10 Survival Tips for ADHD College Students

Callie Williams | November 12, 2021

"By adapting my learning processes to my strengths and challenges, I’ve gone from a high school dropout to a successful university student."

As a child, school was my favorite place on earth. Nothing excited me more than learning, which came easily to me. Engaging with the material was effortless, and the success was basically a constant dopamine rush. But as I got older, the expectations changed: more assignments, higher standards, stricter deadlines, and just more to keep track of.

Once I got into middle school and high school, I began to dread school; faking illnesses whenever I had the chance so I could stay home and read. My teachers and parents couldn’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 the age of 16, I dropped out of high school. I had internalized the reactions and dialogue of the adults around me: I was lazy. I wasn’t trying. I was choosing failure. I didn’t know until years later that it none of it was ever my choice. It was the manifestations of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.

My story is not uncommon in the ADHD community - many of us have a complicated relationship with education. Struggles with executive dysfunction, procrastination, and perfectionism can lead to difficulty succeeding 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 their neurotypical peers. While our big, beautiful brains are built to absorb, process, and connect information, navigating academia can be incredibly daunting - particularly if you have a history of trouble with school. The great news? Our symptoms are manageable with the right support, a few tips and tricks, 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. I chose two classes to start with, which is considered half-time at my school. 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 at a university or you’re returning after a break; creating a strategic schedule for yourself can help set you up for success. It's much easier to stay engaged with a class that genuinely piques your interest. Take a look at your school’s course catalogue 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 any accelerated courses. (Of course, there are always going to be general course requirements that 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

If your university is holding in-person lectures, try to make a point of actively participating in class as much as you can. Asking and answering questions, contributing to peer discussions, and connecting with your professor and other college students will help you stay engaged if you have trouble ignoring distractions. Additionally, you’ll be more likely to retain the information presented in class, and hey -- maybe you'll even make some new friends.

4. Make a connection with Disability Services

Per the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), universities in the U.S. are legally required to have an entire department dedicated to the academic success of students with disabilities. Typically, all you need to get started with Disability Services 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 or flexible due dates, priority registration, academic renewal, and more.

5. Build a relationship with your professors

Professors are people, too! They're all people who went to university, just like you! 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 will need later on.

6. Explore Student Health Services

If you don’t have an ADHD diagnosis yet, be sure to schedule an appointment with Student Health Services and request a referral to a clinician who can help you assess your symptoms and put together an appropriate treatment plan. This may include counseling, skill-building, or referrals to discuss additional treatments, such as a prescription for stimulants or nonstimulants, two types of ADHD medications. If you already have a diagnosis of ADHD, you can still get additional mental health support to help 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 try bullet journaling, mapping out an achievable weekly plan can help to boost your executive functioning. If you’ve had trouble with planners in the past, this Inflow blog post 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 that 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 your schoolwork 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 life. There will be times when you struggle with due dates or can’t get that essay you’ve been working on 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.

You Can Do This!

Approaching university can feel scary and overwhelming - believe me, I get it. Before my diagnosis, the thought of willingly putting myself back in 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.

Callie Williams is a writer, student, chef, and musician-artist living in California with her five-year-old daughter and their guinea pigs, Penelope and Pineapple. You can see more of her work at calliewilliams.com.

Do you have - or suspect you may have ADHD/ADD? If you need support, community, advice, or all of the above - Inflow may be a great fit for you! Our science-based ADHD management app provides self-paced modules for a variety of different struggle areas among ADHDers. We also offer a community area for members to interact and live events with certified ADHD coaches! Try Inflow for free here.