Thriving at University with ADHD: A Success Guide
University life is often a whirlwind of deadlines, social events, and newfound independence, which can be both exciting and challenging. For students with ADHD, these things are harder to juggle. A student may be away from home for the first time, and having to be more independent with cooking, grocery shopping, laundry, making their bed, even getting out of bed (hopefully in the morning). There are fun activities to compete with attending lectures and completing assignments. And if ADHD is not yet diagnosed and treated (and even when it is), focusing in lectures and starting and completing assignments - on time - are serious ongoing challenges.
I tell many of my tertiary education clients that ADHD will continue to make studying hard, even once treated. When it isn't treated, there is a high drop-out rate, and I have seen this with many clients prior to their diagnosis. Even when a person doesn't drop out, they often take longer than average to complete their degree, and can experience mental health problems with depression and anxiety. It can be a really difficult time.
Here are some things which can help:
Seek academic accommodations
Many tertiary institutes offer resources for students with ADHD, such as academic accommodations through a disability or accessibility support service. These need to be set up BEFORE you need the service, e.g. an extension, or you messed up an exam because you forgot to take your medication (this happened to a client of mine). They will need a copy of your assessment report. Common allowances include: it being easier to receive extensions for coursework, longer times for exams, being in a smaller separate room for exams, access to a quiet study space, help with communicating your needs to lecturers and tutors, and regular accountability sessions to help sort out your schedule and to plan. I even had one client who could have minimal tests and exams in the morning due to his delayed sleep phase.
Develop a routine
Establishing a routine can help you manage your time more effectively and reduce the risk of procrastination. Start by creating a daily schedule that includes regularly taking your medication and not forgetting to get a new script(!), going to bed and getting up at decent hours, times for studying, eating, exercise, socialising, and self-care. Stick to your routine as closely as possible, but remember to be flexible and adjust it when needed.
Break tasks into smaller steps
Breaking tasks into smaller, more manageable steps can make them feel less overwhelming. For example, if you have a 3,000-word essay to write, break it down into smaller tasks, like researching, outlining, drafting, and editing. This will help you stay focused and make progress towards your goal. You may need to ask someone to help you with this task if you have difficulties with organisation or prioritising.
Use time management tools
There are many time management tools available that can help you stay on track and organised. Consider using planners, calendars, to-do lists, a whiteboard, or time-tracking apps or timers to manage your tasks and deadlines. Experiment with different methods and find the one that works best for you. Usually, your schedule has to be very easy to access or impossible to ignore (like a whiteboard) for you to actually look at it. Digital calendars are great as they can be synced across devices. It may take you a while to find what works for you. Spend some time each month or each semester entering all your due dates for assignments into your calendar or schedule, and check this regularly (set a reminder) to ensure you have not forgotten anything.
Find a study environment that suits you
Everyone has their own preferred study environment. Some people need complete silence, while others prefer some background noise. Some people even need different levels of visual stimulation. And a person might need different environments for different types of work at different times. Identify the type of environment that helps you focus best and try to recreate it when studying. I highly recommend noise-cancelling headphones for all students with ADHD.
Cultivate a support team
I have had clients who definitely wouldn't have been able to continue in tertiary study without the help of their families, friends and classmates. I had one client whose friend would come and collect her from her accommodation and walk her to their shared classes. I have had clients who make arrangements to study with certain people, with a plan that they sit and do work and do not chat to each other. I have clients whose parents have a copy of the study requirements and remind their child of upcoming assessment and assignment dates. If you can gather some supportive people around you, it can make a world of difference.
Communicate with your lecturers and tutors
It can be helpful to communicate your ADHD diagnosis and accomodations to your lecturers or tutors. If you have registered this already with the accessibility office, then the staff there may do this for you. Teaching staff don't get to ignore and disbelieve your diagnosis (although you may find that some try to). Most educators are more than willing to help and may even offer additional support, such as extended deadlines or additional guidance. Some may have ADHD themselves or a child or family member who does, and understand the difficulties.
Seeking mental health support when you need it
Tertiary study may be one of the hardest things you do in your life. It can take a physical and mental toll. I have many clients who have experienced increased depression, anxiety, and stress when studying. For some, mental health issues have been why they dropped out. People with ADHD are far more prone to almost every mental disorder, so it's best to assume that you'll have problems with something. Most tertiary institutes will have a student health centre that is free or low fees, and counselling is often provided. Not all counsellors or psychologists will "get" ADHD, and I have heard reports of some really stupid things that my clients have been told by health professionals, but give it a go if you need some help. Consider an antidepressant medication if you need one. And if you have a low income while studying, you will likely meet the criteria for a counselling subsidy through the disability allowance (through WINZ or Studylink) and then you can see a private therapist of your choosing.
Here are some more resources about tertiary study in people with ADHD: