ADHD Student Struggles: My ADHD Journey Through College to Medical School

I’m so excited to bring you Neurospicy Nonsense’s first guest post from a fellow neurodivergent blogger, Dan! I asked her to share her story of battling ADHD student struggles and making it to medical school. With that, I’ll turn it over to Dan and let her tell her story.

Hello, Neurospicy Nonsense community! My name is Dan and I am so grateful to have had the privilege to be here as a guest blogger! Building a connection with another neurodivergent blogger has been so comforting and reaffirms the ups and downs of being a neurodivergent blogger and entrepreneur, which, by the way, will be something Arielle will be discussing on my own blog, Notes by Dan! I’m here to share my story of being a student with ADHD, and I hope you find it insightful or helpful somehow!

ADHD student struggles involve a number of different challenges compared to their neurotypical peers. These struggles include time management, organization, and concentration. From task prioritizing to time blindness, ADHD poses a range of challenges that can make academic success feel like an uphill battle. Trust me, I know from experience. From a late ADHD diagnosis to applying to medical school, I’ve had quite the bumpy academic road. However, even though it felt like all odds were against me, I’ve still accomplished my dream of pursuing a career in medicine. 

College Student Life with ADHD: Roadblocks and Challenges

When I started college, I felt overwhelmed by the abundance of opportunities available to me at my university. I was also adapting to my newfound freedom, having moved out on my own for the first time. Navigating college life with ADHD meant constantly battling distractions and struggling to manage my time effectively. Balancing academic responsibilities with extracurricular activities often felt like a juggling act that I wasn’t doing well at. On top of all this, I also had to work nearly full-time to cover all my living and medical expenses. 

Any mental health condition or anything that implies you have even slightly veered from normalcy has always been shunned in my traditional, Filipino immigrant household. I had started to suspect I had ADHD, but because of those worries about denial and rejection, I put off getting an evaluation for years. 

Adapting to Virtual Learning Through the Pandemic

Just when I felt more settled for my sophomore year, COVID hit. Transitioning to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic presented a whole new set of challenges for me. During the fall of my sophomore year, I had to adapt to learning over Zoom. This put my attention span to the ultimate test when I had to watch hours upon hours of lectures in my small, 300-square-foot studio apartment. Before the pandemic, there were times that I spent 12 hours in the library studying for my exams, though I’m not sure how much of that time was actually spent effectively studying. 

Still undiagnosed, I always felt like I was lagging behind my friends during study sessions. They could sustain their attention and focus significantly longer than I could. They had an easier time recalling things I knew I had studied. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.

Admittedly, even when college was still in person, I skipped a lot of my lecture-based classes. They were all recorded and uploaded online anyway, so I preferred to watch it at my own pace (2x speed, obviously) and be able to pause it whenever I needed to jot down notes. This helped me manage my time more effectively, and I would definitely still do this if I were in college right now.

Of course, this struggle to stay focused is merely scratching the surface of the realities behind ADHD student struggles. 

ADHD and the MCAT

Not long after I took my first Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), I received my ADHD diagnosis. This was about a year and a half after I had already graduated from college.

If I had gotten my ADHD diagnosis earlier, I can easily say  I would have faced far less trouble in college and saved so much time and anxiety.

I always knew in the back of my mind that I struggled a lot more than some of my classmates. I couldn’t remain focused for long periods of time and I struggled to manage my time in a way my equally-busy peers didn’t seem to. Whenever I was doing practice tests at home, I struggled to concentrate, and that struggle continued through the entire eight hours of the MCAT exam. I finally decided to get evaluated after I realized that my hard-earned knowledge, hours of study time, and understanding of the material were not correlating to higher test scores.

Once I started taking ADHD medication (thank you, Ritalin), my focus and productivity increased, and when I retook the MCAT a few months later, I scored much higher. I moved up from the 64th percentile to the 90th percentile, to be exact! Fast forward a few months, and I was accepted into multiple medical schools.

Struggles That Students with ADHD Face

With my diagnosis came the understanding of how my ADHD had been impacting my studies for years. Students with ADHD (or any neurodivergent student) may face more roadblocks in learning than their neurotypical peers. Usually, college study tips only take neurotypical students’ study habits into account.

All of the study tips in the world simply won’t work if your neurotransmitters aren’t working right to transfer the necessary information through your brain. This is why the CDC discusses the following accommodations be offered to make learning an ADHD-friendly experience:

  • Additional time on tests
  • Individualized instructions and assignments
  • Positive reinforcement and feedback
  • Utilization of technology for assistance
  • Break time
  • Changes to the environment to aid focus
  • Additional assistance with organization support
  • Flexible deadlines

Of course, each individual may need different accommodations based on how their ADHD symptoms impact their learning experience. Make sure you are aware of your educational rights whenever you are thinking of requesting accommodations!

ADHD Studying Difficulties

Here’s a list of some things that can potentially be more difficult for ADHD students compared to neurotypical students.

Sustaining Attention

A person with ADHD may find it difficult to focus for prolonged amounts of time, especially on repetitive or boring tasks. In contrast, neurotypical people can typically focus for longer periods on tasks. This is something I struggle with quite a bit, but having a diagnosis (and medication) has been really helpful. 

Time Management

Some people with ADHD may also face difficulty with time management. More specifically, “time blindness”. It can be easy to get hyper-fixated on one thing and all of a sudden, you’re late for class. I’ve definitely made that mistake before, and probably will in the future.

Staying On Task

While people with ADHD may find it difficult to start and finish things because of their impulsivity or distractibility, neurotypical people may face little to no trouble starting and finishing tasks. Further, individuals with ADHD may struggle with task prioritization, task initiation, and task completion.

