I recently completed my Master’s degree after a break of almost 10 years.
After sharing my success story, I received several inquiries from other people with ADHD who are currently in university (and their parents), wanting to learn more about what worked for me, so I figured I’d compile the best tips that worked for me to succeed in university with ADHD.
I started my Master’s degree in my early 20s, with the goal of studying to be a therapist. My entire schooling was rather unconventional, and this was no exception – my degree was from the University of North Texas, but I attended it in the basement of all-girl’s school in Jerusalem. Long story.
The majority of the program was quite easy for me – I was very interested in psychology and found the coursework relevant and practical. Then I hit research methods and statistics. This was not interesting to me, and the teacher sucked. After trying several times to get through the stats course, I gave up.
I was going through a lot personally at the time, and this felt like more than I could handle. I wrote myself off as not being of university quality, and that failure hung over my head for years. I was inconsistent, someone who couldn’t finish what he started.
Fast forward 10 years. I had matured a lot, healed a lot, and my life circumstances had significantly improved. Randomly, a friend introduced me to the concept of adult ADHD, and suddenly so many of my struggles fit into place. With that newfound knowledge, I was able to better understand myself, learn more about how to help my symptoms, and seek out specialized help specifically for ADHD.
I felt very validated, understanding that my past failures had a bigger story than me just being a loser, as I had been telling myself. I experimented with medications. I worked with an ADHD life coach.
And I went back to school and aced that Stats course. I expected to just get a passing grade, instead, I got an A. A few months later, I was in Denton for the very first time in my life, graduating.
Below is some advice on how I was able to succeed in University with ADHD symptoms, and they are divided into three parts: Mindset, my attitude towards myself and the tasks; Productivity, practical tips for getting things done, and Studying, advice specifically for learning things.
How to use this article
This article is pretty long, so I invite you to skim it and start with the things that would be easiest to implement or that you resonate with the most. Learning to succeed in university with ADHD is a learned skill, one that you can better with over time. So you can keep coming back to this article to find new tips, or to remind yourself of what’s most important to you.
Mindset: Succeeding with ADHD
There were several ideas and understandings that helped me with my ADHD, some of which I arrived at myself and others which my ADHD life coach helped me with.
1. Compassion and Understanding
Firstly, just understanding myself and having a framework that explained so many of my different struggles, was really helpful. How come I was so good at hyperfocusing on some things, but couldn’t concentrate at all on others? How come I was good at starting things but terrible at finishing them? So many things suddenly made sense.
I was able to find compassion for myself and the many things that I struggled with that seemed to come effortlessly to other people. (I was also able to realize some of my unique abilities and superpowers, like creativity and the ability to dive deep, that ADHD people have).
I worked on forgiving my brain, which I had been so angry at for so many years. To understand that it was just different, and how much of that was outside of my control.
2. Saying No
I learned to say no. Saying no is one of the hardest things for someone with ADHD. Everything is exciting. Everything is interesting. Walking away from potential can feel like you’re leaving a part of yourself behind. But saying no to some things allows you to say Yes to the really important things to you.
When I work with ADHD clients, grieving the loss of all that potential is a big part of our work together. The unfortunate nature of reality is that any choice you make is saying “no” to every other possibility that exists in the world. People with ADHD are acutely aware of this, and how different it is from their creative minds where everything can co-exist effortlessly.
My life coach compared this process to staring at a fruit tree and being so overwhelmed with the choice of which delicious-looking fruit to pick that we end up not picking any and it all rots on the tree. I really connected to this analogy.
3. Connect to your Why
Find your deeper motivations. Many things are harder for people with ADHD. We need to dive deep inside ourselves to find the motivation to power through. My life coach helped me tap into my motivations for what I was doing – helping me prioritize which things in my life were more important to me, and understanding the bigger picture of what success in those areas would mean for me.
With ADHD, we can often get overwhelmed by the many day-to-day details that we face in life. My coach helped me reconnect to my bigger “Why” behind my Master’s degree – this wasn’t about stats. it was about completing my degree and being better able to help other people heal emotionally, which is something I am very passionate about. Remembering this helped me overcome hurdles that came up along the way.
4. Embrace “Good Enough”
Perfectionism is at the root of a lot of ADHD fears, especially the fear of completing things. This is another area where I do a lot of work my hypnotherapy clients.
Learn to accept the good enough. Lean into not being perfect. No one is perfect, and you might never be as good at certain areas of life (in others, you’ll effortlessly excel). I’ve resigned myself for never being particularly great with details.
