Today I’m going to share the strategies I used to get an entire bachelors degree before I was diagnosed and medicated for ADHD.
Keeping up with college assignments is a task that is complicated by the number of classes taken each semester. Keeping everything straight may come naturally to some, but I need to over-organize to compensate for my executive dysfunction.
But organization can only go so far. For this to work (not just this particular system, but succeeding in life overall), you are going to need self-discipline to do the things. And as the saying goes – you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Same here…but we are each a horse. We can only set ourselves up for success so much before we have to put in the effort to succeed.
So here’s the system I used to manage my assignments in college. This helped me stay on top of all of my homework, and in the end I graduated with a high GPA. Yay!
I can talk for days about why I love higher education, and why I think everybody should go to college for a few years. But that’s not the point.
You are in college.
You are taking at least one class that requires something being turned in at a certain time.
You want success, because taking this class again to overwrite a failing grade takes time and money, and we don’t have time for that; you need to get it good enough the first time.
I get it. (But also, you really can re-take classes and replace failing grades, I did that a few times.) For the record, I wasn’t a traditional student. I was a 27 year old freshman, and it took me six years to complete my bachelor’s degree. I understand that a lot of people don’t want to be the eldest freshman in core classes – but I have two thoughts about that. One – traditional-age freshmen are far more concerned about themselves. Your job is to radiate confidence and wisdom. Two – once you actually graduate, nobody cares about how recently you graduated (for the most part); unless your degree is undeniably new, people just assume that you went to college immediately after high school.
The system that worked best for me was this – I recorded every single assignment (in order received) in one journal. I forced myself to complete two or three of those assignments every single day, including the weekends.
When each assignment was completed and turned in, I wrote a line to strike through those details. I loved watching each page of the journal fill up with stricken lines. Needing to buy a clean journal was even more satisfying.
The actionable checklist-
□ A lined journal
□ Class abbreviations
□ Writing utensils
□ Commitment to carry this journal to every class
□ Commitment to write each assignment
□ Commitment to complete at least ONE assignment each day
The Actual Journal-
Any journal will work just fine. It’s just like buying underwear; you’re going to touch it every day, so you should get what you like.
I recommend a lined journal, and I prefer pocket-sized soft sided journals. I generally prefer small things and I like that small pages fill up faster so I can use more pages each month. If you have zero preference here, go buy a lined or gridded Moleskine and start there. Buy whatever size feels good in your hands.
This is just for space saving, but it’s really up to you. If you want to write “History of the English Language” instead of ENGL, that’s fine. It’s your choice, your journal, and your precious time.
This is obvious -but it’s necessary- so I’m including it. You’ll need something to write in your journal. I prefer cheap ballpoint pens because I can buy them anywhere. You are free to use any writing utensil that is convenient for you to use in class.
Commitment to Carry-
This is the easy part, but also the most important. You must take this with you to each class. Don’t trust yourself to “write it down later” let this journal be your external brain that remembers your assignments for you.
Commitment to Write-
When you are given any homework assignments, you need to record it in your journal.
Write the assignments simply in the order received. Don’t divvy your journal into sections for each class – that complicates things because the assignments will be scattered. Centralized assignments are easier to maintain because it’s an immediate bird’s eye view of what you need to do. That’s part of the magic here – each time you record an assignment you are forced to see other things that are due. When you mark assignments complete, you are reminded again. It’s hard to forget assignments that you constantly see. So writing things down in the first place is essential so that you can see it all.
[But what if you’re given assignment details early, like a big project due in several weeks? Easy. When the original page of assignments is stricken, just re-write the assignment on the next blank page, or next available assignment line. This way the assignment stays visible because it’s still upcoming, and it won’t get lost in the completed past.]
Recording due dates is up to you. I recommend recording due dates in the beginning (of you using this journal, not necessarily the beginning of each line), then experimenting with the placement and style, and determining if you really need them. Sometimes you don’t – it depends on the class.
