72: Tools for Success As a College Student

Tools For Success As A College Student with ADHD with Ryan McRae

72: Tools for Success As a College Student

Ryan McRae spent nine years as a resident director of a college campus.  During that time, he taught freshman seminar, a course that introduced students to the differences between high school and college and provided them with what he described as the “toolbox for college success.”  In this episode, Ryan shares some of his go-to tools for building a successful life through college and beyond.

About Ryan McRae

Ryan is an author, speaker, ADHD coach, coffee lover, and nerd. His most recent books are Ordering the Chaos: Simple Ways to Organize Your ADHD Life and ADHD and Conquering the College Campus. He is the creator and founder of, a website dedicated to helping people find the superpowers contained in their ADHD (  Ryan loves to read.  He’s currently reading The Martian, by Andy Weir.  You can reach Ryan McRae at [email protected].

Saying Goodbye to High School

So many life skills are built into the high school system.  One of the major reasons why students with ADHD struggle is because they no longer have the structure that high school provides.  High school runs by system.  It’s all very standard.  Classes are 50-55 minutes; the bell rings, and students have 5 minutes to get to their next class.  They’re told when to eat and when to exercise.  When students get to college, most of those structures aren’t there, especially if they’ve gone away to college.  There’s usually nobody waking them up to go to class or asking them if they did their homework.  Nobody tells them when to eat.  Nobody tells them to exercise.  It’s up to the students to identify and create structures they needed.

Recreating Structure: Mindset Matters

So much of what we do is driven by mindset.   Eric describes Ryan’s mindset around planning as one of determination.  Many people with ADHD struggle with time and task management and with creating a system of reminders that isn’t so easily ignored.  Ryan uses a system of iCal and Google Calendar and is determined to get the most out his day, rather than having his day get the most out of him.

Dispelling the Myth of Millennial Tech Super-Powers

Many people think Millennial students know how to do all things related to the Internet and mobile devices. That’s just not the case. Millennials may be great at downloading music, using social media, and searching for certain types of information, but when it comes sifting through what’s out there to find and then apply the tool or information toward better life management, they struggle.

Students often don’t know how, by way of the phone in their pockets, they can access something like, for help managing money. They don’t naturally know they can use If This Then That (IFTTT) to integrate their apps to save multiple steps from things they normally do.  The idea of using location-based reminders to alert them to give their parents a call when they leave their dorm room is surprising.

Calendaring and Reminders

Ryan tells his students to think of calendaring and reminder systems as a form of artificial intelligence that tells their future selves what they need to do to succeed.  He encourages students to put everything into their calendars and to create systems of reminders that their future selves will thank them for.  “If you automate this, you will have more fun and less management.”

Investing Time and Energy

Investing time and energy at the start of the semester can yield great rewards in time and energy later on.  For example, imagine getting a pop-up reminder on your phone that states you have a paper due in your history class in five days.  You can’t assume professors will be reminding along the way.  Setting up a system of reminders ahead of time can make a huge difference later one.

At the start of the semester, Ryan suggests that students go through their syllabi and put as much into their calendar and planner as possible.  He prefers using electronic calendars over paper planners, especially for those with ADHD.  When people use paper calendars, the tendency is to write what is due on the date that it due.  You could be writing that in weeks or months before the due date, and since the paper calendar can’t pop up reminders for you, you might forget about it until you turn the page for the month that it’s in.  By then, it may be too late to do your best work.  Some people regularly flip forward in their calendar and see listings for things due later, but seeing them doesn’t necessarily translate to all the things that have to get done to get it to that point.

Applying ADHD-Friendly Ways to Use Reminders

Put enough details in the reminders so that your future self will look at them and know what to do and when to do it by.  Dates of major assignments can be put into the calendar on the date due and at intervals prior to.  For example, if they had a paper due on March 27th, they’d get a reminder on March 13th that said “paper for so-and-so’s class due in two weeks.” On March 20th, they’d get one that said “paper for so-and-so’s class due in one week.”

People with ADHD often have difficulty breaking things down into smaller parts.  When creating a system of reminders, take time to think of the parts of the whole.  Ryan describes these as “micro tasks of major projects” and tells students to set up reminders for all of them, so they stay on track.

The brain can be a terrible reminder system, especially when ADHD is involved.  As Eric always says, the number one lie we tell ourselves is “I’ll remember that.”  Odds are good that you won’t, so plan for it.  Write things down.

Developing Relationships with Faculty

Use professors’ office hours.  There is an open-door policy to use that time for assistance. Students often do better in the classes where they took time to get to know their professors.  Developing relationships with professors will pay off.  Engage professors to find out what they really want. Professors often become more invested in the success of those who’ve spent time with them and regularly sought feedback.  Professors also have some discretion when it comes to assigning final grades.  Finally, relationships with professors can continue for years.

