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Higher education: high stress and high expectations lead to high stimulant use

May 4, 2012

College students are ingesting large amounts of stimulants – coffee, energy drinks and even Adderall – to enhance their brain function and productivity while studying.

BOSTON (May 4, 2012) -- It is 3:00 a.m. and Kevin is staring at his computer screen like he has been for the past four hours. His fingers are flying across the keyboard, desperate to finish his 15-page research paper due at 10:00 a.m.


A venti Starbucks cup and smashed Red Bull can lay in the trash can beside his desk. He unwraps his eighth energy bar for the night and just throws the wrapper on the ground where the others are scattered about. His desk is piled high with books and papers. A highlighter is perched behind one ear, a pen behind the other and he holds a pencil between his teeth. On the top shelf of his desk sits his favorite study buddy, a little Zip-lock bag with ‘Adderall’ written on the side.


The previous afternoon, Kevin bought the Adderall from a fellow student for $8 per pill, which he considers a sound investment in his future.

Most Adderall users take the drug in order to write papers or complete assignments on strict deadlines. "It just motivates me to write sentences quicker and stay makes my thoughts connect easier," says Kevin. He admits, however that it is not helpful when memorizing facts. 


Higher education is all but required of teenagers these days and it is expected that students excel in academics, sports, community service and countless other facets of life. The stress often leaves students in a panic of how they can fit everything into one 24 hour time-span. 

"Across the board, undergrads and graduate students are reporting a tremendous amount of pressure," says Margaret Ross, director of behavioral medicine at Boston University's Student Health Services, in an interview with BU Today. 

The use of stimulating substances, such as caffeine, energy drinks and Adderall, is rising exponentially and college students are twice as likely to use and abuse such stimulants than any other demographics, according to health experts. 

Quick Facts on Stimulant Use

  • 65% of Americans use caffeine on a daily basis

  • 60% of Americans are sleep deprived

  • College students have twice as many sleep problems as the general population

  • Students who pull all-nighters have lower GPAs than those who have regular sleep patterns

  • College campuses known to be highly competitive have 25% of students on average using Adderall

  • 62% of users who obtain Adderall illegally report buying it for study purposes

  • College students aged 18-24 are twice as likely to abuse Adderall than non-students of the same age group

Glenn Wrigley, director at Boston University's Education Resource Center is also aware of just how common and available Adderall is to students at BU. "I have kids coming in here all the time and tell me that if they wanted to, they could leave and come back in 15 minutes with Adderall, all they have to do is make one phone call and pull out their cash," says Wrigley.


A 19-year-old student, who wishes to remain anonymous due to involvement in illegal activity, sells Adderall to his fellow students. He sells a 30mg tablet of Adderall for between five and 15 dollars. Most students want the instant release tablets, allowing him to charge $10-$15, while Adderall XR, extended release tablets, can be bought for around $5 per tablet. 

"The average Adderall users are college students looking for a study aid," he says. Adderall allows the brain to stay extremely focused for extended periods of time, but studies have shown that only caffeine will really help with retaining the information learned. 

Side Effects of Stimulants

Caffeine (including coffee, sodas and energy drinks): 

  • Cannot retain information

  • Lack of sleep

  • Anxiety, feeling jittery

  • Decreased growth rate


  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Decreased appetite

  • Anxiety, feeling jittery

  • Depression

  • Nightmares

  • Psychosis

Information retention seems to be a common problem among stressed out college students. While the norm has become all-night study sessions and cramming right before the test, stimulating drugs can never be a substitute for sleep. Sleep-deprived students are shown to have lower GPAs than those who have regular sleeping schedules.

In the little research that has been done, however, caffeine has been found to boost retention rates while many drugs such as Adderall can actually inhibit a student's ability to remember the material they are studying.

Many graduate students admit to occasionally using Adderall to write their thesis papers and almost all of them are avid coffee or Red Bull drinkers.

Students on stimulating substances often show symptoms physically with fidgeting and shaking. They can also cause an extreme lack of sleep, decrease appetite, irritability and in extreme cases, psychosis.

"The next day after taking Adderall, you will sometimes find yourself anxious, somewhat out of it, tired and unable to pay attention," says the Adderall dealer.

So if taking Adderall or ingesting copious amounts of caffeine are so bad for you, why do students do it?


"The appeal to these substances is a response to the pressure and the pace of the academic work at BU," says Wrigley. 

While students going to community college also use caffeine and Adderall, Kevin believes it is much different in private universities. "There is just a lot of work to do all the time," he says. "Everyone uses it, it's really common."

Not only has caffeine and Adderall been proven to help you focus, students also report that it helps them from getting distracted that information comes a lot clearer and quicker when on these stimulants. 

A sophomore in the College of Communication explains her struggles with being diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school. "My grades were below where they should have been," she says, "because I would get bored during tests and was unable to complete them properly."

She describes her ADHD as "compulsiveness" and a simple "lack of control." Adderall was originally designed to assist people like her in reaching their full potential inside the classroom and in daily life. 

There's laziness and then there's ADHD and some people seem to think they are interchangeable," she says. "It's laziness that has made Adderall such a popular drug among college students."

The pressure put on students these days to do well and excel in every aspect of life has become unbearable for many. The immense pressure has caused many students to not only risk their health, but to buy Adderall illegally, a crime punishably by fines and jail time. Additionally, the university is likely to suspend or expel a student found to buy or sell Adderall illegally, and they will permanently lose any scholarships or loans they may be receiving. 

Better Ways To Study

  • Look into the future and map out a plan of what assignments and tests you have on what days

  • Organize your time so that you don't have to cram

  • Be sure to get adequate sleep during the semester and around finals time - make sleep a habit with a scheduled sleep pattern

  • Balance your life by including exercise and healthy eating to help manage your stress level

  • Check how much caffeine you drink and figure out how much you really need

  • A brisk walk, deep breathing or a 20 minute power nap can help re-energize you instead of reaching for your third (or more) cup of coffee

  • If you think there is an underlying issue causing your lack of focus or sleep depravation, get yourself checked out

The rigorous academics at private universities have many students in a panic, looking for anything that can help them succeed despite its tremendous risks.

"Academic excellence is a wonderful thing," says Michelle George, a wellness director at BU, "but if you have to compromise your health in order to get there, then that's not so wonderful."

Resources at Boston University for the Stressed Out Student

Educational Resource Center

  • Meet with a staff member to help understand stress and develop a plan for studying

  • Peer tutors can help you understand the material from a particular course and can advise you on what and how to study for it

  • ERC gives workshops throughout the year on stress management, sleep habits, academic skills and many other important topics

Student Health Services and the Wellness Center

  • Visit Sargent Choice Nutritional Center to discuss what you are ingesting and how it may affect your health

  • Email to have the Student Health Ambassadors, undergraduate peer educators, come to your club or group of friends to discuss the physiology of stress and give primary prevention techniques

  • Stop by a workshop hosted by the Stress Buddy program to get tips on studying and stress management

  • Email the Wellness Center at, make an appointment with Student Health Services or the Behavioral Medicine Department at (617)353-3575 to check in on your health

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