Tim Ferris points out that often 80% of what needs to get done only takes 20% of the effort. Can you sit down and quickly bang out that 80%? It might take less time than you think.
He also points out that the importance you ascribe to things often makes them take longer and feel more daunting. If you can remember that in the scheme of things, any specific task is not life-changing (once you complete it, will you remember it a few years from now?), the less daunting it will be.
5. The One Thing
There’s a great book about this one simple idea, by the founder of the real estate empire Keller Williams. It’s a simple question you can ask yourself to find clarity in the clutter and hone in on what’s important for you to do today.
It goes like this: “What’s the one thing I can do, that if done, would make everything else in my life easier or unnecessary?”. This question is very practical, helping you hone in only what you’re currently capable of, while also prioritizing it for the most important task. Get in the habit of asking yourself this question multiple times a day.
Productivity Tips for ADHD (and Everyone Else, too)
There are several productivity systems that I have picked up over the years which help me every day in my work, and which helped me with schoolwork as well. Many of them are distilled from the books Getting Thing Done and the 4-Hour Workweek.
6. Stay Organized
It seems almost obvious to me, but it’s worth repeating. You cannot store information in your mind. You are not a computer, and your brain is not a good place to store information. You end up needing to repeat things over and over again and that takes up bandwidth you need for other parts of life.
At the root of being organized are a to-do list and a calendar. To Do lists for things that don’t necessarily have specific times, and a Calendar for things that happen at a specific time (and often, specific place as well). How you do this is a matter of your personal preference, there are many suggestions but ultimately it’s about what works best for you.
I love staying digital, so I have a to-do list app, a calendar app, and a general note-taking app where I capture things to refer to later (schoolwork, receipts, my monthly budget, it all goes there). Other people prefer pen and paper. Many people love the Bullet Journal method, for example.
There is no right way to do this. Just find the method that works for you. But one final warning, because I know you too well. Don’t alternate between different productivity methods each week. Find the method that is “Good Enough” and stick with it for a while. Make small changes to your system over time if you need to, but don’t nuke everything and start a new system every week.
7. The 2-Minute Rule
There’s a rule in productivity where if you can knock something out in less than two minutes, just do it. Otherwise, you’ll just need to revisit it all over again. Reading through your emails? Can you reply to each in less than two minutes, knock it out.
This is closely related to the “Don’t put it down, put away” principle. It’s worth taking the extra few steps to put something where it belongs instead of just putting it down and then needing to put it away later.
8. Separate creating from editing
It’s a mistake to edit or analyze your ideas while you are still capturing them. You use very different parts of your brain to create vs. criticize. So first dump all your ideas on the page, spelling mistakes and all, and later go back and figure out how to edit those sentences and thoughts to make them more coherent, and fix up those spelling mistakes in bulk.
9. Batch your work
Interruptions are the bane of ADHD existence. Many of us are more easily distracted, and we set ourselves up for failure if we choose to work in an environment that’s full of visual or auditory clutter.
Whenever possible, set yourself to be able to enter a flow state, the hyperfocus that you can often use to your advantage. Are you in writing mode? See if you can knock out entire papers in one sitting. Doing emails? Find one time of day and just knock them all out in order. Making phone calls? Make a bunch of phone calls at once.
How do you figure out what to do when? Realize that things depend on your energy levels and your circumstances. You don’t always feel like writing, so if you do, by Jove, sit down and write! Don’t waste that motivation on checking emails. Taking a walk? Now might be a good time to knock out some phone calls since you can’t be looking at your screen.
10. Clear to empty
You know the millions of tabs you have open? That pile of stuff on your desk? I can guarantee you that’s not where they belong. Figure out where they do belong and put them there.
Keep a list of all the articles you’d like to read. If you’re doing research for school, paste the relevant articles in the relevant parts of your schoolwork project so they are organized by topic and you can easily find them later. (Chrome even offers a “reading list” option now specifically to help with this)
Scan documents you need into your notetaking software and throw out the originals, or have an “inbox” box where you keep papers you need to attend to later. Keeping more than a few things on your desk as a “reminder” to do them is counterproductive, they end up canceling each other out.
At the end of the day, you should be able to completely shut down your computer so that the next day, when you open it up, you start with a fresh slate. There’s n nothing more overwhelming than being hit with all of yesterday’s ramblings when you open your computer all set to knock out that paper that’s due, like, yesterday.
