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Apr 07, 2022

Picture this: You go from a 6:30am wake-ups 5 days a week to 10:00am ones. You go from six intense hours of pexels-monstera-6238056learning to a 50-minute class followed by a three hour break. You go from abiding by a curfew to being able to stay up as late as you want. These are the kinds of transitions that college freshman eagerly look forward to (and make all of us wish we were still in college!)

But the awesomeness of these transitions is often coupled with the loss of some strong support systems. No parent is there to wake you up when you sleep through your alarm. Mr. Larkin isn’t offering the 7th non-penalized extension on your history assignment. No one's driving down to your game to drop off whatever you may have forgotten

All of this means that college is full of cool opportunities yet it's also a minefield of challenges — especially if you're struggling with Executive Dysfunction and all the challenges that come with it, and even more so if you're one of the millions of students struggling with ADHD or other learning differences.

But that doesn't mean college is destined to stay miserable. Let’s take a look at a day in the Life of a college student with Executive Dysfunction and discover some practical ways to prepare for some common situations.

The Situation: So Many Places, So Few Classes!

One professor wants everything submitted through Blackboard. Another requires assignments to be submitted by 11:59pm on Sunday nights on some portal you've never used before. The professor for that English prerequisite class you never wanted to take assigns readings for each class, has an alternating schedule for writing a post on the readings, and then has a rotating schedule for how many times you’ll have to comment on other students’ posts. Some classes have tests. Some have papers. Some have both (how cruel!). If you struggle with organizational skills, mastering the differing expectations and routines for all of these classes will be overwhelming. How can you possibly juggle it all?

Some Solutions for Organization 

One approach to take is to plot out major due dates on a long-term calendar, such as Google Calendar. Then, add in reminders for each that go off at intervals: 5 days in advance, 3 days, 2 hours. This will help keep track the big stuff, like exams and papers, on your radar at all times. To manage the smaller scale tasks, like submitting weekly assignments to the online portal systems, you can set up recurring events on your calendar or on a reminders app on your phone that tells you what you need to do and when. Reminders can be annoying at first, but I promise you this - it’s much better to have your phone tell you “submit Intro to Business assignment onto Blackboard in three hours!” than it is to forget about it entirely and lose a half a letter grade in a course. Best of all? Once you've got the routine down, you can delete the alerts entirely.

The Situation: Too. Much. Work.

Once you sort out the routines for when and how to submit work for each class you’ll need to shift your attention to how you’ll actually manage to get all of that work done. 250 pages of reading each week between all your classes are just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface of weekly readings that may or may not damage your eyeballs, there are also two dozen papers to write and tests to prepare for. If your attention is anything like mine, it tends to wane after 20 minutes of work. Or, maybe you're like so many college students who struggle to actually start the work in the first place. In either case, you might find yourself binge-working a day or two before deadlines and then crashing the next day. This cycle might get you through midterms, but it’s definitely not sustainable and certainly not healthy. 

Some Solutions for Planning Work

One of the most useful approaches you can take is to use a Steps, Time, Mapping (STM) strategy. First, you figure out what steps you need to take to complete each assignment, then estimate how much time each step might take, and finally, map out on your calendar when you'll do the work. We have a great article that walks through this particular strategy in-depth within the context of managing student stress that you can read here.

Also remember that building in breaks or using increments to break up the work with an app like the  Pomodoro Timer can help encourage you to focus in short bursts, making a day full of work seem like tiny segments of awesome intellectual fury instead of one prolonged state of brain torture.

The Situation: "It’s Taco Tuesday, bro."

Just as you get those college-ready work habits in order, you might find other factors taxing your Executive Function skills. For example, Taco Tuesday is a weekly event at the campus dining hall and there's no way those new college buddies will accept a last-minute flake. Going is always a good time, but it also means at least two hours away from studying and work. Maybe that's fine as the one weekly distraction, but it's college... there's never ONE social distraction. After all, "Thirsty Thursday" means the whole floor of your dorm is guaranteed to be loudly making all kinds of questionable choices right outside your door - even though you have class on Friday morning. And these are just the social distractions - remember that you have unrestricted access to the entire internet, all of social media, and an endless supply of content to watch between all those streaming platforms. No matter what day it is, there will always be something that's way more tempting than grinding out that research paper or study session you've been procrastinating. 

Some Solutions for Prioritizing and Avoiding Distractions

Thankfully, your kindergarten teacher taught you that Wednesdays always arrive after Tuesdays, so you can use Taco Tuesday to your advantage. If you don't have a big assignment or priority that delicious tacos would distract you from, then Taco Tuesday your heart out! But if you're not so lucky one week, then the first thing that's needed is to set up boundaries with a countering mechanism that enables you to be disciplined with your time when needed. If you simply can’t tell your friends “no” in person, you can shoot over to the library early Wednesday afternoon, shut off your phone, and avoid the temptation altogether. Alternately, you could build in time for Taco Tuesday into your schedule. We often spend so much time scheduling our work that we might forget to schedule in some fun. Scheduling it in means that you can map out your workaround for that block of time - maybe using Monday and Tuesday more strategically - and feel less guilty about a midweek night filled with guacamole and sour cream.

The Takeaway for a College Student with Executive Dysfunction

College can be equally exciting and stressful for students with Executive Function weaknesses. The key is to remember that both academic and interpersonal situations that require strong Executive Function skills can be managed with strategic approaches and targeted tools. And if some accountability and guidance are needed to get those new habits in place, working with a qualified coach could mean the difference between a successful semester and finding yourself in academic turmoil at college.

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Podcast Banner (2) Executive Function skills are difficult to develop alone, so why not get some additional support? Our podcast  is filled with insights and advice to better navigate Executive Dysfunction at any age.

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photo credit: Shutterstock

About the Author

Brittany Peterson

Brittany Peterson is a college writing instructor, certified writing tutor, and senior executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart. She began her career in education at Quinnipiac University earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and Masters degree in Secondary Education. Feeling motivated to expand her pedagogical skill set, Brittany pursued a second Masters degree in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduating, she became a full-time lecturer at UMass Boston where she currently serves as the Assistant Director of Composition and teaches first-year composition to a diverse classroom culture including English Language Learners and nontraditional students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Brittany's experience with adult learners, diverse cultures, and a range of learning abilities has enabled her to become a flexible educator who is sensitive to individual learning needs and intrinsically invested in their educational success.

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