Demands in education fuel our ‘study drug’ abuses

Last year, I took my first education class at Vassar. One day, we had a guest speaker who was associated with the College Board, the organization that provides SAT and AP tests. The discussion was about level playing fields and the pros and cons of the SAT, and I decided to ask a question regarding students using “study drugs” to enhance their scores on the SAT, since I knew a friend of mine had used one to try and improve his score.

A “study drug” is a prescription drug that is used improperly to help someone concentrate better and notably increase stamina for the purpose of enhancing performance on academic work, such as writing a paper or boosting scores on a test. (University of Texas at Austin,  “Study Drugs”, 2013).  Using or selling drugs without a proper prescription is a felony (NPR, “More students turning Illegally to ‘smart’ drugs,” 02.05.2009).

As an anxious test taker, my friend found the perfect study drug to help him do well on the SATs. His parents made it clear that if he didn’t do well on the SAT, all hell was going to break lose, and he was not about to let that happen. He ended up getting about a 2350 on the SAT.

So I asked our gust speaker how kids using study drugs to boost their scores on the SAT affected the “level playing field” and essentially how the College Board was trying to control this type of cheating.

He looked puzzled and in turn told me that it sounded like my friend needed professional help, implying that numerous students taking “study drugs” really wasn’t an issue. What I got from that response was either that this man was very oblivious to the fact that kids use “study drugs” or he doesn’t care and it’s really not his problem.

Well, I am going to assume it was the former, but realistically study drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin, are abused every day by students. It is becoming easier and easier for students to gain access to these drugs, typically by either going to a professional and faking symptoms to gain a prescription or buying them off of someone. A 2013 national poll by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan found that 1 in 10 high school sophomores and more than 1 in 8 high school seniors have used a prescription drug to help them study. (Science News for Students, “‘Study drugs’ can be dangerous,” 10.25.13) However, as you may have guessed, it’s not just high school-aged students abusing these drugs. A professor at the University of Kentucky, Alan DeSantis, has tracked study drug use at U of K, and found that 30 percent of students have illegally used study drugs at least once.

Half of all juniors and seniors (at U of K) have used study drugs [at least once] and 80 percent of upperclassmen in fraternities and sororities there have taken them at some point in time (CNN Health, “College students take ADHD drugs for better grades,” 09.11.2011).

Why are so many students turning to study drugs? My guess is that it is due to high levels of stress that come with expectations—from family, friends, society, and even oneself.

To be successful one must always be performing their very best The SAT is a great example, as it’s a test that could make or break whether you get into the college of your choice. In college, there are certain tests or papers that are worth a substantial part of a final grade, and if one doesn’t do well on that paper,  they can kiss that GPA goodbye.

I have heard that in college you can choose to have a social life, good grades or sleep. In fact, you can have two of out the three, but to achieve all three, it takes very special skills. Maybe these drugs allow the impossible. A male student, 17, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, reflects on his use with study drugs: “I take Adderall. Maybe I have A.D.D. Maybe I don’t. I don’t really know. I knew how to say the right things to the psychologist to get the diagnosis, and the pills that make my life much easier.” (The New York Times, “In their own words: ‘study drugs,” 6.9.2012).

But is making one’s life easier worth it? Study drugs can be addictive and can have severe side effects once someone stops taking the drugs (particularly if they are using them on a consistent basis). Severe mood swings might be seen as well as strange behavior, which may ultimately lead to some serious issues, including brain damage (ScienceNews for Students,  “‘Study drugs’ can be dangerous,” 10.25.13). At this time, researchers aren’t quite sure what long term effects could occur. However, to me it seems that most students who use study drugs do not take them on a consistent basis, rather only when “necessary”, and do not appear to be severely affected, at least with short term effects. Even if there are some effects, they often always seem minimal.

It is interesting to hear from students who have never used study drugs, for opinions on the topic seem to vary drastically. Some students have expressed frustration and anger toward classmates who have been able to successfully cheat the system, such as a female student, 20, from Dallas, who said, “The thing that I found the most frustrating was that their use of study drugs actually worked and some were rewarded for it.

One, in particular, became salutatorian of my class while I, a hard-working and driven individual, was disadvantaged.” (The New York Times, “In their own words: ‘study drugs,’” 6.9.2012) The majority of Vassar students I spoke with, who claimed to have never taken study drugs, seemed to relate to this feeling of frustration when asked how they felt about their classmates gaining an unfair advantage.

We are told to worry about ourselves, particularly regarding our schoolwork. We are told to do the best we can, and that it’s not a competition, what grade you get will not affect someone else. If someone is taking a study drug, that is their business right? It is only going to affect them. Well, sometimes. I have recently become aware that at least one professor at Vassar College is distributing only certain amounts of grades. For example, say there are 30 students in a class, only eight kids that in that class are allowed to get an A. In this situation, the unfair advantage of using study drugs would now not only be affecting the student taking them, but could now be affecting the students who don’t. I have a feeling that this could be where a lot of frustration is coming from.

Quite frankly, taking a study drug to enhance your schoolwork is cheating. Using or selling these drugs improperly is a felony. I, personally have never taken a study drug, but have had many friends who have, and most seem to take them out of desperation. In my opinion, study drugs just fuel the self-doubt that stems from the pressures of (sometimes unrealistic) serious expectations.

They represent an aid, which to me says that one believes they cannot complete something on their own, most likely due to fear—perhaps the fear of failing. While I don’t endorse study drugs, I understand why one may turn to them, like my friend from home.

My friend is not a bad person. And I am betting that most who use study drugs aren’t either. I think the main focus of study drugs should not just be stating the fact that people use them, but finding out why. The use of study drugs is not isolated to one school or one area of the United States or one subject of study—the use of them is found in multiple places, spread out, by multiple people all with different backgrounds and different futures.

Our society has come to pushing every single person to exhaust the most out of one’s self—and sometimes even beyond. We’ve come to a point where one exam or one assignment means so much that it can essentially make or break someone’s future. People can sit around and say that’s not true so easily, but it’s so much more complicated than that.


—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.

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