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May I Refer to My Pharmacopeia During the Test?

Can ADHD stimulants like Adderall be the answer for college students looking to increase academic performance? They think so.
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It's a week before final exams and you haven't begun studying. These general education classes are, simply, a drag and you're already tired from fraternity, sorority or extracurricular activities. Besides, your friends are partying this weekend anyway.

You should, (A) clamp down and study for a few hours every night this week, pacing yourself for finals. But you know you'll probably (B) start absentmindedly perusing your books four days before the exam to make yourself feel better, or (C) free your mind of finals worries until two days before testing, then pop an Adderall pill and spend 10 and 12 hours a day in the library maniacally whirring through your textbooks.

For a small, but growing, minority of college students, the answer is clearly (C).

In 2005, a national survey found that students' nonmedical use of prescription stimulants (like Adderall) ranged from zero to 25 percent among four-year colleges and universities. Building on this prior research is a 2009 study, headed by Duke University's David L. Rabiner, which explores why these students chose to illicitly use these prescription stimulants.

Overwhelmingly, college students use prescription ADHD stimulants to concentrate better while studying and to increase academic performance. These results might shock a few but — as many college students (and freelance journalists) know — the Adderall culture has been a long established university tradition for overachievers, underachievers and chronic procrastinators.

Common to all the above users is the perception that there is a tangible correlation between taking Adderall and feeling less restless while studying (perhaps there's less compulsive Facebook or e-mail checking). They also find that they study much longer without reporting significantly harmful side effects.

The new study, which surveyed 3,407 students from public and private universities in the southeastern United States, largely mirrors the results of the 2005 national survey, but it also extends the prior work on the subject in several ways — including shedding light on the motives for using the stimulants.

The student respondents who reported nonmedical use of prescription stimulants were asked to rate the frequency of the different motives for doing so. A variety of choices including "to get high," "to feel better," "to feel less restless in class" and "to concentrate better while studying" were meant to gauge whether the students were motivated to take these stimulants for academic or recreational reasons.

The results indicated that very few students took ADHD medication to "get high" or "feel better" and instead used it primarily as an academic performance drug. In total, 8.9 percent of respondents reported ever using ADHD medication without a prescription, with a slightly higher percentage from the private university alone. Sixty-one percent of these students reported that they used the stimulants "often" or "always" for the purpose of concentrating better while studying. Only 5 percent reported that they took the stimulants "to get high."

Overall, the students who used these stimulants tended to be white, involved in a fraternity or sorority, had lower GPAs and were more likely to have drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes or marijuana, or used other drugs in the last six months.

But despite these tendencies, the large majority (82 percent) of these students reported that taking the stimulants "definitely" did not contribute to taking other nonprescribed medication. Their response is curious because clearly these are the students who are accustomed to using other drugs for recreation. Adderall, it seems, is viewed solely as a study tool — something to efficiently help students to cram copious amounts study material.

While there is no documented correlation between actually receiving better grades after using Adderall, that won't stop the pervasive feeling that you can study longer — and harder — after taking the pill for Monday's exam.

And, perhaps, another for the next week's exam.

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