The University Students Taking 'Study Drugs' To Cram For Exams

During their final exams, hundreds of thousands of university students will resort to taking 'study drugs' to cram for finals and get an edge over their classmates.

John Milke* started taking Ritalin without a prescription when he was 17 years old and undergoing the New South Wales High School Certificate (HSC).

As a selective school student, Milke said there was an underlying pressure to succeed and keep up with the cohort.

He would crush up the tablets -- typically used to treat ADHD -- and swallow them before hitting the books, spending six to eight hours of uninterrupted study at his local library.

Adderall pills and tube. Getty Images.

"You’re in that high pressure cooker environment where marks seem to be the be-all-and-end-all. Of course you’re going to take it," Milke told 10 daily.

Unbeknownst to his parents, Milke would buy 20 to 40 tablets at a time from a fellow student at a nearby train station.

He would then hide the pills, which he bought for $3 a piece, in his school bag.

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"My friend knew a guy. He didn’t have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) but he faked it through a dodgy doctor. He went a few times saying he couldn’t concentrate. Eventually the doctor relented and gave him an ever-long prescription," Milke said.

Milke used Ritalin for almost a year during study sessions and exams. He  described the drug as "the perfect storm of physically being really energetic and mentally being able to focus and channel all that energy into studying".

For Milke, the downside of Ritalin was that it turned his sleeping schedule upside-down. He'd crash after school, sleeping from 3pm to 6pm, and then take Ritalin to study through the night and into the early hours of the morning.

Students studying. Getty Images.

Now 22 and studying journalism at a prominent Sydney university, Milke has quit taking study drugs after having a negative experience with 'wakefulness' drug Modafinil in his first year.

While researchers at Harvard and Oxford Universities have claimed Modafinil is a "safe drug" that enhances focus and creativity, Milke said the drug made him "irritable and snappy".

"The reason people are taking it at university is because they’re juggling work with internships and uni and think it’s the quickest way to stimulate yourself," Milke said.

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While smart drugs are under-researched in Australia, they are on the rise among students internationally, with a global survey finding around 14 percent used stimulants to study at least once a year in 2017.

Sydney medical student Henry Day*, 23, started taking ADHD drug Adderall after a friend suggested it in "emergency situations where you've slacked off and need to cram" .

In the lead-up to exams, at one point the international student was using Adderall every other day.

University students graduate. Getty Images.

Doctors warn that Adderall, like some other common 'study drugs', is an addictive prescription stimulant that is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, with effects similar to meth.

The stimulant drug is commonly used to treat ADHD and allowed Day to get through the dense medical student curriculum.

He told 10 daily the drug allowed him to study for 10 to 12 hours at a time.

Day has since quit Adderall after suffering from negative effects such as a disrupted sleep cycle and strange dreams.

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However, like many of his classmates, he regularly takes caffeine pills to stay alert while interning at the local hospital.

The pills are cheaper than a cup of coffee and can be legally purchased at supermarkets over-the-counter.

"I see it in the same light as doping in sporting. It's the pressure to outperform and always be on top of your game," Day said.

"That's the reason we have Adderall and Ritalin: to gain that extra edge."

Pills and coffee. Getty Images.

When Day first started using caffeine tablets, he swallowed three pills daily and drank multiple cups of coffee. This caused the onset of major headaches and a racing heart.

"Without coffee, I do sometimes get a headache. It’s not excruciating, it’s a tension headache that comes on at nights. I definitely overdid the caffeine," Day said.

Milke has also used caffeine pills to study, but told 10 daily he'd never recommend a student use any performance enhancing drugs as a shortcut to good grades.

"You get through a lot more content a lot quicker, but if you’re a prepared student who stays on top of your work you don’t need it," Milke said.

"It did give me an edge but there were still students who got a better ATAR than me. It was more of a band-aid for a broken leg than a golden solution."

Contact Eden on Twitter @edengillespie

Feature Image: Getty Images