What ADHD Looks like in College

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I want to tell a personal story about what ADHD looks like in college. I hear variations of this story very frequently, and I know it all too well because it happened to me. College is a whole new level for many kids attempting to organize what can feel like chaos. Some kids with attention deficits have parents that learn to over function for them — to try and help them with something that doesn’t come naturally to them. My mom was this way as she was a teacher and worked with kids with learning disabilities. Some kids don’t have as much support and are forced to try and figure things out on their own and thus, they struggle earlier. Or maybe they have a parent who has the same difficulties and the same blind spots. The experience of College will test all kids, and for kids with attention deficits, this can sometimes be a tough challenge as it can also easily give rise to stress, anxiety, and depression.

For me, my first two years in college were very challenging. I didn’t know how to prioritize things. Organizing myself seemed like an idea more than a reality. I figured I was smart enough to find a shortcut on how to do things and that would buy me time. In college, I was most concerned with having freedom, pursuing my interests, and the blossoming social world around me. Sure I saw people studying, but I figured they were probably the most diligent students and I didn’t have to be one of them.

A typical day in college for me started with an alarm clock going off an obnoxious amount of times. I would throw on clothes and a hat to disguise my bedhead and run to class, almost always late. I have to imagine to a passerby it must have looked odd to see the same kid running across campus half awake to a class he was late for… every day. I was tired in lectures. I was rarely up to speed on my readings. I had this feeling that I could always spend time on weekends or vacations to get caught up on that… right before the tests. When I came late to class, I always felt bad about it. This even worse when the teacher would ask questions about the readings which I was behind on. I would talk with the teachers following class to show my interest and hope they would give me the benefit of the doubt when grading. Tests and papers were often the results of an all-night study binge. I promised I wouldn’t keep doing this to myself. I felt awful, and my brain felt broken while it was supposed to be performing optimally.

I was prescribed stimulants, but that created a whole other issue. Since I would often wake up late, I would forget to take them till later. I would take them in the afternoon, and they would keep me up late at night. If I had a test, I would take stimulants and caffeine together to try and knock out everything in front of me. In looking back on this, it created a scenario where I was like an astronaut tumbling in outer space. I had nothing grounding my sleep schedule, and the stimulants made it worse. My psychiatrist was out of town and saw me for an hour every six months, or so and thus he missed the issues. He didn’t know that my bedtime varied between 1 A.M. and 4 A.M. regularly. When I would sleep, I would crash for a long time, and this would cause me to miss classes as I would sleep through my alarm clock. All of this made me feel worse about myself.

What I truly lacked in college was a good accountability system and a firm blueprint for success that I had implemented, tested, and learned from. This is what helps to determine your trajectory. Growing up with ADD, I always felt like focusing on my ADD made me feel more stuck as it affected my self-esteem. My self-esteem spent many years in school being blasted for doing things late, getting off task, not following instructions, and all of this made me worry what else I might do poorly on. I will say it can get better if you reach out for help and slow down and try and learn one thing from each week you can do differently and work on implementing that.

What did I learn in college that helped me?

  1. I couldn’t study like other kids. My friends would study in their rooms or the halls of our dorm. I couldn’t do this to save my life. If there were anything which could distract me, it would. When I would start reading, I would often have to re-read the same page multiple times as my mind was distracted. To help with this, I had to go to the library, and I had to be in a secluded area or a study room. This was imperative for my success. I also had to battle plan for the library. I would pack snacks, Red Bull, and prepare to wage war against my desire to distract myself. Usually, this meant giving myself 30 minutes to an hour to be distracted and then pushing myself to start with something little, reading one paragraph or doing one math problem.
  2. Music without words helps. I found that studying came easier if I listened to certain bands that had music without words. My brain would tune out from the passage of time and help me to hyper-focus on my work. Today there are things like Focus at Will which make that process easier.
  3. I am bad at estimating time. I never knew how much time I really needed for homework or studying. The thing that helped me most here was two fold. I always tried to estimate it would take more time… but I still was bad at time management. I got a roommate that was a good friend and he was super diligent about studying and helped me to stay on track. When I saw him studying for classes we took together (I tried to match up our schedules as best I could), I knew it was time to hit the books myself. When I saw him getting ready for class, I knew I had to get ready.
  4. Exercise makes a huge difference. Running and lifting were two things that helped my busy brain slow down. When I started working out 4 days a week, my grades and ability to focus really climbed. I also felt really good about myself for doing this consistently. I had workout buddies in the beginning that met me at the gym which helped me feel more comfortable but after that, I got a good workout regime that I continued on my own.
  5. Eating healthy and having breakfast helps. There is a lot of research on this but I didn’t believe it till I started noticing the pattern within myself. When I ate a healthy breakfast which was high in protein, I could focus more easily.
  6. Caffeine is good but in moderation. In college I viewed caffeine as the hack that would help me focus all night. Boy was I wrong. I later began to use it to help me get over the afternoon hump at 3pm or if I felt a little tired in a class. That worked better and I didn’t use it after 5pm very often unless it was an emergency.
  7. Sleep is your friend. In college my sleep schedule was terrible. I had no idea how important listening to my body was and getting 8-9 hours. When I did start to get the hang of this, I noticed my test taking anxiety went down and my focus increased.
  8. Talk to your teachers. Getting my teachers to know I cared was helpful. By talking with them, they would offer to read papers before they were due to give feedback. This always helped with grades. I would also let them know about my ADD and that I might need extra time on tests.
  9. Join a study group. Certain classes are good for study groups. For me this was true for all of my math classes. I would scan the room for the person that was excited about their test grades and who the teacher called on that seemed to know what was going on. I would befriend them and we became study partners.
  10. Use every on campus resource you can for help. Many schools have writing labs, math labs, and tutoring resources for a wide array of needs. You just have to make the first step and reach out. I found that just asking for help and going there made the biggest difference. I was pro-actively working on things and this helped me to struggle less.
  11. Dropping a class may be a smart move. I dropped a couple classes in college due to the teacher being a bad fit or my class schedule feeling too overwhelming. This proved to be a wise move each time and it reminded me of the importance of carefully planning which classes I took. I began to utilize the disability support resources on campus to help me pick the right teachers and class load.
  12. Good notes are important. My notes were always a mess. I had a hard time keeping up with the lecture and my notes ended up looking like a Jackson Pollock painting more so than anything legible. I decided to find someone who took excellent notes and I would get a copy and then re-write them. I would also create tests for myself based from them. This also helped me to keep my backpack and binders more organized as I would model what I noticed what the other person did.
  13. The ADHD brain is like a Ferrari with bicycle brakes. Focus on the things that help you slow your brain down. Things like Headspace or a meditation class can help with this.
  14. Don’t beat yourself up. Life is a process of analyzing problems and learning from them better strategies for success. If you struggle in high school, college, the working world, or even your marriage, this isn’t a catastrophe. These are all opportunities to grow and we just have to scan for what is the one thing we can do differently.

If you need counseling or help with an attention deficit, please don’t hesitate to contact us to make a counseling appointment now so we can connect you with resources in the area and we do offer ADHD Counseling.