Students use performance-enhancing drugs for SAT

Students at MVHS and other schools are resorting to ADHD pills like Adderall and Concerta to increase their SAT scores, although the abuse of such medication has not always proven successful. Photo illustration by Akshay Agrawal.

On the morning of the SAT exam, many students scramble to gather their various test-taking materials. Yet some students take one more item, one that they hope will guarantee them a high score—an Adderall pill.

The SAT is often considered to be an endurance test due to its demand for three hours and 45 minutes of focused attention. In an attempt to ensure that they consistently perform to the best of their abilities, some students take Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder prescription drugs such as Adderall or Concerta to achieve high levels of concentration, despite some negative side effects. Those who have tried to bolster their performance through pills, however, have met with mixed results.

How the drugs work

ADHD is characterized by the coexistence of hyperactivity and attention problems. In order to combat the disorder, prescription drugs stimulate the brain to pay attention.

“You have to tell the brain to focus on one thing and only keep your focus on that,” MVHS psychologist Sheila Altmann said.

The most popular abused pills vary from Adderall to Ritalin to Concerta. While there are many types of ADHD drugs, abusers of all variations seek the same result: increased levels of focus and higher test scores.

For a typical ADHD patient, a specific dose is prescribed depending on the severity of his symptoms. According to Altmann, there have been very little to no scientific studies done on abusers of the drug, and it is unclear how the drugs affect one not afflicted with ADHD.

“[An ADHD drug] stimulates you to be alert. So in that way, I guess it can enhance your performance,” Altmann said. “But you’re sort of being tricky, because you don’t know what dosage level you need.”

A dosage that is too high will increase the user’s hyperactivity. Too little, and the user may not even feel a difference in their test-taking abilities.

According to Altmann, the desired effects of higher levels of focus and concentration during a test can be achieved naturally through a good night’s sleep and a healthy diet. Altmann added that while stimulants have not been scientifically proven to be physically addictive, a user may develop a psychological need to keep taking the drug.

“If you start thinking [that] your success is because of the pill rather than your own ability,” Altmann said, “then the next time [you take a test], you won’t trust your ability [to succeed].”

The users and their motivation

ADHD prescription pills, including Adderall, pictured above, are abused by some test-takers hoping to bolster their academic performances. Students that choose to take these supplements said they experienced both positive and negative side effects. Photo used under Creative Commons license Attribution 2.0 Generic license from user hipsxxxhearts,

Some students have capitalized upon concentration-sharpening drugs without detrimental results. Of the multiple students that attempted to heighten their performance on the March 12 SAT, one male MVHS student, who will be referred to as “user number one”, thought he would benefit from taking an ADHD medication named Concerta.

User number one did take the SAT once prior in November, in which he scored a 2020 without the use of supplemental drugs. Dissatisfied with his performance, he sought another way to boost his score and stumbled upon Concerta.

“I just heard [ADHD medication] helps,” he said. “I just wanted to get [the SAT] over with [and] get it out of my life.”

Another male MVHS student, who will be referred to as “user number two,” used ADHD medication on the November test and resorted to drugs for similar reasons as user number one.

Obtaining the pill
According to both users, obtaining the pill itself was easy. User number one said that he purchased the 54 mg Concerta pill from a middleman for $3 a pill; he declined to disclose specifics of the actual source of the pill. He did note that the dealer was a reliable source and not someone typically associated with such activities.

User number two went through a similar process to obtain the prescription medication. Unlike user number one, however, user number two was not informed about the specifics of the pill he purchased. He lacked knowledge of the dosage, the brand, and could not recall the number of pills he took.

“I used the brand that [the dealer] gave me,” user number two said. “I didn’t even know [which brand it was].” User number two did note that he believed that the middleman indirectly obtained the pill from a doctor.

Effect on preparation for the SAT
After deciding to use the ADHD medication, user number one said he studied less than he did before and instead placed his faith in Concerta, even though he was not sure how he would be affected. His decision to take Concerta as opposed to studying traditionally was based on one factor: expediency.

“[Concerta] was just a shortcut,” user number one said. “I’m just lazy.”

Unlike user number one, user number two did not completely rely upon the ADHD medication—he took the pill more as an afterthought and did not alter his studying habits. In order to complement the increased focus that he would achieve through the medication, he consumed a variety of energy-snacks the night before.

“I had a lot of sleep, a bunch of candy bars, peanuts…water [and] Red Bull [before the test],” user number two said.

Testing the drug on test day
The ADHD medication had disparate, seemingly contradictory results on the performance of the two users. User number one’s test scores were not different than those he received when he took the test without Concerta; however, user number two scored lower than the scores he usually achieved on practice tests.

User number one swallowed the pill an hour before the test. Shortly afterwards, while walking into the testing center, the user began to fear that Concerta would adversely affect him—that his sudden surge of nervous energy would translate into poor test scores.

Ultimately, however, user number one claims that he ended up focusing at a level significantly higher than normal. He believes that his heightened level of concentration strengthened his performance throughout the test, particularly during the critical reading section.

“When I was doing the reading section, I didn’t have to look back or anything,” he said. “I just felt focused.”

Yet the score reports did not reflect user number one’s optimistic sentiments about his score. He scored a 2020, just as he had done previously without Concerta; he even received the same scores in each individual section.

“I wasn’t disappointed,” user number one said. “I technically cheated so I didn’t care if I got the same [score].”

Contrary to the experience of user number one, user number two did not feel that he operated on a higher plane of concentration after taking the medication. He swallowed the drug at the test center itself, and began to feel hyper and paranoid.

Nonetheless, user number two does not believe that the drug worsened his performance—he believed that the test was simply difficult.

Side effects and future considerations
For both users, the effects of the drug persisted for 24 hours, in which the two students felt happy, hyper, and could not fall asleep.

User number one attributes his immediate misguided belief that he scored significantly better using Concerta to the happiness induced by the drug. User number two recalled experiencing similar feelings of euphoria.

“After [the test] I felt pretty happy, even though I knew I did badly,” user number two said. “I just felt happy for some reason. Felt weird. Felt pretty good.”

Nonetheless, user number two took the SAT a second time without taking any drugs. He scored a 2000, which he says is significantly better than his previous score.

“I don’t think [ADHD medication] works,” user number two said. “[I didn’t take ADHD medication in March because] I wanted to sleep that night. I didn’t want to lose my appetite.”

User number one also plans on retaking the SAT without Concerta, yet he does not regret using it.

“It was a fun experience,” user number one said. “I mean I was all happy and energetic with it, so it was cool.”

While the two users’ may have reacted differently to the medication, they both stated that they would not consider taking ADHD medication for non-health related problems again.

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