Commitment to Complete-
I say that the bare minimum is one assignment, but this obviously depends on how many classes and assignments you have.
When I was taking 12 hours a semester, my goal was to complete two or three each day. At minimum I turned everything in ON TIME, and sometimes I even had something ready before the due date – this is super great for two reasons. Having something ready early is worth celebrating overall, but depending on what it is, you might be able to send it to your instructor for feedback before turning in the final version. Not all instructors have time to give one student early feedback, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if you’re able to apply edits. Don’t ask if you won’t change the final product.
I preferred to do my homework as soon as I got home, otherwise I would lose my scholastic momentum. Again – as an adult student I never lived on campus, so this will look different if you do live on campus. Sometimes I would do homework in the library, but not often because I would rather be in my home so I could aggressively drink coffee and use the restroom as frequently as needed.
Making time for homework is just as important as making time to go to class. It’s essential, and will look different for each student. If you don’t know what works best for you – try different things and learn what works (or doesn’t work). I prefer solo homework because I am easily distracted and thrive with regular doses of solitude. Other people succeed with ‘body doubles’ and prefer to work around other people who are also studying, and still others operate best with one on one attention and interaction like a tutor. Sometimes I would do easy homework in public, just to mix things up and show myself that I can do light work with divided attention.
Two final thoughts.
— ONE. Let’s say that finals are nearing, and those big projects are getting attention. Your Big Project due date is weeks away, and you know that you need to give it more time; it CANNOT be complete in one afternoon (for a good grade at least). But there are no in-progress checks or due dates – what do you do?
Surprise – this is an example of school life mimicking real life; you need to learn how to pace yourself to get the work done and be ready on time. This is super easy with this little homework journal -give yourself deadlines- and stick to them as if they were external. This requires a little preparation, but it’s easy.
Let’s say that the Big Project is an essay, and it’s due in six weeks. When you sit down to do your homework, break down this Big Project first. Grab a scratch piece of paper and just write down each step that you know you have to do, such as
- Read source material
- Pick main topic or thesis
- Find supporting resources
- Find opposing resources
- Clarify or refine thesis
- Triple check resources & formatting
- Turn in Final Big Project
My example gives eight big steps to complete in six short weeks. I used a calendar and let holidays or special events guide me. Specifically, I would give myself small due dates just before any holiday or weekend – so I have something extra to celebrate. If your calendar is otherwise open, just space the pretend due dates evenly until a few days before the actual project due date – it’s wise to give yourself a few days of buffer time between the actual due date, and when you can turn in the Final Big Project because that’s when computers die or when printers malfunction.
[Double check your school’s resources. Writing Labs exist to help students, and Big Project Season will be busy. If you need a passing grade on Big Project, take your paper to the Writing Lab and get their opinion. It’s very likely that they will catch errors that you missed, and can help your Big Project really shine.]
Regardless of the details the process is the same. Break Big Project into small bites, and distribute them between now and the due date. Force yourself to work on it often, and treat the small bites like any other homework. If your executive function is getting in the way and you cannot figure out small bites, ask your instructor for help. It’s always okay to ask for help.
— TWO. One of my professors saw things very simply, and shared this tip. “College is easy – just go to class, and do the work. THAT’S IT.”
Go ahead and roll your eyes…but it’s true. Collegiate success really is that simple. It’s one of the reasons that I prefer in-person classes, because even if a class time wasn’t super productive, you were there and your instructor noticed. Doubly so if you were an active participant or asking interesting questions. Doing the work is just that. Prioritizing school and the things you must do to earn the degree you seek. Yes – doing the work to earn a degree is more than two things in total, but it really is as simple as doing two things again and again.
That’s all for today; I’ll be back with a new ADHD topic when I can. You can subscribe and have new content delivered to your inbox, or you can just bookmark the following link ☞ for my entire ADHD Series. You can directly reach me by commenting below.