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How to prepare for finals with ADHD: 7 mistakes to avoid (2023)

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Students with executive function challenges preparing for finals and feeling overwhelmed. Sean McCormick observing.
Preparing for Finals

Brace yourself…

Finals week is around the corner which means:

  • Extensive papers

  • Multiple choice exams

  • Culminating projects

  • Rigid deadlines

  • Stressed out tweens and teens

  • Frazzled parents

A bonafide nightmare for families of students with executive functioning challenges.

But this DOESN’T mean there needs to be more…

  • Nagging

  • Fighting

  • Doors slamming

  • Silent dinners

  • Excuses

  • Yelling

Finals will never be stress free, but there is a universe in which they can be MUCH less stressful.

Avoid these 7 mistakes in the coming weeks, while putting into practice my recommended study tips and I guarantee your student will score higher, be less stressed, and walk away with greater self-awareness.

Table of Contents:

Picture of different mistakes students who are preparing for finals make including students with ADHD and executive dysfunction
7 mistakes to help your student avoid when preparing for finals

Mistake #1: Not setting a goal

Even if your student ends up earning a B or better on a final exam, if they didn’t choose a metric of success in advance, they (and you) are liable to wonder what could have been the outcome.

Sit with them and encourage them to write out their desired grade for each final in a Google Task list. They can know all the study strategies in the world, but if they don't have a goal, it's hard to meet the mark.

Once they have written down their big goals, they can break those goal into smaller chunks using Google Tasks.

They can also assign deadlines that will pop up in their notifications (they will need to download the Tasks app on their phone to have these notifications pop up on their phone) and be a positive distraction.

Want to really get in their head?

Suggest they take a screenshot (command + shift + 4) and have them set their goal list as their lock screen or background on their phone.

Ask them, “How would it feel to earn a (grade they want) on your final exam in (class)?”

The reason your student should write down their goals AND express how it would feel to achieve them is because of the reticular activating system (RAS).

When a student writes down a goal, they enroll their unconscious faculties in supporting their arrival at the desired result.

What is the reticular activation system and how does it work?

Within your brainstem lies a network of neurons known as the reticular activating system which projects information to key areas of the brain (the hypothalamus, thalamus and cortex).

In simple terms, auditory, kinesthetic and visual information enter the RAS and are directed throughout your brain, allowing different areas of your brain to make use of that information (and filter out irrelevant information).

Your conscious mind is information from the RAS that you have unconsciously decided is helpful to your established goals and desires.

For example, if you are wanting a cup of coffee in the morning, without even knowing it, your eyes, ears, and body are scanning your environment searching for your desired goal: a cup of coffee.

This is why you'll see the green emblem of the Starbucks logo on the side of the road that you wouldn’t normally notice if your RAS wasn’t working so hard to help you get your caffeine fix.

In the same vein, when a student sets a goal to achieve a certain mark or grade on their final exam for a specific class, they will start to notice the following things:

  • Teachers mentioning opportunities to earn extra credit

  • Their peers talking about how they are preparing for final exams

  • Notes on the board or in Google Classroom that offer optional practice tests

The reticular activating system is a powerful tool, but only if we activate it! The best way to make it work for you is to write down a goal and describe how it would feel to achieve that goal.

Mistake #2: Giving all exams equal attention

Let’s be real.

P.E. finals are a joke.

But between Chemistry and Geometry, thoughtful decisions need to be made about how to prioritize time and energy.

As a parent, you can review their syllabi with them to see which classes have finals weighted more than others.

Then, pull up their grades with them and see which classes have lower grades and thus merit more attention.

You can help them by walking them through this process and asking them questions like:

  • Which of your subjects has the lowest grade?

  • According to your syllabi, which classes give the greatest weight to final exams or projects?

  • Based on your knowledge of final exam weights and your current grades, which classes should you focus on the most? Why?

Giving all exams equal attention results in none getting the attention they deserve.

