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

As we all prepare to hunker down 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. Prescription stimulants and studying

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. 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 risks

While stimulants may help some people focus, they may not help your academic performance overall. In fact, misusing stimulants and amphetamines can lead to unintended consequences, including: 

  • 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 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. 

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.

[button: Check out additional study and test-taking tips]

4. Reduce your risk

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. This is because many counterfeit capsules and pressed pills are made to look like prescription medications, including Adderall, Oxycodone 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 contains fentanyl.
  • If you choose to use stimulants without a prescription, start slow, use smaller doses and practice caution.
  • Keep naloxone, an FDA-approved medication that can be used to temporarily reverse opioid overdoses, on hand and learn how to use it.
  • 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 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

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.

Finals resources

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

Health and Wellness resources

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 and fitness classes!

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.

Peer Wellness Coaching

Meet one-on-one with a trained peer wellness coach to set wellness goals and connect with campus resources. Coaches are available to help you create a plan to study, reduce stress, manage your time, create a sleep schedule or routine, practice self-care 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.

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.


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.

Weekly programs

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.

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.

Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) 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.