Photo of a student studying late at night by lamp light.

As we prepare for exams and projects, it may be tempting for some to use prescription stimulants (commonly referred to as ‘study drugs’) without a prescription or not as prescribed to try and get ahead. 

If you choose to use substances while studying, here are a few things you should know. 

1. Why are they called ‘study drugs’?

Study drugs are prescription stimulants that are used without a prescription or not as prescribed in an attempt to increase a person’s stamina, energy or concentration. However, research shows that using ‘study drugs,’ such as Ritalin or Adderall, without a proper diagnosis or prescription doesn’t enhance academic performance. 

2. What are possible risks and side effects?

While some people may believe that using stimulants without a prescription may help them focus better, they’re not likely to help your academic performance. In fact, misusing stimulants and amphetamines can lead to unintended consequences, including:  

  • Risk of accidental overdose due to counterfeit pills that may contain other unknown substances 
  • Increased anxiety or other mental health impacts 
  • Feeling anxious or jittery 
  • Physical discomfort, including nausea, digestive issues, etc. 
  • Risk of seizure and cardiac event, especially if dosing isn’t managed by a healthcare provider 
  • Increased irritability 
  • Losing sleep, feeling fatigued 
  • Focusing on the wrong things (e.g., organizing your room instead of studying) 
  • Becoming addicted to, or dependent on, amphetamines 

As you think through the risks and side effects associated with using ‘study drugs,’ consider if there are alternative ways to achieve the same results while avoiding unwanted experiences. For instance, you may feel more energized after seven to nine hours of sleep at night or more productive if you break down your study blocks into smaller sections. 

 Note: Side effects can occur when stimulants are used with or without a prescription. If you are currently using stimulants as prescribed to treat a condition and are concerned about negative side effects, contact your healthcare provider. 

3. What are some alternatives?

When it’s crunch time, ‘study drugs’ may seem like an effortless way to extend a study session or maintain better focus. However, studies have shown that using study drugs without a prescription does not enhance academic performance. This is because medications like Ritalin or Adderall typically do not improve a person’s test-taking or study skills, even if it makes them feel more alert.  

The most effective way to improve your grades and prepare for exams is to start early, give yourself plenty of time to study, get plenty of sleep and take regular breaks.  

Here are a few tips to try: 

  • Schedule your study sessions. Are you a morning person or a night owl? Try to plan your study during times of the day when you’re feeling mentally sharp. 
  • Prioritize subjects. Prioritize what you study based on what will be on your exams. Start with the information you don’t know as well. If you aren’t sure what will be on your exams, reach out to your instructors for clarification. Remember it’s okay to move onto other topics if you get stuck. Just remind yourself to go back and revisit them later. 
  • Reduce distractions. Find ways to reduce distractions while studying. For instance, you may want to put your phone in ‘do not disturb’ mode or let friends know that you can’t make plans that day. Once you hit a milestone in your assignment or study guide, take a short break to check your feed, watch an episode of your favorite show or grab a quick coffee with friends before you start studying again. 
  • Go to bed at a reasonable time. Plan for at least seven hours of sleep each night. If you stay up late and feel groggy during the day, try to fit a 15 to 20 minute power nap into your day. Sleep is important for memory, alertness, mood and motivation, so it’s important to be well rested. 
  • Start small. If you are having trouble getting started on a paper or project, create a loose outline with a list of your main points. Staring at a blank page can make it more difficult to get started, and creating a plan with your outline can help overcome that roadblock. Similarly, you can break study guides into smaller chunks and work through them methodically. 
  • Set the mood. Create an effective study environment or reserve a space to study in advance. Make sure you have all the supplies you need, such as pencils, calculators, your laptop and charger, water, snacks and class materials. 
  • Maintain your energy. It’s important to eat regularly and stay hydrated throughout the day, especially if you’re preparing for exams. Study sessions tend to be more productive when we are full and focused. 

Check out additional study and test-taking tips

4. How can you reduce your risk?

Taking any prescription medication not as prescribed or without a prescription can pose risks. This includes the use of stimulants to study and anti-anxiety medications (e.g., Xanax) to cope. For instance, combining stimulants with depressants, such as alcohol, Xanax or opiates, can increase the risk of overdose. 

Here are some things to keep in mind to reduce your risk: 

  • Assume any drug not purchased directly from a pharmacy is contaminated with harmful substances. 
  • Remember, fentanyl strips are not a guarantee of safety. Fentanyl may still be in another untested part of the pill or powder, or it may contain another unknown synthetic substance. 
  • If you choose to use stimulants without a prescription, start slow, use smaller doses and practice caution. 
  • Keep naloxone, an FDA-approved nasal spray that can be used to temporarily reverse opioid and fentanyl overdoses, on hand and learn how to use it. 
  • Use fentanyl test strips whenever possible to test substances before you use them. Test strips are available from Health Promotion on the third floor of Wardenburg Health Center. 
  • Avoid using substances alone. If someone experiences an overdose, make sure they know how to call for help and administer naloxone. 
  • Practice healthy habits, like eating regularly and staying hydrated. 
  • Schedule time to sleep and recover after use (sleep is one of the best predictors for academic success). 

