaginable. Now, two years into my journey, I feel a sense of empowerment and pride. By adapting my learning processes to my strengths and challenges, I’ve gone from a high school dropout to a successful university student. Celebrate yourself for taking this leap!
Understanding our ADHD differences and how to manage them makes all the difference in the world, and I truly believe it makes our successes even sweeter.