Model this process for your student and slowly they will begin to incorporate it into their preparation process semester after semester. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!

Mistake #3: Not having a P.L.A.N. in place

Even if you end up prioritizing and setting a goal for every class, it won’t have the desired impact unless there is a plan and study schedule for each class.

Engage your student in the process of backward planning. Once they have a goal for each final, they can then start to visualize the steps necessary to arrive at that goal and create session outlines for what they will accomplish.

And when they have their study sessions outlined, they can then decide if they will be creating flashcards or using an error log; if they want to work from home or go to the library, etc.

For example, if they want to earn a 90% on their Algebra final, it would be wise for them to see that they could earn a 90% or above on at least three practice tests before walking into that final Algebra mid-term.

When providing executive function coaching, I have my students do this and plot their results into a table like this:

Green and white error log for students with executive function challenges to prepare for an exam
Example progress monitoring table from error log

To strengthen the plan of study, your student can share their goal with the teacher and ask for recommendations on what steps they can take in order to reach their goal.

Hi (Teacher Name),

I hope you are doing well. I am hoping to earn a (desired grade) on your (final exam/project) and I was hoping to get your input on my process.

I have been taking the following actions to prepare for your exam:

(Describe any actions here)

Is there anything else you recommend I do to most effectively prepare for your exam?

Do you have any (practice tests / exemplar projects) I could review to help me reach my goal?

Thank you for your guidance.


(your name)

The other less visible impact of reaching out to the teacher is that you show the teacher interested in doing well in their class.

As a former public school teacher, when students would reach out for support, this boosted their grade when I consider participation points and chose a final grade.

Remember, the teacher has given this final exam 100 times and has interacted with many persistence students who were trying to ace it. That teacher or professor knows exactly which office hours your student should attend to address their specific needs.

And if your student is planning on sending this email to multiple teachers, teach them how to use templates on Gmail, which will save SO much time.

If your student asks for practice tests or additional guidance on how to prepare for the final exam, most teachers will willingly give away a study guide that will pay off in percentage points.

In addition to breaking the plan down into discrete steps, your student also needs to dedicate blocks of time to work on practice tests, challenge questions and other preparatory activities.

I use the P.L.A.N. strategy to determine their planning process:

  • Put your event with task in the calendar

  • Leave room between events

  • Alarms for everything

  • Never skip events

As my mentor at the Teach for America academy said, “live by the calendar, die by the calendar.”

Hours need to broken into 15 - 30 minute blocks of time (with breaks) where specific items can be checked off.

When your student engages in backward planning and plots out those objectives into the calendar, their executive functioning skills get stronger AND prepares them for future semesters and career opportunities when they will need to work on short deadlines.

Mistake #4: Starting too late

Cramming doesn’t work.

The word just sounds wrong…

Like when did CRAMMING something ever end up in a good result?

Humans need to sleep and take breaks in order to process and retain new information.

You wouldn’t go to the gym ONE TIME and think that somehow you would get the result you are hoping for.

Consistent, predictable engagement in a process yields results. It’s how nature works.

When students start preparing too late they often burn themselves out in the process, spiking their anxiety and leading to self-defeat.

The way to prepare for a final exams is to schedule out the study plan early, leave lots of room, and even schedule room for rest before the exams.

You can help your student by working with them to send these four emails in November (or April), so that you have more than enough time to truly prepare for finals. But if you haven’t done those, don’t worry.

Focus on maximizing the time remaining. When you have a plan and a process in place, you can tweak the process if things don’t go the way you thought, and learn from the experience.

Mistake #5: No self-monitoring of progress

Without self-monitoring how will your student know if they are on track to reach their goal?

Self-monitoring techniques need to be taught to students. I recommend setting up an error log.

I have a free template you can use on this page. Using the error log, your student can then identify what they know, what they somewhat know, and what you don’t know at all. This way they can prioritize what they need to commit to memory, while letting go of the things that they already know by heart.