Practicing Self-Advocacy

Securing accommodations is different in college.  IEPs and 504 plans don’t follow students automatically. Students must advocate for themselves. College can provide a safe atmosphere within which to practice self-advocacy and engage in conversations about what’s needed to be more successful.   Social expectations are such that people think that paying attention means that we will be facing the speaker and nodding along.  So, if we have to do something like knitting or doodling to help us pay attention, it’s a good idea to let it be known so those around you won’t think that you are rude and disinterested.

Filling Your Plate: Chick-fil-A vs Vegas Buffet

Ryan uses the analogy that high school is like a Chick-fil-A.  You go into any Chick-fil-A franchise and you know what to expect.  College is like a Las Vegas Buffet.  There’s so much to choose from.  There are clubs, teams, and activities.  You get to pick what goes on your plate, but you’ve got to serve it yourself.

As residence director, Ryan dealt with disciplinary cases. He kept an empty plate in his desk just for the occasion when students would come in to discuss the impending matter.  He’d ask them what other activities besides classes they put on their plate.  The answer was always the same: nothing.


Don’t sit in the back row.  There’s too many distractions between you and the professor.  If you don’t want to sit in the front, fine.  How about the second or third row?  Don’t sit by the window.  There are too many distractions by the window.

Declaring and Changing Majors

It’s important to love/really like what you do. The ADHD brain does amazing things when engaged in something of interest.  Students often declare a major before starting college but spend the first few years taking general classes. It may be a few years before students get into the classes related to what they said they wanted to do with their lives.  How can they be sure they’re on the right track?

Ryan’s developed a clever way for students to decide if their major is right for them.  He’d give students a week to come back to class with the name of a podcast related to their majors. Some students returned saying they were unable to find one.  That’s a red flag.  If they’re not able to find something that would draw them in during their free time, then it’s probably not the right major for them.  They’re not interested enough.

Using Strengths and Knowing Limits

There are some things that naturally come easy to people and that people enjoy doing.  There are other things that take a disproportional amount of mental effort to do and can be utterly draining.  Knowing these can make a difference.  Many colleges offer assessments, such as Gallop’s Strengths Quest or Strengths Finder, to help identify areas of strength. The Gallop tool gives those taking it their top five strengths. From there, consider how to apply those strengths in other areas of life.  Ryan feels so strongly about this that he has declared this as his ADHD philosophy: Run with your strengths; delegate your weaknesses.

Finding a Time and Place to Study

Another one of the high school habits that college students need to kick is the idea that they can only study at night. High school days are structured to start at a certain time and end at a certain time and be filled with designated stuff in between.  In college, classes are spread out, sometimes with a few hours between. That between-class time is there to use.  Claim it for studying while your ADHD brain is already in study mode.  Willpower drains when going from study mode to recreation mode back to study mode, as would be the case if you were to go home between classes.  That brings up another point: stay on campus.  Use day time and campus time for studying. Reserve home time for other things, like fun.   Home time is for other stuff.

All-nighters are not worth it.  Cognitively, it’s too much to handle all-day continued study marathons.  The time isn’t effectively spent.  It’s like working out hard.  Imagine doing an intense workout in the morning and again in the night. It’s too much for the body.

Remembering You’re Human.

Humans make mistakes.  Ryan’s advice to students is to give themselves some grace and forgiveness when they make mistakes. Keep communicating with parents and establish healthy boundaries.  When students go home for break, it’s nice to give parents some time before heading out to hang with friends.

At the same time, parents need to remember that all kinds of students will make mistakes at college. Mistakes are part of the overall learning experience. What’s important is picking up after the mistake and developing the skills to move forward. It’s wise for students to know who their allies on campus are.  Often, this will be professors or residence hall staff.  There’s nothing worse than feeling alone on a college campus.

ADHD is a developmental disorder.  The 18-year-old student is really a 15-year-old student in terms of executive function skills.  Sometimes, a gap year, a reduced course load per semester, or going to community college before university is the best choice.  Every human’s different. J

Sporting the APPLE WATCH

If you listen closely, you can hear Eric drool over Ryan’s Apple watch. Ryan gave his feedback on some of the features that allow make it ideal for managing his ADHD. The Apple watch frees Ryan from his phone, which easily can become a rabbit hole for him.  His watch tells him about appointments and other reminders and lets him know who’s texting him.  It lets him know what direction he’s driving.  He’s able to run keynote presentations at a conferences from his watch. He can read emails.  He can use Siri.  He can use Evernote with voice commands.  He can use Apple Pay. He can summons an Uber driver.  He can be alerted to stand if he’s sat for too long.  His heart rate is constantly tracked.  He can use it as a remote shutter for the camera on his phone, and so on…and on…

Ryan says there was a learning curve, but for the most part, it was easy to adapt to.  The only down side thus far is that he sometimes forgets to put it on.  Okay…we get it.  Now you, reader, should wipe the drool from your chin, too.

Random Question Round:

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  • What is the title of the sequel to the children’s book you’re writing?

  • What is the title of the third book in the trilogy that started with the children’s book?

  • What is the first movie you ever cried at?

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2 thoughts on “72: Tools for Success As a College Student”

    • That can be true for many. But there are other devices and routines that can help college students talked about as well. Thanks for the comment.


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