The Pills That Could Help You Pass Exams

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"Imagine coffee, imagine Red Bull. Now imagine both, a dozen times stronger." ARRASH YASSAEE investigates the murky world of performance enhancing exam drugs.

At some point during the 20 hours of my life that I lost to the exam hall this year, I realised just how easy it is to cheat. And I’m not talking about taking notes to the toilet for a quick cubicle cram. What examiners and invigilators should really be worried about is “cognitive enhancement” substances.

Drugs such as Ritalin and Modafinil, which are usually prescribed for ADHD and narcolepsy, are the new weapons of choice when it comes to exams. Known for their ability to improve attention and focus, many students are increasingly using drugs like these to give them the edge in the cut-throat world of Cambridge exams.

For students, the appeal of a pill that improves how well you learn and retain information is obvious. But do these pills constitute cheating? Or are they a legitimate study tool?

When I found out a friend was actually undergoing a “smart drug” regime, I was curious to find out more. After some convincing, Sam agreed to give me some insight into the experience of a study routine choreographed around a 100mg daily dose of Modafinil. And, no: ‘Sam’ isn’t his real name.

Modafinil: Wonder pill or dangerous addiction?

So, what did it feel like?

“Imagine coffee,” Sam said. “Now imagine Red Bull. Now imagine both, but a dozen times stronger.”

For Sam, sleep simply isn’t an option – there’s no space in his revision schedule for it. Only by day three is it allowed to occupy a measly two hours a day. Two hours! I survived on four during my exam week, and that was with each morning paper forcing me awake, not to mention the assistance of a litre of energy drink and five cups of coffee a day.

But as the days go by, Sam’s appearance shows a darker side to the drugs. True, energy levels seem to permit feats on par with “the best gym session imaginable.” But at what cost? Sam’s eyes become bloodshot, his complexion sickly, and Sam says he constantly feels slightly ill. He starts to suffer from occasional headaches, night-time hallucinations, and tingling sensations.

By the second week, the drugs are more of a hinderance than a help. Sam reckons his efficiency and focus drop, there’s just more time to work; I start to notice he’s struggling to stay on topic during our conversations. When your brain is always in overdrive, distractions become more of a problem – every passing thought sprouts into a blossoming idea. But despite the side effects Sam insists: “stopping would be too risky.”

After the exams, I ask Sam if he thinks the drugs helped. Having been “smart-clean” for over a month now, Sam says he has few regrets about the regime. Results went well, but only by the finest of margins, something Sam puts down to Modafinil’s ability to keep you working effectively through to the early hours of the morning. But a tactic to be used next year? He’s still undecided.

Having observed Sam’s regime, I’m still in two minds. Yes, the pills seems to improve performance, at least initially, but the chance of addiction and the side effects give me doubts. Perhaps for the all-nighter, the final push on your dissertation, or last leg of your company project, these sorts of drugs are the perfect aid to help you realise what you’re capable of. But if Sam’s experience is anything to go by, they are certainly not a long term solution.

  • shocker

    so taking prescription meds that you were never prescribed may not be a good idea…wow.

  • Matt Mason

    Errm… where is the placebo and double blind trial?

  • nomnom

    why is there no picture of arrash? he is a LEGEND.

    • only me

      bit of a kent actually

  • NatSci

    My experience- did 8% worse the year I tried it. Obviously that's no scientific test though

  • Ask Sahakian…

    Big problem is the increased excitation caused by these drugs doesn't necessarily result increased mental efficiency. Every person will have a parabolic curve of say capacity for laying down new memory against neural excitation level (could be more specific but there's not much need to illustrate the point). Some people may normally be on the "uphill" part of the parabola and so increased excitation due to these drugs will enhance their performance. It's just as likely that a person could be at the peak of this curve or even on the "downhill" side, meaning increasing neural excitation will actually make you do worse.

  • Why

    Couldn't you have just re-posted the article from last year?

    • anon

      It was worth it for the "Matt Mason" comment.

