Studying with ADHD Common Challenges for College Students & How to Overcome Them

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Dr. Angela Reiter Read bio

Studying can be daunting and stressful for any college student, but for students with ADHD earning an A in class or on an exam can be especially challenging, even when putting in the same amount of study time as students without ADHD. This is because students with ADHD may need to study differently to comprehend and retain information. Learn more about how ADHD can affect a college student and get expert advice on how to study better.

The 3 Types of Attention Deficit Disorder

ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, affects many children and adults but unless someone’s been diagnosed by a doctor, most people aren’t familiar with the different types:

College students living with this type of ADHD don’t exhibit the fidgety, hyperactive symptoms most people associate with the disorder; instead, they are often perceived as dreamy, unfocused individuals who have a short attention spans and can’t see details easily.

Students diagnosed with primarily inattentive ADHD, present at least six of these symptoms:

  • Inability to pay close attention or a tendency for making careless mistakes

  • Difficulty maintaining attention

  • Appears not to listen

  • Struggles to follow detailed directions

  • Trouble staying organized

  • Frequently loses things

  • Easily distracted

  • Frequently forgetful, even in everyday activities

Students with primarily inattentive ADHD usually have a hard time focusing during class – especially in larger classes where external distractions are more likely – and prioritizing responsibilities. They are also likely to be disorganized and may frequently misplace textbooks, forget about appointments with classmates or professors, or miss exams. They typically spend far more time studying than other students, but their grades may not always reflect their greater efforts.

Primarily hyperactive-impulsive type is what most people imagine when they think of ADHD – someone bouncing off the walls, unable to be still or quiet. The symptoms are most frequently attached to children, but college students and adults can also exhibit hyperactive-impulsive behavior.

To be diagnosed with this type, students must present at least six of these symptoms:

  • Fidgety or squirmy, usually with hands or feet

  • Struggles to stay seated for long amounts of time

  • Continual restlessness

  • Excessive talking

  • Frequent interruptions or intrusions on others

  • Difficulty taking turns or waiting in line

  • Acts/feels as if they are being driven by a motor; unable to control outbursts

  • Often blurts out answers before questions are finished

Primarily hyperactive-impulsive types often struggle to sit through classes and are likely to be the student twirling their pen, tapping their foot or constantly readjusting in their seat. They may also overpower other students or even the professor, frequently interrupting lectures, talking over peers or not allowing other students the opportunity to ask/answer questions. Living with roommates could also be difficult for these students, as they may sometimes be unaware of social boundaries or considerations when sharing a small space with others.

As the name suggests, students experiencing combined type ADHD exhibit at least six symptoms of inattention and at least six symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. As a result, studying can be difficult and grades may suffer because these students may find it hard to focus, stay still, retain information and multitask or stay organized. Combined type is the most common form of ADHD and many different treatment options exist.

8 Study Tips & Strategies

College is very demanding and a student with ADHD may have a hard time keeping up with some of those demands, but it’s not impossible. Psychologist Dr. Angela Reiter offers eight study strategies for the most common ADHD symptoms among college students.

How to overcome it

When you receive your syllabus from each class, write down or enter due dates for all assignments and projects as well as all test dates in one central calendar as soon as you get home. Having this important information on one calendar for all classes can help students avoid mistakes and forgetting about important details when juggling four or five classes.

When it comes to note-taking, organization can make or break a student’s ability to understand and retain new information. A student may write down everything the professor says but can still be unable to identify key takeaways, main points and themes. To combat this problem, sit at the front of the class and away from distractions, and try different note-taking techniques such as outlining, lists, drawings or audio recordings. The format that allows you to quickly identify what’s important should be your go-to note-taking method.

How to overcome it

Make it a priority to maintain a consistent sleep schedule and routine each night of the week. Turn off all electronics one to two hours before going to bed, as the bright lights from computers and smartphones keep your body awake by reducing the production of melatonin.

How to overcome it

Set multiple alarms to wake up. Figure out how long you need to get ready in the morning and create a routine to keep you on track. You can even use programmable reminders on your phone or set up a playlist that is the exact amount of time you need to get ready in the morning. Playing this over and over can help your brain naturally learn which song goes with which step in your routine to keep you moving along.

