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

As we prepare for exams and projects, it can be tempting for some to use prescription stimulants (commonly referred to as ‘study drugs’) without a prescription.

If you choose to use ‘study drugs’ to prepare for finals, here are a few things you should know to reduce your risk. 

1. What are study drugs?

Prescription stimulants that are used without a prescription in order to increase energy and concentration are often referred to as ‘study drugs.’ These drugs contain amphetamine, and are typically prescribed to manage attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Ritalin and Adderall are the two most commonly misused stimulants.

In addition to stimulants, some students may use anti-anxiety medications, like Xanax, without a prescription or not as prescribed. 

Whether you choose to use stimulants, anti-anxiety meds or other substances, it’s important to know that there is a large market for counterfeit drugs laced with fentanyl, methamphetamine and other substances. These include any substance purchased off the street, including purchases from friends, classmates or dealers. 

Learn more about fentanyl and overdose prevention

2. Understand the 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 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 find that you feel more energized after seven to nine hours of sleep at night or you may feel 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. Use alternative strategies to study

When it’s crunch time, study drugs may seem like an option to extend a study session or maintain better focus. However, studies have shown that using study drugs without a prescription doesn’t enhance academic performance. This is because medications like Ritalin or Adderall can make some feel more alert, but they may not improve test-taking or study skills. 

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

Here are a few tips as you prepare for finals:

  • 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 and come back later.
  • Reduce distractions. Find ways to reduce distractions while studying. For instance, you may want to turn off your phone notifications or log out of social media accounts. Once you hit a milestone in your assignment or study guide, take a short break to check your feed or watch an episode of your favorite show as a reward 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. Reduce your risks

Stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are safest when prescribed by a physician and can pose additional risks when taken without a prescription. Using ‘study drugs’ in combination with other medications or alcohol can create additional risks. For instance, combining stimulants with depressants, such as alcohol, Xanax or opiates, can increase the risk of overdose.

It’s also important to know that any drug not purchased directly from a pharmacy may contain fentanyl, methamphetamine, xylazine or other substances. This is because many counterfeit capsules and pressed pills are made to look like prescription medications, including Adderall, Percocet, Oxycontin and Xanax. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), nearly half of all counterfeit pills tested contained a lethal dose of fentanyl. 

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.
  • Try using an app like Canary, which alerts someone if you become unresponsive, or Brave, which allows you to connect with an anonymous person to call for help in case of overdose.
  • 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).

 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 reach out to your pharmacy at least seven days before your prescription needs to be 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. Know the signs of an overdose

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 heart beat, 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. Reach out for support

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

Finals resources

For a full list of support resources, events, study spaces and tips for finals week, visit

Academic resources

Tutoring services

CU Boulder offers a wide variety of tutoring services. Some are specific to classes, departments or groups of students, while others are available campus-wide. Many of these services are free to use. If you aren’t sure where to begin, be sure to check your syllabus, and ask your professor or course assistant for help and referrals.

Writing Center

The Writing Center provides free one-to-one tutoring sessions with professionally trained writing consultants, individualized guidance and feedback, as well as time-saving skills for writing and presentation projects. The Writing Center is available to all CU Boulder undergrad and graduate students for free.

Grade Replacement Program

This program allows degree-seeking undergrad and graduate students to retake a course in which they earned a low grade in an attempt to improve their cumulative GPA.

Wellness resources

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.

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.

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.


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. 


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.

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.

Free Finals Week at The Rec

The Rec Center will be hosting free activities and events for all students with a Buff OneCard during finals week, including ice skating, bouldering and climbing shoe rentals, fitness classes and more! They’ll also have conference rooms available for studying.

Figueroa Wellness Suite

The Wellness Suite is a great place to rest and reset. Whether you need a nap, want to pick up free health and wellness supplies, or if you just want to find a quiet place to study, the Wellness Suite provides a relaxing environment for students.

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.