I do this multiple times a day, closing all the tabs I no longer need that somehow accumulate as I do my work (on chrome, you can right-click a tab and select “close all tabs to the right”. You’re welcome). At the end of the day, or sometimes during the day if I’m feeling overwhelmed, I completely shut down my entire browser, figure out what I really should be doing right now, and then open it again from scratch.
11. Type or Dictate
Your brain works really fast. Figure out a way to get that stream of consciousness onto the page with as little buffering as possible. I can type really quickly, and it’s super helpful. Other people find dictating to be a lifesaver. There is nothing more frustrating to have all your thoughts trapped in your head and getting stuck on the way out.
School: Study Tips for ADHD
Here are some pieces of advice specifically for when you’re in school, to help you succeed in university with ADHD.
12. Identify Your Learning Style
You’re different than the people around you. This is a fact. So don’t look to them for guidance, or example, or to judge yourself compared to them.
Figure out what works for you, and do it. This requires experimentation and figuring out how you learn and get things done best. Do you prefer reading, videos, audio? My partner loves listening to audiobooks at 6 times the speed. I prefer skimming texts and watching videos at 2x the speed.
Do you like early mornings or late nights? (Let’s face it, it’s always late nights) I get my best work done when the world is dark and quiet, and no one is there to bother me.
Do you learn well in class, by trying things yourself, with a tutor? I found that I learn really well through tutoring. The tutor adapts to my exact area of knowledge, neither boring me with stuff I already knew, while being instantly able to address the parts that you’re stuck on without you having to stew in my juices of ambiguity and lack of clarity.
I hired a tutor to help me with my stats course and he made all the difference. Knowing I might find the topics challenging, I started working with him a month before the course started, to give me a head start. I would go on random tangents when we were studying, which helped me understand the information better. He rolled with my crazy way of learning, which many teachers can’t/won’t do.
Be unapologetic about the way you acquire and express your knowledge and then figure out how to get the university the results it wants while playing to your strengths.
13. Pursue your interests and the best teachers
We cannot afford mediocrity as many other people can. In a way, you can think of this as a blessing. When it comes to school, this means being extra selective of what you study and who you study it with.
Studying what you’re actually interested in can make the process feel almost effortless. Studying what you aren’t interested in, can be agonizing. Try to minimize those classes as much as possible.
Similarly, a good teacher, one who works well for you, can make the information interesting and accessible. A bad teacher can make you want to shove a spoon in your ear to distract you from the pain. I’m actually pretty decent at math, it was the teacher who originally taught me that really was not great.
Be unrelenting in the classes you choose, and don’t be afraid to drop them if they aren’t working for you. If you find a good teacher, see if you can attend multiple classes they teach.
It’s interesting to note that in undergrad, you often get more choices of teachers but are forced to study certain subjects you don’t care for, as prerequisites. In grad school, you are hopefully able to focus more on the topics you are really interested in but might have fewer choices as to who is teaching you those classes since the learning track is usually more narrow with fewer classes in total to choose from.
You’ll still probably need to power through some classes you don’t like, and that’s where a tutor or a coach can really help you get through them. But see if you can keep that to a minimum.
I’ll end with this: I believe ADHD is something we can heal from. ADHD is synonymous with trauma – either as part of its cause, as a result of going through life with it, or both.
For example, in my own healing journey, I had to process the countless years of my fundamentalist religious upbringing where I was forced to study through brute, mindless memorization, and how my brain screamed in protest every time something even similar to that presented itself in my current life.
As you enter adulthood and gain more autonomy over your life and how you go about it, this is your chance to begin to heal your ADHD trauma.
You now have the power to choose the life you want, to embrace your strengths, and minimize your weaknesses by choosing the environments and situations that are right for you. Learning to succeed in university with ADHD is just the beginning, the skills and healing you’ll gain from this will serve you well in “the real world” as well.
You now have the understanding to support your inner child with the compassion and resources it needed back then but didn’t get. You can give that to yourself now.
Check out these meditations I’ve created to help you specifically with the emotional healing part of your journey.
Best of luck to you as you navigate life, a life that is undoubtedly more complicated than many other people appreciate, but in which you have a disproportionate amount of gifts to contribute, in the form of creativity, resilience, open-mindedness, and much more. Take your time, the results will be awesome.
And if there is any way I can support you on your journey, don’t hesitate to be in touch.