How to Succeed as a Student With ADHD

Attending school when you live with ADHD means that you are faced with numerous obstacles that can get in the way of your goals. No matter how motivated you are to succeed, challenges with time management, disorganization, impulsivity and executive dysfunction may leave you feeling frustrated and unable to show off your true potential. 

Although school may never feel like an ideal environment for those living with ADHD — particularly college and university —  there are many tips and techniques you can use to clear up some of the noise and get more out of your school experience. This article gives you a series of actionable tips for improving your academic performance while managing your ADHD.

Published: July 21, 2023

Table of contents

    Study more efficiently 

    Due to differences in the ADHD brain, people living with ADHD find it more difficult to sit and quietly study. The ability to focus steadily, engage with material, and sustain that focus can be quite impaired. Even when you are interested in the topic or absolutely need to learn it because you know it’s on the exam, sometimes your mind simply won’t cooperate. The best way to approach these challenges is to learn more efficient ways to engage with your study material!

    1. Read it out loud: This might sound basic or even a little too simple, but many people with ADHD find that when they read material aloud while studying it sticks better. It may be due to the forced interaction, the increased stimulation, or perhaps we just like the sound of our own voices? Either way, this tip is pretty easy to implement and you can even try recording yourself reading to listen to later. 

    2. Go audio: Whether or not you are an audio learner, some audio will get absorbed. Find audiobooks of your textbooks, record your lessons,  or record audio of yourself reading the material to provide study material you can consume passively. Try combining your audiobook or audio lesson with an activity like riding your bike, doing pottery, or walking your dog to help increase the absorption even more!

    3. Get visual: Many people with ADHD are visual learners. It’s not uncommon to think in pictures and remember blocks of information exactly how you saw it written. Creating visual cues out of study material is an effective and (dare I say) fun way to learn. Experiment to find what works for you, but one common method is to grab a stack of coloured sticky notes and write or draw out important points. Add these cues around your living space to induce some passive learning. You can also use drawing, sketching or colouring during study sessions. By presenting the information to yourself in a new way you’re more likely to store it in your memory for later! As a bonus, you’re less likely to space out on your algebra if you have to draw the problem. 

    4. Create flash cards: Whether or not you use flash cards, the act of creating them is actually a fantastic study method. It’s a fun activity, you can use colour, and you’re forced to summarize important information. Take all of this one step further and you also have a stack of easy-to-access study material. If there is a lot of complicated material, you can also try making “cheat sheets.” The act of creating a cheat sheet helps you organize the most important information and store it in your memory for later use. 

    5. Get competitive: People with ADHD often tend to enjoy competition. The novelty, the potential reward and the challenge of the task are all pretty appealing draws to someone living with ADHD. You can capitalize on this fact by adding some competition to your study sessions. Try by adding in quizzes (you can often find them online or request practice quizzes from an instructor) or try a flash card contest with a fellow student. 

    Find your structure

    Finding structure with ADHD isn’t always the hardest part, it’s sticking with that structure. An ADHD mind craves novelty and doing the same routine over and over again can feel almost painful. In addition to the emotional burden of structure, symptoms of ADHD such as executive dysfunction and time blindness, can make it really hard to even begin structuring your life. So, now what? 

    1. Calendar(s): In addition to the calendar on your phone, try keeping a large whiteboard or something similar in your living space to help you track dates, deadlines, and appointments. colour-code it by writing when things are due in one colour, appointments in another colour, and so on. Set a time to do all of your scheduling at the beginning of the semester whenever possible. Crank up some music, pull out all your information and go to town on that calendar. You can then set aside an appointment with yourself every Saturday morning (or another day) to update your calendar weekly. Try adding lots of colour, stickers and things that make you smile so that your calendar is a personalized and happy place. 

    2. Progress tracker: Cramming is a common method of getting through school with ADHD. As any expert crammer knows, cramming is not exactly moving you toward peak performance. To avoid the stress and risks of cramming, try setting out smaller goals for yourself when you have a deadline. Make it easy on yourself by doing short study sessions (15 to 30 minutes) and keep track of your progress with a coloured chart. You’ll get a little of that sweet dopamine every time you add more colour to your tracker and you’ll teach your mind that not everything is all or nothing! Studying can indeed be done in moderation. You can build your own tracker or find a free one online. 

    3. Set a bedtime: Keeping a healthy sleep schedule is an absolute game-changer with ADHD, but it’s also really hard to do. You can start the “easy” way by sticking with a set wake time. If you keep consistent on your wake time, it’s easier to go to bed at night on time because when you don’t, you end up with a sleep deficit. Try to identify what keeps you up at night or sleeping in too late and find solutions. For instance, if you scroll too much on your phone in the evenings, put it away 30 minutes before bed and replace that habit with a new one. You might try making your lunch for the next day, drawing a picture of your day, or some relaxing yoga. If you really want to level up your sleep, check out this article

    4. Use your alarms: Using the alarms and calendars on your phone is one of the best tools you have for assisting with structure. Put in timers for your study sessions, add a daily meal or snack timer, put in your “wind down for bed” timer, and you can even put in a timer for “unstructured time” so that you get to have a little daily indulgence of some sort. 

