Dr Jessica Agnew-Blais, Lecturer in Psychology at Queen Mary University of London, gives her tips on making the transition to university for students with ADHD, or for those who suspect they may have it.
Starting university is one of the most exciting times in any young person’s life, and a period of personal and academic growth. It’s a time of greater independence – both living away from home for the first time and all that entails – and academically. There’s likely less ‘life organisation’ from teachers and parents, which a lot of students will welcome.
However, for some students, not having that same level of structure as at home and being part of the more self-directed study at university can sometimes present challenges. This may be especially true for students with neurodiversities, such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For some individuals, symptoms of ADHD that may not have been obvious in secondary school may start to present more of a problem at university, making adjusting to university life trickier.
ADHD is a condition that affects people’s behaviour, with common symptoms including a shorter attention span, impulsivity and hyperactivity or restlessness. In adulthood, people with ADHD can struggle with organisation and staying on top of many different tasks. At university, this could mean becoming more easily overwhelmed with reading and assignments, struggling to prioritise, and procrastinating so much you fall behind or feel very stressed. And with lots to keep track of when first starting university, it can all feel a bit much for some students.
It is estimated there are 1.9 million adults in the UK with ADHD. I have spent over ten years researching ADHD and how it is diagnosed and develops over someone’s life course, with many people (especially women) not receiving a diagnosis until they’re well beyond childhood. A big question that guides my work is who the people are who have this late diagnosed ADHD.
Here are my top tips for making the transition to university as smooth as possible for students with ADHD, or for those who suspect they may have it:
1: Find what works best for you
People work best in different ways. Some work best in the mornings for example; some people concentrate best in a busy café, while others need quiet. Some people remember best what they hear in a lecture, while others may need to write down notes to really get content stuck into their brains. It’s helpful to be self-aware of how you will be able to be most productive, even if there’s some trial and error involved. It’s also worth considering how you study best. Are you more productive on your own or with friends? Lots of people with ADHD find study groups or study buddies helpful, which can keep them accountable.
2: Try to plan ahead and break tasks down
Sometimes a deadline looming in the future can feel very scary and overwhelming, and we might just want to sweep it under the rug and not think about it. If we have an assignment we know is coming in the future, at the end of the semester for example, it can be helpful to backtrack before your deadlines. You can set an alert on your phone or circle on your calendar two months before things are due, then one month and so on. Sometimes a simple reminder that something is coming up can be all you need, and you’re less likely to have assignments piling up like dishes in the sink. It can also be helpful to try to break down tasks into manageable chunks. For example, if studying for a final you can make a list of the textbook chapters to go over and check them off as you go along so you can see your progress.
3: Be kind to yourself
It’s important not to be too self-critical. If you pull an all-nighter to submit an assignment right at the last minute, treat it as a learning experience for next time rather than a catastrophe. Bear in mind first year is much more of a time for experimentation and adjustment than your third or fourth year, so again don’t be too hard on yourself. University is more than just completing assignments—it is also about learning about yourself, how you work best, and what you are most passionate about!
Most, if not every student, develops and adjusts how they work between their first year and their last. You’re not the finished product the day you start and that’s okay.
4. Ensure a healthy lifestyle
Make sure when you’re working you take enough breaks and remember a healthier lifestyle will enable you to work better. Getting enough sleep, for example, will help you concentrate and better remember what you’ve learned. Some people find that physical exercise helps them focus better, and taking time away from screens to take a walk or a break can also support your mental health.
5. Ask for help if you need it
Don’t be afraid to ask for more help and support. Queen Mary has a disability and dyslexia service that can provide advice and support to students with a diagnosis of ADHD or who suspect they may have ADHD. The Library also provides support and training in Academic Skills including time management, academic writing, and math and statistics. If you find yourself feeling stressed and overwhelmed, please reach out to the Queen Mary Advice and Counselling Service. You can also speak to your advisor who can help you find the resources you need.
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