  • Modafinil?

    Switching to Land economy is the REAL weapon of choice when it comes to getting a Cambridge degree

  • Narcoleptic


  • Richard Benson

    It certainly makes you concentrate, but it takes quite a specific dose to ensure it's on the things you should be concentrating on, and not just that girls tits on the other side of the UL.

    Modalert is also pretty suspect and gives bad headaches.

  • stoner

    smoke weed all day erryday

  • Chill the fuck
  • da bomb

    where can i buy some?

  • hah

    modafinil is sick, would never have got all my reading done if it wasnt for it. Want a crammer drug? use it. But duuhhhhh dont be a tit with it its not there for fun.

  • duncan

    i take 550mg a day for medical reasons and I can still sleep through the lot

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  • My1Rx

    Anti Narcoleptic drugs are used to improve wakefulness in patients with narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a neurological condition most characterized by Excessive Daytime Sleepiness and is the second-leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness. It usually begins in teenagers or young adults and affects both sexes equally. The first symptom to appear is excessive daytime sleepiness which may remain unrecognized at first but develops gradually over time. Other symptoms can follow, excessive daytime sleepiness that can last for months or even years. Drugs used to treat narcolepsy are Modafinil, Modalert, Modapro, Nuvigil or Provigil. These drugs have a much lower risk for high blood pressure and mental side effects. More reading at;

  • NarcolepticKnowitAll

    As a student who actually suffers from Narcolepsy and has Modafinil prescribed, I can actually say this article is a load of crap.
    1. For the normal non-narco person, you would need at least 200mg to even feel an effect.
    2. What is more the half life of the drug is pretty short – he wouldn’t have felt the effects that long.
    3. The number one reason that Modafinil is such a wonder drug for people with Narcolepsy (and sleep-shift work disorder) is that there is no association with addiction. I repeat – it is in no way addictive.
    4. For many people, like myself Modafinil is a long term solution, the red eyes, the hallucinations etc etc. are incredibly rare. Whilst I have an illness that means I need the wakefulness, people like me would feel the same side effects – we don’t.

    Heads up before trying it – any other medication you may be on (inc. birth control) will not work in conjunction with Mods.

    good luck

  • Focus Pills

    That is why it is important to check ingredients of the pills whether it is natural or not before try. Know more about natural pills –

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  • wannabe

    Isn't it meant to be part of the beauty of the drug that you CAN sleep? I've read a few anecdotal posts online including one by Johann Hari and that seems to be the thing- you get two hours sleep a night, but you're sharp and refreshed after those two hours (mentally, if not physically).

    always been ridiculously tempted to try it but

    1) in terms of ordering online I'd be sceptical of online pharmacies- countless reports of incorrect doses and the like, and the fact most of them don't look all that professional website wise doesn't help things.

    2) I'd find it tricky morally – I still like to think that here we're all on the same playing field when competing in exam, even though we're not due to one reason or another.

  • Sam

    nah you definitely can't sleep. I've heard people say that you can but no matter how tired you are, you just don't feel 'sleepy'. I've tried lying in bed for ages after taking some at like 4am and it just doesn't work. your brain just doesn't shut up.

  • Modafinil User

    I haven't experienced anything as extreme as Johann's account (I had read it before I tried the stuff), so your mileage may vary there. And yes, the fact that you can sleep on it is a major bonus – my point was that choosing not to sleep on it isn't wise, as just a couple of hours a night holds off the physical side effects of sleep deprivation.

    Regarding morals, I only used it to get a project finished – so it was the same work I would have been doing without it, but for longer. I never felt a cheat, and probably wouldn't have even if I'd used it for revision. I don't actually think it would help with revision, and you certainly wouldn't want to be on it in an exam, so it doesn't necessarily provide the unfair advantage it's supposed to.

  • meh

    Is it really morally wrong though? Where's the line between a can of Relentless and a drug?

  • Why…

    …are you referring to Johann Hari? He probably made up the whole experiment, maybe you should check your sources next time.

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