Listening Skills and Note-Taking

Similarly, while neurotypical people can typically listen intently during lectures or debates, those with ADHD may find it difficult to focus and actively listen, which can cause problems with knowledge retention. This was especially difficult for me during Zoom University! 

People with ADHD may also find it more difficult to focus, have delayed processing of information, and struggle to summarize concepts, which can lead to some questionable note-taking.

Staying Organized

Another common ADHD struggle is staying organized, regularly misplacing objects, and forgetting deadlines. Neurotypical people, on the other hand, may find it easier to maintain organizational systems and can keep better track of assignments, deadlines, and resources.

Test-Taking Strategies

People with ADHD may find it difficult to maintain concentration during tests, manage their time well, and retain material under pressure. This was a huge issue for me when I was taking the MCAT! At some point, my brain can only manage so much screen time and stay focused before my brain tries to take me somewhere more interesting. 

Regulating Impulsivity

Although people with ADHD may suffer from impulsivity which can lead to issues like blurting out replies, interrupting others, or acting without thinking through the repercussions, neurotypical people are typically able to control their impulses. I admit, I have an issue with impulse buying on top of the never-ending battle to not interrupt.

Managing Distractions

While neurotypical people can usually block out distractions and maintain their attention on the work at hand, people with ADHD may find it difficult to do so, which can result in lower productivity and focus during studying sessions.

Handling Transitions

People with ADHD may find it difficult to transition between projects or activities (task-switching) and may need additional time and assistance to do so, neurotypical people usually adjust to changes in attention with more ease.

My Strategies for Success Against ADHD Student Struggles

Find The Best Study Environment for You

Overall, group study sessions never worked for me. Having a large group of people was often too overstimulating for me, and therefore distracting.

At the time, I hadn’t yet figured out the best study habits that worked for me but one of my biggest academic regrets from college was not learning how to say no to these extended study sessions.

For me, the ideal study group consisted of two to three people.  This was small enough to reduce distractions while still providing enough accountability.

However, some of my other friends with ADHD prefer to have bigger study groups because there are more people to hold them accountable in each session. I guess it really just depends on the people you invite to the study session.

It was also worthwhile to have a change of scenery or environment during my solo study sessions. Going to cute, aesthetic coffee shops always gave me so much more motivation than studying at my desk at home. It’s also a bit easier to be aware of time blindness when various people are coming in and out.

Manage Tasks Effectively and Efficiently

It already took a lot of mental effort and concentration to manage ADHD while trying to meet the obligations of academic life. 

I wish I had realized that earlier and treated myself with more empathy, realizing that I was already using all of my mental energy and willpower to try to merely survive.

I always had a mini-freak-out session after big projects were assigned. When I broke down each of these big assignments into smaller chunks, it helped make the assignment much less daunting. By doing so, I also found myself better able to stay focused and on track, because huge projects no longer seemed as intimidating as before.

I made this task prioritization worksheet, and it has been my holy grail for getting things done!

Take Advantage of Academic Resources

For college students facing ADHD student struggles, seeking help when needed can make a significant difference in their academic success and mental health. 

Asking for help, whether it’s attending office hours, seeking tutoring, or reaching out to support services, is not a sign of weakness but rather a proactive step you are taking towards managing challenges (which are all, totally valid!) effectively. These resources can offer personalized guidance and strategies tailored to your unique learning style.

Maybe I could have avoided getting to that point of total exhaustion if I had only allowed myself to ask for help. These resources are in place for a reason!

I spent a lot of time with teaching assistants and in professors’ office hours if I had any questions. This enabled me to get personalized, one-on-one explanations, which was incredibly helpful in helping me understand the course material and making sure I understood assignments correctly.

There is a whole team of people that want you to succeed, whether they are your friends, instructors, or tutors. I made the mistake of letting pride get in my way of asking for help for too long. Don’t allow pride to do the same to you!

Maintain a Healthy School-Life Balance

Burnout is no joke. After I graduated from college, I took three years off because I was so exhausted. The signs of burnout were there, subtle at first but increasingly impossible to ignore as time went on.

Throughout college, it is so easy to be caught in this constant pursuit of accomplishment. I discovered that, as an ADHD student, I had to constantly push myself to make deadlines and do well in my classes in order to keep up with the demands of my academic workload, much more so than some of my peers. 

Looking back though, I see that I should have put my own health first rather than being so focused on achieving perfection.

I understand now how important it is to pay attention to my body and mental health, set healthy boundaries with myself, and cut myself some slack. 

In addition to personal growth and education, college is a time for self-discovery and introspection. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too!

You Are More Than a Diagnosis

I remember being so hesitant to start taking medications because I didn’t like the idea of relying on a pill to function properly. 

I thought to myself, “If other people can function normally without pills, then I can, too!” 

Then, I came to realize that even though I may need medication to feel fully functional and capable to take on the day, that’s okay! 

If this system is what I need to succeed, then that’s okay.  

Give yourself more grace. Everyone finds college challenging, ADHD student struggles or not. Find what works best for you, learn from your mistakes, and be sure to celebrate your wins.

Carrying a diagnosis does not dictate your capability or potential. 

My little ADHD pill has been crucial to my success. What’s yours?

Are you looking for more ways to achieve success despite your ADHD student struggles? Check out my other blog posts for more ADHD support, tips, and strategies!

Building Habits with ADHD: 7 Strategies You Need to Try

9 Organization Hacks and Tricks for People with ADHD

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