Here are my tips to effectively using an error log:

  1. Have your student take a practice test or similar material and put any questions they get wrong in the don’t know column.

  2. Have them find the answers for each of the items in the don’t know column and repeat the answer three times, out loud.

  3. Quiz them again on the questions they don’t know. If they get any of those questions partially correct, move those questions into the “somewhat know” column. If they know the answer fully and by heart, move that question to the “know” column.

  4. Repeat this process until every item is moved to the “know” column.

  5. Repeat the whole process using a different practice test.

I have completed this process with students who had failed the DMV test multiple times, and had become quite discouraged. With this methodology, they could literally SEE themselves learning and acquiring new information and their confidence blossomed.

This concept also helps students with ADHD focus on the salient or important concepts, and disregard things they already have a firm understanding of.

Mistake #6: A lack of self-care

Taking care of yourself is not something you do over the course of the semester in order to walk into the finals with a clear mind and a confident outlook.

You can help your students by providing them with nutritious meals in the week leading up to finals.

Did you know the human brain is 60% fat? That makes it the fattiest organ in the human body and research says students with ADHD need a diet is filled with omega-3 and omega-6 fats to strengthen their health, concentration, and focus.

This type of diet is often known as the Mediterranean diet and there are plenty of guides out there to show you how to adhere to it.

Check out some of these study results on children with ADHD who added omega-3s to their diets:

  • “In a study of nearly 200 schoolchildren, those who ate a diet low in omega-3s had a 31 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with ADHD.”

  • “And a study from English scientists showed that children with ADHD and low levels of omega-3s had poor 'emotion processing' (the ability to understand and respond to emotions) and poor emotion regulation.”

  • “Analyzing data from 16 studies on ADHD and omega-3s, researchers at Oregon Health & Science University found that supplementing the diet with omega-3s consistently lessens hyperactivity, as evaluated by parents and teachers."


After taking the Calm Masterclass, Rethinking Depression, I have been taking these fish oil supplements each day in order to increase my omega-3 fat intake. If you are looking for fish oil supplements yourself make sure you get ones that have more EPA, are the triglyceride form, and don't cause the nasty burp after (so far, so good).

Once your student has put the work in, it’s time for them to relax, kick back, and trust the process. Students who study late in the night the day before the finals, often end up feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and anxious about finals. The importance of good sleep cannot be understated.

As a parent, you can invite them to relax and watch their favorite show, go for a walk, or do something that you know they enjoy that will take their mind off of all the information they have soaked up.

On the day of the finals, I don’t recommend cramming more information, perhaps a brief review, and then some downtime to walk and relax, confident, and knowledgeable, that they did everything in their power to prepare for those finals.

Mistake #7: Going at it alone

As social animals, we need connection to learn and grow. Others can see our flaws and gaps and knowledge and help us navigate around them.

Help your student find a study group so they can prepare for exams with someone else who is also motivated and focused.

As a parent, you can also encourage your child to host a study group and let them know you will bring the snacks and cook them dinner. It’s a great way to build social skills and work together to reach goals.

In this way, your student will begin to experience school as a collaborative process, rather than an isolating experience.

You can also take them to places that encourage studying time like:

  • A campus library

  • A coffee shop

  • A co-work space

Preparing for finals can have moments of fun if your student finds ways to make it so. Let them put on their favorite instrumental music, bring out healthy snacks and decorate the space to celebrate the process (not just the results).


Did you try any of these with your kiddo?

What results did you get?

I want to know! Drop your experience in the comments below.

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About the author

Sean G. McCormick founded Executive Function Specialists, an online EF coaching business that guides students to overcome procrastination, disorganization, and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization, and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.

He is also the founder of UpSkill Specialists, a coaching organization dedicated to supporting adults in enhancing their EF skills to create rewarding careers.

Last, but not least, he founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges.

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