It's Final Exam Time: Strategies for Students with ADHD

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • It’s almost the end of the school year and for high school and college students, that means final exams. For many with ADHD, the thought of any test brings feelings of anxiety and dread but the idea of final exams is even worse. Too often, students with ADHD spend hours studying and preparing for tests, only to forget everything when the test paper is in front of them.

    Reasons for Poor Performance on Final Exams

    According to the Chesapeake ADHD Center of Maryland [1], poor test taking skills in individuals with ADHD happen for a number of reasons:

    • Difficulty separating important information from non-essential information and therefore using study time to try to remember and understand everything rather than the important points.
    • Spending too much time on one portion of the test or one question (hyperfocus) and not finishing the test.
    • Problems organizing information to present it in a clear way, especially on essay questions.
    • Losing track of time and not having enough time to finish the test.
    • Poor working memory and memory retrieval.
    • Becoming distracted and not focusing on the test.
    • Problems with written expression disorder
    • Fatigue from maintaining focus during studying or taking long tests.

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    After years of taking tests, and failing or doing poorly, you may have given up, thinking that you just can’t do it. Or, you might study for hours, only to freeze as soon as you have the test paper in hand. For some, waiting until the last minute and the adrenal rush to hit, then staying up all night to study has become the norm for final exam week. But this method doesn’t usually work and leaves you exhausted and frustrated.

    Final Exam Strategies

    So what can you do to help increase your chances of passing your final exams?  

    Set up a meeting with your professor a week or two before the exam. Ask for help in prioritizing your studying. Some questions that may help:

    • Will questions come from reading, lectures or a combination of both?
    • If reading, what chapters in your text will be covered?
    • Are there any particular areas you should pay more attention to than others?
    • What format will the test be, for example multiple-choice or essay.
    • Are there facts or formulas that must be memorized? Or will these be supplied and you need to know how to apply them to problems?

    In addition to what information is to be covered, ask for assistance if there is a specific area you are having a hard time understanding.

    Consider group study sessions. While for some, these can be distracting, others find the more interactive approach to studying helps. Be sure to include those in your class who are good at note-taking, organized and willing to help others.

    Break down what you need to study into manageable chunks. Make a schedule of what you will study and when. When you start, stick to the topic you have outlined rather than jumping from topic to topic or chapter to chapter.

    Use interactive study methods. Rather than simply reading the material, write important points several times, use flash cards, read aloud into a recorder, highlight important information with different colors.

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    Pay attention to your learning styleand incorporate more of that type of learning and studying into your routine.

    Create a distraction free environment and give yourself a time limit for studying. Try focusing for 30 minutes and then taking a 5 minute break. During your break, get up and do something physical, such as jumping jacks.

    Ask for accommodations to help. Some examples of accommodations:

    • Longer time for completing the test
    • Taking the test during the time of day you are most alert, for example many people with ADHD find it hard to get moving in the morning, if you do, ask about scheduling your test during the afternoon.

    Ask to use voice recognition software if you have written expression disorder or have a difficult time expressing yourself in writing.

    Take a walk or do some form of aerobic exercise before your exam. This can help you maintain focus and stay more alert during the test.

    Read, review and review instructions again. For some, the answers are correct but they didn’t follow directions. Make sure you are completing the test as your teacher or professor asked for it to be done. If you need to highlight or underline the instructions to help you remember.

    If you have a difficulty with time-awareness, break your exam into sections and use a timer for each section. That way you won’t be stuck on one section for the entire time.

    Leave time at the end of the period to review your answers to catch any careless errors or retrieve information you forgot the first time around.

    If you are stuck, move on to the next section. You may be able to come back to it at the end. Even if you can’t, it is usually better to move on and finish the exam instead of spending most of your time trying to get through one section.

    Besides specific strategies, it is important to eat a good meal before your exam and get a good night’s sleep the night before.


    [1]. “How Can I Study so Hard and Still Do Badly on Tests?” Date Unknown, Kathleen G. Nadeau, Ph.D., Chesapeake ADHD Center of Maryland

    Making the Grade with ADD: A Student’s Guide to Succeeding in College with Attention Deficit Disorder, 2008, Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, New Harbinger

    “Staying on Top: Final Exam Study Tips for ADHD Students,” 2011, Author Unknown, The Edge Foundation

    “Tips for Helping ADD/ADHD & Executive Functioning Students Prepare for Finals,” 2011, May 17, Jonathan D. Carroll, M.A.,

Published On: April 16, 2013