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A Perfectionists Guide on What (Not) To Do At University: 5 Things I Wish I’d Told Myself Before I Went

Hi All,

I decided to make this short guide because many of you are bright, intelligent people, who’ve had hard starts in life. As a result, you’ve struggled in the education system and it has left you with the belief that you cannot succeed in academia. This is simply untrue, and I am living proof.

I’m a third year History undergraduate who has made it to the final term of the final year (the dreaded dissertation looms) at a Russel group (Ivy League UK equivalent) university – on track for a 2:1; a pretty decent grade!

What makes this EVEN MORE REMARKABLE is that I did it all with very little support and WITHOUT MEDS.

Ok, so that’s me, but I wanted to tell you all why I think I need to give some advice on this subject. My experience, because I pushed myself so hard, was miserable. As a perfectionist (a personality trait I highly recommend NOT adopting) I worked so hard on the degree that I didn’t live. I pushed away relationships, exciting opportunities and virtually anything that made me happy in the pursuit of completing the course to a satisfactory level.

This is a TERRIBLE way to approach university as an experience, and I implore anyone thinking that they will approach it in the same way to reconsider! You are worth more than this piece of paper, and your happiness should not be bound up in something that will cost three years of your life at the expense of real human experiences.

The point I’m trying to make is this: You can go to University and be successful/ happy, but make sure you build support networks, take advantage of disability services and staff who will help you, use your family and friends to keep you accountable, and find your own methods of learning, don’t follow what you see others doing – it most likely won’t work for you!

Here are five things I’d tell myself if I was starting again from scratch (the very thought boggles the mind):

1. This degree is not a reflection of your personal abilities, rather a reflection on your ability to pass as neurotypical.

You MUST separate yourself from the idea that universities are assessing YOU. They are not. You are different and you have your own skills and abilities that often fall outside the range of assessment at educational institutions. Many of you are excellent analysts and problem solvers, some of you are excellent verbal communicators and excel in presenting information to people. Nearly all of you are exceedingly charming, a quality MORE THAN REGULARLY lacking in University environments. Your ability to read fast or spell well are not your strengths and so what? Yes, you’ll need to do both at university, but make sure you really reflect on your strengths as you go along – don’t invest your self-worth in your ability to read quickly and retain written information on demand.

2. Build a support network and make sure it is water-tight!

If you want to end up succeeding at university, you need a strong and stable support network, both in terms of your relationship to the university disability services and familial/ friend connections to lift you up emotionally when things get hard. I had a very hard time with this and if you cut people off, you’ll end up withdrawing more and more from your life and degree. So before you go, take stock – count up who it is you can count ON. Ask the university what they do for students with learning differences, ask to speak to representatives, come loaded with questions and take their responses very seriously into consideration when you choose the university degree for you. You deserve to be supported during your time at university and indeed ALWAYS.

3. Look after your BODY.

I can’t stress this enough. One of your highest priorities at university should be the regular administering of exercise, good food and even yoga/ meditation/ BOTH. We with ADHD are absolutely higher risks for illness under stress than the average person. What is more, our brains are as good as our bodies. Really, it’s true! Our ability to focus and learn is directly linked to our physicality. The more physically inactive we are, the less we can cope with the attention demands of the course. Some of my best work was done when I was in a regular gym routine, taking vitamins/ minerals and working on eating high protein, low carb meals, regularly spaced. The times when my work was worst or indeed the most stressful were those points where I relied on fast acting caffeine and high-sugar snacks to give me the energy I needed to get through the stress of impending deadlines. The more stressed I was, the less exercise I did and the more crap I ate. It’s a cycle of reinforcement that you need to keep an eye on at all times. I constantly got sick following these high stress/ poor diet/ exercise phases and that can be very demoralising over time. Don’t let it happen to you!

4. Find your own learning style.

From my own experience, underlining text, listening to lectures and passive reading of books are HORRIBLE ways for the ADHD brain to assimilate information. What worked best for me was to read and take notes as I went. Sometimes I would copy relevant passages verbatim, other times I would read a passage and summarise in my own words on paper. The important thing to remember again is the physicality. Because writing on paper involves movement, we process this information much more effectively than we do when we underline phrases or listen to lecturers – it’s even more effective than typing on a keyboard. Pen and paper is your friend and ally at university and you should also experiment with other ways that you can incorporate physicality into your degree. For History it made most sense to do as I did above, but for science degrees and more practical subjects, getting hands on as often as possible will make the information much easier to digest. Experiment, play around with it, find your own way, but NEVER rely on or expect neurotypical learning methods to serve you.

5. Find your tribe / work on your passions.

This was something I sorely missed out on at university. I never made many friends and I wish that I had. ADHD can be an extremely socially isolating condition for people and we need to acknowledge that. Nevertheless, I don’t want you to feel alone like I did, so please make the effort to put yourself out there and meet people. It might feel scary or difficult at first, but you deserve to feel connected in an environment that often feels extremely jarring for many. I personally found an outlet in drawing and writing. When I was stressed or overwhelmed I would retreat into my room and draw on my tablet for hours. I’m not brilliant at it, but it calms me down, gives me something creative to do, and builds a skill that might come in handy in the future! Find your own passions and USE THEM to escape from time to time. It is not healthy to think about university for three whole years of your life. Find your tribe, find your passions, let them consume you sometimes and forget about university at least occasionally. Your happiness and well-being is more important than the piece of paper you end up with in the end.

Afterword:

I hope some of these tips help you. I’m happy to answer other questions if they come along. The experience is a tough one and I won’t tell you that it will be easy, but part of the reason I wanted to learn in the first place is because I respect the experiences of people who came before us, and passing the baton of experience to those who are starting out feels important. I want you to have the best experience you can possibly have and avoid as many of the pitfalls that I have experienced as is humanly possible for you.

You are not defined by the establishment, so establish your own definition of education and hold onto it throughout. You’re good enough to do this, and you deserve to pursue your intellect at its fullest despite your ADHD. Look after your body, be looked after by others, learn how to learn in your own way, find your tribe, find your passion, and detach your self-worth from your academic achievements. These are pillars to live by at university, and I hope they serve to house you securely as you learn and grow as a person. Good luck. If I can do it, so can you.