How to overcome it

High school students with ADHD usually relied on their parents to keep track of activities, remind them of important things and assist if anything went awry in school. College students, however, won’t have as much access to their parents – especially if they’re living on campus. An ADHD coach or psychologist who is trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you improve your executive functions and put you on the track to success. Most colleges have a counseling center that should be able to provide an on-staff counselor or psychiatrist, but students can also go through their health insurance to find a professional.

How to overcome it

Procrastination is often a mental block, which means there are cognitive-behavioral techniques that can help students with ADHD break the habit. Try breaking tasks up into chunks and giving yourself step-by-step deadlines. For example, if you have to write a paper, give yourself one deadline to complete the reading and research and another deadline to write the paper. You can break this down even further by giving yourself multiple writing deadlines such as one for the first two pages, another for the next two and so on until you’ve completed the assignment. This can work especially well for those who work best under pressure.

How to overcome it

Multi-modal learning is one of the most effective methods for this issue. It is a creative learning process that combines auditory, visual and tactile learning techniques. For example, using a highlighter while reading, standing up while reading, studying with a classmate or listening to the audio version of a book while exercising. Explore different techniques to find what helps you battle boredom while studying.

To improve memory and better retain information – and to avoid having to cram and relearn material before a big test – set aside a chunk of time every day to review notes. You can also review notes with a classmate or record yourself reading your notes if you’re a stronger auditory learner.

How to overcome it

Regular aerobic exercise can help improve focus and executive functioning skills. If you play sports, try studying right after practice or a game. If you’re not an athlete, go for a quick jog or try ballet, yoga or tai chi – these exercises are the most helpful for students with ADHD, according to ADDitude.

However, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Signing up with a tutor or study group or even just asking a friend to study with you can help keep you focused. Many colleges have academic support centers to connect students with tutors and other resources.

How to overcome it

Rewards are often the most effective motivator for those with ADHD. If doing well on a test or earning an A on a paper isn’t enough to get you motivated and focused, ask yourself, “what would motivate me?”. For example, tell yourself “I’ll study for three hours and then go get a coffee,” or “After I study for two hours I can watch one episode of my favorite TV show.”

In addition to these strategies, students who have been formally diagnosed with ADHD also have access to certain campus accommodations such as note-taking assistance, extra time on tests, separate locations for testing, priority registration and permission to record class lectures. To utilize these accommodations, students must let their professors and the campus health center know about their diagnosis. They should also contact their school’s Disability Resources Office (or equivalent). Most require written documentation of ADHD from a professional (sometimes just a letter, other times a psychological evaluation). 

Where to Find Support

iHomework

Costing only 99 cents, this app helps students remember and keep track of class times, locations, instructors and assignments.

Simple Mind

This app, available for Apple and Android devices, is a mind-mapping tool that allows students to put their ideas into a logical formulation, build an outline and create a map for assignments and papers.

VitalSource Bookshelf

Students who struggle with reading regular textbooks – or often forget where they put them – can use this app, which makes it possible to access course materials from any mobile device or laptop. It also allows them to highlight passages and make notes.

Attention Deficit Disorder Association

ADDA is an international organization that works with adults with ADHD to help them live better lives. One of the specific areas of focus is the transition to postsecondary education, and the organization provides countless resources on this subject.

ADDitude Magazine

Since 1998, ADDitude Magazine has been a one-stop-shop for families and individuals seeking expert advice, support and helpful strategies for living with ADHD.

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

CHADD has supported individuals with all types of ADHD since 1987, including those who are in college.

Office of Accessibility

Most college campuses – and definitely all colleges that receive federal funding – have an Office of Accessibility, Office for Students with Disabilities or equivalent. This is the place where students can go to sign up for disabilities accommodations and work with professionals to figure out which types of accommodations will help facilitate their learning.

Student Success Center

At colleges with student success centers, students with ADHD can gain access to tutoring and other academic support services that will help them succeed and thrive.

Student Health Services

In addition to being the place where students can see doctors and refill medications, student health services also have on-staff counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists available who can help students to deal with ADHD symptoms and create effective management and coping strategies.