It’s also important to know that any drug not purchased directly from a pharmacy may contain fentanyl, methamphetamine or other substances. This is because many counterfeit capsules and pressed pills are made to look like prescription medications, including Adderall, Percocet, Oxycontin, Roxicodone and Xanax. In fact, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), nearly half of all counterfeit prescriptions tested contained a lethal dose of fentanyl. Keep in mind that any pill you may purchase from friends, classmates or dealers may be counterfeit.

Learn more about fentanyl and overdose prevention

 Note: Possession and/or selling Schedule I narcotics (i.e., Ritalin, Adderall, Xanax, etc.) is illegal and can result in criminal charges and are a violation of the Student Code of Conduct

Important notice

There is currently a national shortage of Adderall.


  • If you are taking this medication with a prescription, please contact your pharmacy at least seven days before your prescription is refilled. 
  • If you do not have a prescription or are unable to refill your prescription, please be aware of the increased risks associated with buying stimulants off the street, including purchases from friends, classmates or dealers. Counterfeit stimulants always run the risk of containing fentanyl.

5. How can you prevent overdoses? 

If you choose to use study drugs with or without a prescription, you may experience a number of unwanted side effects, including accidental overdose. 

Call 911 if you or someone you know experiences any of the following: 

  • Irregular heartbeat, chest pain 
  • Confusion 
  • Convulsions, seizures 
  • Delusions, hallucinations 
  • Passed out, unresponsive 
  • Shallow breathing 
  • Blue/gray lips or fingertips 

Important policies to know

CU Boulder Amnesty Policy

Calling for help in an alcohol- or drug-related emergency means neither the person who calls for help nor the person who needs help will be subject to formal disciplinary sanctions by the university (i.e., probation, suspension, expulsion).   

To be covered by the Amnesty Policy, a student must:  

  • Call for help (911 or university staff). 
  • Stay with the individual until help arrives. 
  • Cooperate with staff and emergency responders. 

911 Good Samaritan Law

The 911 Good Samaritan Law states that a person is immune from criminal prosecution for an offense when the person reports, in good faith, an emergency drug or alcohol overdose even to a law enforcement officer, to the 911 system or to a medical provider.  

This same immunity applies to persons who remain at the scene of the event until a law enforcement officer, or an emergency medical responder arrives, or if the person remains at the facilities of the medical provider until a law enforcement officer, emergency medical responder or medical provider arrives. The immunity described above also extends to the person who suffered the emergency drug or alcohol overdose event. 

6. What other support is available?

CU Boulder has a variety of resources to help students prepare for exams and projects. These are a great alternative to going it alone and can be more effective than using study drugs. 


Buff Pantry

Students who are experiencing food insecurity can register with the Buff Pantry to receive free groceries and personal care items. Clients can typically pick out 20 pounds of food each week.

Finals events

Do you love free food? Check out upcoming finals week events to take a break, grab a snack and enjoy activities with friends.

Free Finals Week

Stop by the Rec Center to enjoy free activities all finals week long, including skating, fitness classes and more!

Let’s Talk

Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) offers free drop-in consultations at various locations around campus. Let’s Talk is a great way to explore resources, gain insight and address a variety of concerns.

Nutrition Services

Students can meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) to discuss meal planning, allergies, intuitive eating, grocery budgeting and more. 

Study spaces

Need a place to study? Check out this comprehensive list of study spaces on campus. 

Figueroa Wellness Suite

Need a place to rest or reset? Stop by the Figueroa Wellness Suite to take a nap, pick up free wellness supplies, find a quiet place to study or hang out with friends between exams.


All CU students can access free telehealth services, including counseling, psychiatry, nutrition and medical appointments through AcademicLiveCare. 

Wellness resources

Let’s Talk

Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) provides free drop-in services through Let’s Talk. Counselors are available in person and online to help provide insight, solutions and information about additional resources related to academics, stress, anxiety, substance use, relationships and more.

Collegiate Recovery Community (CUCRC)

The CUCRC provides meetings and support groups, recovery-focused housing, events and activities, peer support and more for students in recovery or interested in pursuing recovery from drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, self-harm, other addictions and harmful behaviors.

Disability Services

Disability Services is dedicated to providing students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in university programs, courses and activities through reasonable accommodations and services. If you’re planning to use testing accommodations, make sure you’re on the same page as your instructors about how they’ll be administered.

Test anxiety tips

It’s normal to feel nervous about upcoming tests or exams. However, if you experience overwhelming anxiety or stress before and during tests, it may be linked to test anxiety. Here are some tips to help you make it through the end of the semester and finals.


CAPS provides weekly workshops that can help students develop healthy coping skills related to stress, anxiety and other painful or distressing emotions. All workshops are covered by the mental health fee. 

Peer Wellness Coaching

Health and Wellness Services offers weekly programs to help you develop healthy habits, participate in self-care and take a break from academics. Programs are available throughout the week and are free to all CU Boulder students.


AcademicLiveCare is a telehealth platform that allows students to schedule and attend mental health appointments from a smartphone, computer or other mobile device for free. Easily schedule virtual visits with licensed psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, or other providers. Please note: AcademicLiveCare does not provide crisis or emergency care.

Alcohol and Other Drugs Information

CU Boulder is committed to the health and wellness of our students. Learn more about campus policies, programs and tips to stay safe while using alcohol and other drugs