The Pills That Could Help You Pass Exams

“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.

University of Cambridge