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Succeeding in College When You Have ADHD

Navigating the first year of college is hard for anyone, but staying organized and productive is especially difficult for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). My impulsivity and lack of attention caused me to attend four different schools and declare three different majors.

Once I figured things out, though, I graduated with honors and secured gainful employment. Now I’m five classes away from earning a master’s degree.

People with ADHD need routine and structure. College doesn’t offer that. So, how did I — a kid who couldn’t even read until the third grade — manage to succeed in college? I used the following strategies.

  • Reminders.Some people enter daily tasks in their phone or tablet calendars. Others write in little pocket planners. A special few — I’m guilty, too — pen their agendas on arms and wrists. I mostly survived high school with memory alone. This is a dicey gamble in college, which has more freedom, less structure, and more assignments and group projects.

    You have a lot to keep track of and people with ADHD often either forget to write in our fancy planners or forget to look at them. It’s a vicious cycle. Find a system that works and stick to it. I handled undergrad writing weekly reminders on a folded piece of paper I kept in my pocket. It became as necessary as my phone, wallet, and keys. Yes, people made fun of me (including girlfriends and family), but it worked.

  • Stimulation.Take any prescribed medication. My ADHD medication usually takes at least a half hour to kick in, so mornings can be adventures. Mostly, I wake up at the last minute possible and pace my apartment eight or nine times before finally leaving.

    I’ve found drinking a quick cup of tea with my meds gives me the quick jolt I need to get focused and gather everything I need for the day.

    My meds typically get me to late afternoon, so I either hit the gym or grab a tea or coffee before holing up in a coffee shop to do homework. I owe a lot of my college success to caffeine, but as important as coffee is, running or working out might be more critical.

  • Exercise.Exercise, for me at least, is equally as important as taking my medication. As someone who runs marathons, I don’t fit the typical “writer” stereotype. So, while most of my writer friends spend their days watching Netflix, or romancing over the next American novel, I’m at the gym or out running.

    Many of us with ADHD have comorbid depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Medication can only help to an extent, especially when compounded with the drinking and smoking that will inevitably happen in college and early adulthood.

    Studies show periods of exercise help release important brain chemicals (dopamine and serotonin, specifically), that work wonders for attention focusing, mood, and sleep. (I find it to be a great hangover cure as well.) Your gym membership likely is included with tuition; you have no excuse not to take care of your body. You’ll feel happier, more energized, and more focused.

  • Put school first.From Sunday at noon to Thursday evening or whenever your last class ends, homework should be top priority. Go out Friday night and have fun Saturday, but I don’t suggest a Sunday fun day or any other cleverly-named drinking days.

    Excessive drinking is especially unhealthy for those with ADHD. Our impulsive tendencies put us at significantly higher risk of substance abuse than our peers. If we’re not careful, we’re the people closing a bar, passing out in a bathroom, or finding trouble. Partying is fun, but there are other ways to meet people and enjoy yourself.

  • Stay busy. Give me all the time in the day and I’ll accomplish nothing. Throw in class, work, and the gym and I’m somehow more motivated to tackle homework or dive into a piece of creative writing.

    An undervalued aspect of having ADHD is the ability to shift between multiple tasks and projects, and college offers plenty of variety. I need structure to excel and worked a part-time job throughout undergrad while also participating in various clubs and intramurals. It kept me in a routine, helped me meet people, and deterred me from trouble.

College student photo available from Shutterstock

Succeeding in College When You Have ADHD

Kevin Sterne

Kevin Sterne is a writer and journalist based in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Health Magazine, and his health/medical writing has previously appeared with Psych Central, Better Mental Health Magazine and others. Kevin is the author of the chapbook I’ve Done Worse (Long Day Press) and his fiction has run with Drunk Monkeys, Jokes Review, Five2one, Full of Crow, Potluck Mag and others. He works in landscaping and does odd jobs to get by.

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APA Reference
Sterne, K. (2018). Succeeding in College When You Have ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 1 Oct 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.