How to Tackle an Essay (an ADHD-friendly Guide)

6 Steps and Tips

Published on
August 23, 2023

Most of the college students I work with have one major assignment type that gets them stuck like no other: the dreaded essay. It has become associated with late nights, requesting extensions (and extensions on extensions), feelings of failure, and lots of time lost staring at a screen. This becomes immensely more stressful when there is a thesis or capstone project that stands between you and graduation.

The good news?

An essay doesn’t have to be the brick wall of doom that it once was. Here are some strategies to break down that wall and construct an essay you feel good about submitting.

Step 1:  Remember you’re beginning an essay, not finishing one.

Without realizing it, you might be putting pressure on yourself to have polished ideas flow from your brain onto the paper. There’s a reason schools typically bring up having an outline and a rough draft! Thoughts are rarely organized immediately (even with your neurotypical peers, despite what they may say). Expecting yourself to deliver a publishing-worthy award winner on your first go isn’t realistic. It’s allowed to look messy and unorganized in the beginning! There can be unfinished thoughts, and maybe even arguments you aren’t sure if you want to include. When in doubt, write it down.

Step 2: Review the rubric

Make sure you have a clear understanding of what the assignment is asking you to include and to focus on. If you don’t have an understanding of it, it’s better to find out in advance rather than the night before the assignment is due. The rubric is your anchor and serves as a good guide to know “when you can be done.” If you hit all the marks on the rubric, you’re looking at a good grade.

I highly recommend coming back to the rubric multiple times during the creative process, as it can help you get back on track if you’ve veered off in your writing to something unrelated to the prompt. It can serve as a reminder that it’s time to move onto a different topic - if you’ve hit the full marks for one area, it’s better to go work on another section and return to polish the first section up later. Challenge the perfectionism!

Step 3: Divide and conquer

Writing an essay is not just writing an essay. It typically involves reading through materials, finding sources, creating an argument, editing your work, creating citations, etc. These are all separate tasks that ask our brain to do different things. Instead of switching back and forth (which can be exhausting) try clumping similar tasks together.

For example:

Prepping: Picking a topic, finding resources related to topic, creating an outline

Gathering: reading through materials, placing information into the outline

Assembling: expanding on ideas in the outline, creating an introduction and conclusion

Finishing: Make final edits, review for spelling errors and grammar, create a title page and reference page, if needed.

Step 4: Chunk it up

Now we’re going to divide the work EVEN MORE because it’s also not realistic to expect yourself to assemble the paper all in one sitting. (Well, maybe it is realistic if you’re approaching the deadline, but we want to avoid the feelings of panic if we can.) If you haven’t heard of chunking before, it’s breaking down projects into smaller, more approachable tasks.

This serves multiple functions, but the main two we are focusing on here is:

  1. it can make it easier to start the task;
  2. it helps you create a timeline for how long it will take you to finish.

If you chunk it into groups and realize you don’t have enough time if you go at that pace, you’ll know how quickly you’ll need to work to accomplish it in time.

Here are some examples of how the above categories could be chunked up for a standard essay. Make sure you customize chunking to your own preferences and assignment criteria!

Days 1 - 3 : Prep work

  • Day 1: Pick a topic & find two resources related to it
  • Day 2: Find three more resources related to the topic
  • Day 3: Create an outline

Days 4 & 5 : Gather

  • Day 4: Read through Resource 1 & 2 and put information into the outline
  • Day 5: Read through Resource 3 & 4 and put information into the outline

Days 6 - 8 : Assemble

  • Day 6: Create full sentences and expand on Idea 1 and 2
  • Day 7: Create full sentences and expand on Idea 3 and write an introduction
  • Day 8: Read through all ideas and expand further or make sentence transitions smoother if need be. Write the conclusion

Day 9: Finish

  • Day 9: Review work for errors and create a citation page

Hey, we just created an outline about how to make an outline - how meta!

Feel like even that is too overwhelming? Break it down until it feels like you can get started. Of course, you might not have that many days to complete an assignment, but you can do steps or chunks of the day instead (this morning I’ll do x, this afternoon I’ll do y) to accommodate the tighter timeline. For example:

Day 1: Pick a topic

Day 2: Find one resource related to it

Day 3: Find a second resource related to it

Step 5: Efficiently use your resources

There’s nothing worse than stockpiling 30 resources and having 100 pages of notes that can go into an essay. How can you possibly synthesize all of that information with the time given for this class essay? (You can’t.)

Rather than reading “Article A” and pulling all the information you want to use into an “Article A Information Page,” try to be intentional with the information as you go. If you find information that’s relevant to Topic 1 in your paper, put the information there on your outline with (article a) next to it. It doesn’t have to be a full citation, you can do that later, but we don’t want to forget where this information came from; otherwise, that becomes a whole mess.

By putting the information into the outline as you go, you save yourself the step of re-reading all the information you collected and trying to organize it later on.

*Note: If you don’t have topics or arguments created yet, group together similar ideas and you can later sort out which groups you want to move forward with.

Step 6: Do Some Self-Checks

It can be useful to use the Pomodoro method when writing to make sure you’re taking an adequate number of breaks. If you feel like the 25 min work / 5 min break routine breaks you out of your flow, try switching it up to 45 min work / 15 min break. During the breaks, it can be useful to go through some questions to make sure you stay productive:

  1. How long have I been writing/reading this paragraph?
  2. Does what I just wrote stay on topic?
  3. Have I continued the "write now, edit later" mentality to avoid getting stuck while writing the first draft?
  4. Am I starting to get frustrated or stuck somewhere? Would it benefit me to step away from the paper and give myself time to think rather than forcing it?
  5. Do I need to pick my energy back up? Should I use this time to get a snack, get some water, stretch it out, or listen to music?

General Tips:

  • If you are having a difficult time trying to narrow down a topic, utilize office hours or reach out to your TA/professor to get clarification. Rather than pulling your hair out over what to write about, they might be able to give you some guidance that speeds up the process.
  • You can also use (and SHOULD use) office hours for check-ins related to the paper, tell your teacher in advance you’re bringing your rough draft to office hours on Thursday to encourage accountability to get each step done. Not only can you give yourself extra pressure - your teacher can make sure you’re on the right track for the assignment itself.
  • For help with citations, there are websites like that can help! Always double check the citation before including it in your paper to make sure the formatting and information is correct.
  • If you’re getting stuck at the “actually writing it” phase, using speech-to-text tools can help you start by transcribing your spoken words to paper.
  • Many universities have tutoring centers and/or writing centers. If you’re struggling, schedule a time to meet with a tutor. Even if writing itself isn’t tough, having a few tutoring sessions scheduled can help with accountability - knowing you need to have worked on it before the tutoring session is like having mini deadlines. Yay, accountability!

Of course, if writing just isn’t your jam, you may also struggle with motivation. Whatever the challenge is, this semester can be different. Reach out early if you need help - to your professor, a tutor, an ADHD coach, or even a friend or study group. You have a whole team in your corner. You’ve got this, champ!

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