One MSW student’s ADHD-approved schoolwork tips

Students studying for final exams.
Written by Sarah Smith
Photography by Yosef Chaim Kalinko
January 4, 2024

We are already in the winter quarter, which many students agree is the most challenging of the year. To help, here are some of my ADHD-approved study tips that have helped me during my time in the MSW program!

Starting Your Quarter Off Well

  • Read the syllabi! Make sure to take note of how grades are broken down in each class.
  • Take note of when big assignments are due and whether they fall close to another due date, so you know ahead of time
  • Sometimes it's okay to skip an assignment if it will benefit your mental or physical health! Knowing which assignments impact your grade the least can help you prioritize how to use your time.
  • Use a calendar or planner to keep track of assignment due dates. Transfer them at the start of the quarter from class syllabi into whatever type of calendar you use!

Tips for Writing

  • In an MSW program, there are two main types of writing, one of which more formal APA-style writing, and one of which is more personal or reflective. Sometimes, you will use both in a writing assignment or just one, so make sure you understand which style is expected for each assignment!
  • Read your papers out loud to yourself — this will help you catch if things are too wordy, repetitive, or unclear.
  • Don’t be afraid to use headings and subheadings to organize your thoughts and to make sure you are covering all the required components of your paper.
  • Do searches for words like “this” or “these” and make sure a noun immediately follows to avoid sounding general.
  • Keep an eye out for your use of passive language, like “this research was done...” rather than “researchers completed...” (I am super guilty of this, it’s a continuous process).
  • Note to self: Split up any sentences longer than three lines!
  • For literature reviews:
    • In our research classes from the first year of the 2-year MSW program,
      Prof. Sam Harrell suggested we write literature reviews as if each piece of literature is a person at a dinhner party—who is sitting near each other, who is having a disagreement, who are getting along? This analogy has helped me 1) develop a general sense of what various sources are saying about my topic and 2) identify areas where there could be themes or misalignment.

Methods for finding sources and forming your paper

  • First, I search various terms related to my topic in Google Scholar and the SU library database and bookmark any articles that seem helpful.
    • Tip: change up your terminology to produce more results—are there any synonyms for any words you’re looking for?
  • Then, I go through each bookmarked source and read abstracts and/or
    introductions. If a source seems relevant to my topic, I save it, and if not, I
    remove the bookmark.
    • I usually end up with at least ten relevant sources using this method, but it depends on the topic you are researching.
  • Then I download all the selected sources to a folder on my computer (some people prefer to print their sources, too).
  • Now that I’ve got my articles gathered, I read all the articles in-depth, highlight important things, and take notes separately on things that I should remember as I’m writing, such as research findings, research methodology, key arguments or points, etc.
  • Then, I go through the notes I’ve taken on all my sources and use color-coded highlighters to highlight or make note of any patterns or common themes I see.
  • This color-coding method helps me to organize my arguments and the key
    information I am pulling from my sources!
    • For example, in a paper about the housing first model, I might use green to represent information about the implications of housing first models for physical health and blue to represent.
    • This method may sound soo extra, but this has really helped me work
      through the overwhelm of sifting through multiple sources and identifying key things to cover.

Reading tips

  • I find it easier to read in small spurts rather than all at once, so I try to break it up over multiple days (most times it ends up being a crunch the night before class, though).
  • Make notes of any questions you have while reading and underline or use a highlighter to emphasize key information or sentences that stand out to you.
  • Sometimes, there are so many readings assigned that skimming is necessary, especially while balancing other assignments, work, personal life, and practicum.
  • Tip for skimming:
    • Read abstracts or introductions first, then read all the headings and the first and last sentences of each paragraph.

General Tips

  • Generally, people say to start with the hardest task. However, if you have ADHD like me, you may have to trick your brain’s reward system by doing an easy task first like a discussion post before moving on to more challenging tasks like working on a paper.
  • Figure out what environment works best for you! Is background
    noise/ambiance/lofi helpful or do you focus best in a quiet environment?
    • Body doubling (working around other people working) can be helpful! Find a café or invite cohort members to meet on campus.
  • Keep your homework-doing area organized and free of clutter (i.e. the pile of laundry thrown in the desk chair).
  • Your basic needs should always come before schoolwork.
  • If you are feeling like you will be unable to finish an assignment on time, it’s best to communicate with your professors ahead of time.
  • Lastly, if you ever are feeling imposter syndrome, you are here for a reason. Each student in the program brings their own unique experiences, knowledge, and qualities to the cohort! You bring your own gifts to share with the group, so don’t be afraid to share them.