Final Exams Can Hold Up a Mirror to ADHD

For millions of students, it’s that time when summer vacation is so close and yet so far. Only final exams stand in the way – if the phrase “only final exams” is ever really appropriate.

Final exams are a culmination of the semester. And for students with ADHD, that means final exams are a culmination of a semester’s worth of ADHD symptoms. Finals are the time when all the bills for procrastination come due.

Although I’m no longer a student, I viscerally remember the feeling of the semester’s last days. First, a nagging feeling of foreboding in the weeks approaching final exams, gaining strength with each new day, exploding into full panic at the end – a useful panic, though, that ignites the chaotic, last-minute dash of “should’ve studied this” and “should’ve read that” crammed into a short window of time before… the test.

Many students with ADHD will know the feeling I’m describing too well, but even for those of us who have left the joys of classroom learning with ADHD behind us, the general pattern is one we might still recognize in our lives:

  1. Procrastinate, neglect tedious responsibilities, uneasily push away that nagging voice about the later consequences
  2. Grow increasingly anxious as a deadline approaches
  3. Keep procrastinating even though we’re becoming anxious
  4. Feel the anxiety turn into sheer panic, which we’re finally able to use to focus and motivate ourselves
  5. Promise we’ll never let procrastination get so out of hand again
  6. Repeat the whole cycle

That last-minute panic is double-edged. It’s stressful, it’s unpleasant, and the rushed, last-minute work it fuels isn’t necessarily the best we’re capable of. And yet, the panic is what ultimately overpowers inattention and our hardwired aversion to boring tasks, kicking our brains into gear.

It’s a rush that acts as a kind of natural self-medication to focus ourselves. A force that sometimes, by catalyzing last-minute sweat, stress and exertion, allows us to escape the worst possible consequences of our own ADHD symptoms.

Now, students with ADHD are hardly the only ones who procrastinate – which is why a thorough ADHD diagnosis always looks for multiple symptoms across multiple settings in people’s lives. But I suspect that for students with ADHD, the cycle of inattention followed by a panic-driven, breathless rush is one that’s especially ingrained, uncontrollable – perhaps even necessary.

And when you find that same pattern replaying itself in different spheres of your life, with real consequences for your education, your work, your relationships, and your mental health, it might be worth exploring whether there’s more than “just procrastination” going on – you know, maybe something like ADHD.

After I got diagnosed with ADHD in college, I started to become consciously aware of this pattern in my life. Consequently, final exams also became a time that I would find myself reflecting on my ADHD symptoms – even if the chaos of finals wasn’t, in general, conducive to reflection.

Apparently, the end of the semester can still be a time that inspires me to mentally relive the cycle of procrastination, even if I no longer have any final exams to study for.

So best of luck to all students with ADHD who are feeling the finals crunch right now! There’s nothing easy about reconciling a non-neurotypical brain (ADHD) with an environment (school) made for neurotypical ways of learning.

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