Finals Week and the ADHD Brain

Dealing with ADHD in academia is hard enough; dealing with it during finals can be downright traumatic.

By Mari Landgrebe, Texas State University


Finals week is both frustratingly stressful and nervously exciting.

All that’s left are a few exams, maybe a paper or project, and it’s over. With no more time spent having to go to class, there’s more time allotted for each exam, and when the last test is turned in you can promptly forget everything you had crammed into your head the night before.

For someone with ADHD, it can be a terrifying nightmare.

ADHD is slightly different for everyone who has the disorder. It manifests itself in different ways between girls and boys, women and men. Some people are hyperactive, while others are extremely quick to visible bouts of stress.

The biggest struggle in describing the effects of ADHD, in general and in terms of finals, is that it all sounds like what every student goes through. The important thing to remember, however, is how students with ADHD manage their minds and how that changes the way they learn, interact and conceptualize.

The main underlying struggle for many students with ADHD is the impending lack of structure.

No More Learning Time

The week or so before finals begins the steady buildup of anxiety for folks with ADHD. The gratitude that there’s no more content to struggle with is tempered by the awareness of how much there is you still don’t get and how little time there is left to understanding it all.

ADHD makes it hard to learn, and that sentiment drills down to the fact that it often simply takes longer to learn something. The sheer effort to direct the brain to learning calculus theorems versus the entire backstory of “Lord of the Rings” is a war of attrition, an epic series of battles between the joy of fictional lore and the anxiety of not doing what you’re supposed to be doing.

Finding a workflow is deviously difficult, even in the best laid out study area with all preparations made to minimize distractions and maximize efficiency.

But it doesn’t take much to pull an ADHD brain from the task at hand.

A split end can distract a woman from going through the flashcards she did manage to make; a loose thread can cause a guy to unravel his shirt instead of the block of code that won’t compile.

Folks with ADHD are aware that they’re off course, and that can be just as distracting as the kid mumbling definitions under her breath at the next table over. What could have taken three hours will likely take closer to six, or more. It’s not a lack of time management per se; it’s trying to get the brain to cooperate during the time that’s left.

No More Class Schedule

College classes don’t hold much of a constant structure from semester to semester. It’s not like high school, where you go to the same campus Monday through Friday for eight hours a day. High school has the comforting structure of a regular, salaried office job. College does not.

For someone with ADHD, it can take an entire semester to get the rhythm of class timing and mental fortitude synchronized at a level they know they can succeed in—if only it weren’t for their brain’s propensity to try to take in and analyze everything around them.

The structure of going to class or having homework due every week at a certain times helps someone with ADHD identify the fluctuations of extreme distractions and better mental capacity. College may not offer much of a steady, daily routine, but it still forms a reliable cycle each semester.

What It’s Like Having ADHD During Finals Week

Image via Student Loans

When finals week starts, classes are over. More often than not, finals are scheduled for a date and time that doesn’t correspond to the date and time the class was held for the entire semester. It’s a mindfuck that, to varying degrees, diminishes test-taking abilities. If you’re lucky, all your exams are later than the class would have been, so maybe you can wrangle your brain into studying enough to pass.

A New Semester Cometh

Having a couple of months off seems great, until you realize you have to come back and start the process all over again. The relief of resetting over the break is offset by the knowledge that college schedules are never quite the same between semesters; it all depends on what classes need to be taken, when they’re offered and if you got to register early enough to get the best class times for your particular ADHD brain.

It’s not just the schedule, either. Sometimes, the people in your classes make a difference too. With every semester, there’s bound to be a new mix of kids, especially if you’re not in your major classes (or there are a lot of electives for your major). Now you have to spend time understanding the dynamics of a new class cohort. Sometimes a person, through no fault of their own, can cause ADHD symptoms to flare, just by being uniquely interesting to the person with ADHD. And now you have to try and guard against that, without losing a potential friend.

It’s Just Fucking Hard

After a while, most people with ADHD can become acutely aware of when it’s affecting their daily efforts, whether it be school, work, hobbies or just plain surviving. People with ADHD are driven and excited about the possibilities of life; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t try to earn a degree, get an internship and/or work their ass off at a job.

ADHD just means people who deal with it have to try twice as hard (for twice as long) to get most things done.

And it sucks, because it’s in their heads and they can’t get it out to show what they’ve learned, or they just can’t get what they’re supposed to learn into their heads.

Time is hard, and periodically losing the structure of a semester to the flagellation of finals and the freedom of a break can, at times, feel like a punishment (though not during said breaks). Students with ADHD suffer in a lot of different ways in different situations, but just as often come out of finals week proving their mettle.

It’s fucking hard alright, but success is all the sweeter because people with ADHD fought their own brain all through finals week and won.

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