    5. Pomodoro technique: One good rule of thumb is to use the Pomodoro Technique. You can modify the schedule to your tastes, but, in general, it consists of 20-25 minute “work” sessions followed by a 5-10 minute break. If you go past 4 sessions, try lengthening the break. Be strict with yourself about whatever window of time you choose and don’t be dismayed if it feels hard to work, you’re doing your best and you will get something done!

    Get unstuck by "eating your frogs first"

    One common issue with ADHD in academics is the feeling of being stuck. A popular approach to get unstuck is known as eating your frogs first. 

    Breaking down tasks into smaller and more achievable tasks is a common suggestion for taking on a big job. Sometimes, that’s also extremely overwhelming because there are so many small tasks to consider. One approach is to eat the frogs first!

    In this case, the frogs are the most important and most difficult tasks — which can also be the most unpleasant. To munch on those frogs, isolate the hardest part of the task at hand. If it’s a paper due, this could be the outline. If the task is studying for a biology exam, the hardest part might be memorizing a list of terms. Whatever that frog is, isolate it and get it done. This method often appeals to people with ADHD because it’s straightforward and challenging!

    “Swallow a toad in the morning if you want to encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day.” – Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794)

    Upgrade your environment

    The area where you study and work can have a major impact on your success. Follow these tips to help upgrade your space.

    1. Add sound: For some people, adding music to your study sessions can really help. Try different genres and maybe even explore some genres you wouldn’t normally listen to! If music isn’t helping, switch over to brown noise or pink noise which many people find stimulates their ability to focus. 

    2. Keep it clear: Your study space should be clear and clean. Even if the world behind you is chaotic, do your best to keep the immediate space clear so that all you see is the work at hand. 

    3. Go nomadic: Some people with ADHD find it easier to move into different environments when studying. If you absolutely cannot focus, maybe a move will help! Whether it’s a library stall, cafe, a friend’s basement or a park, try switching things up to get the job done. You may just even need to change rooms. You may also find that a walking or riding workstation is your jam. The point is, don’t be afraid to move around and test out some different surroundings. 

    4. Sit up front: During lectures and classes you can do yourself a major favour by sitting up front. This will limit the distractions in your eye line, give you easy access in case you have questions, and you’ll feel more engaged due to the proximity. 

    5. More is merrier: If possible, try to fill your study environment with peers! Finding study buddies can help with accountability and discussing the information will improve your ability to learn it more quickly and in an interesting way. 

    Healthy habits, medication and counselling

    You don’t have to face your ADHD battles alone. Getting professional help and guidance can be one of the most important steps for improving your school experience. 

    1. Counselling: Finding a mental health counsellor to talk to about your struggles can help you unload some of the burden and better navigate the road ahead. Oftentimes, your school will have counselling services available for free. 

    2. Medication: If you are prescribed medication for your ADHD, it can be pivotal in helping you conquer school challenges and implement new habits. Use a pill organizer to set aside your medication and set reminders on your phone to remind you to take it each day. If you often forget your medication, you can also try storing a few extra capsules somewhere safe such as your car’s glove box.

    3. Talk to your school: ADHD is considered a disability in Canada. As such, with ADHD you have the right to be protected from discrimination or unfair treatment because of your ADHD. You also have the right to seek accommodations that can help you succeed despite your challenges. Contact your school’s student disability services center to get more information and help with navigating accommodations. 

    4. Healthy habits: Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Do mandatory self-care every day – even one minute of breath work or silence can do wonders. Take time to exercise, whether it’s a nature walk, lifting weights, or playing sports. Just do something you enjoy! Also, make sure you do your best to incorporate healthy foods and lots of good protein so that your brain is getting the nourishment it needs. 

    Dealing with undiagnosed ADHD as a student?

    If you believe you have ADHD but haven’t had the opportunity to receive a diagnosis, Frida can help.

    Frida provides fast, affordable treatment for Canadians with ADHD, starting with a diagnostic assessment from an expert clinician. Once diagnosed, Frida will keep you connected with your clinician and fully manage your ADHD treatment, from prescriptions to check-ins — all from the comfort of your home.

    Learn more and take a free ADHD self-assessment here.

    Persistence is key

    Being a student with ADHD has many challenges that can not only impede your performance but keep you from showing off your potential. Learning how to study more efficiently, structure your schedule better, and optimize your learning environments can all help you work with your own talents to find success in learning. It may take some trial and error to find a system that works for you, but remember to work as a collaborator with yourself which gives you permission to be creative and have a little fun tackling tasks at school. Don't forget that if things get too overwhelming you can always seek assistance with school services, a mental health counsellor or friends and family to help you get over that hump.

    Lisa Batten, PhD, CPT, PN1

    Lisa Batten is a clinical scientist, therapist, and writer specializing in neuroscience and clinical pharmacology. She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology.