Is Taking a Stimulant to Ace My Exam a Smart Idea?

ADHD Medication and Exams
Patient with Adult ADHD that is taking an exam while looking her RX medication that is placed on the table.

If you don’t have Adult ADHD, taking stimulants to try to improve your focus for a test could be a mistake

Albert Hernandez

November 11, 2021
 Medically Reviewed by Tanya Hernandez, PMHNP-BC
Updated on: October 19, 2022
  6 min read

November 11, 2021
 Medically Reviewed by Tanya Hernandez, PMHNP-BC
Updated on: October 19, 2022
  6 min read


Who hasn’t dreamed about a magic bullet that would help you do better on an exam? Especially if you have a really important test coming up, it’s normal to reach for any assistance that you can find. So, in addition to studying the material by yourself, partnering up with a “study buddy” to review, and making sure to get plenty of sleep, have you ever asked yourself:

“Will ADHD medication help me on an exam?”

“Could stimulants help me do well on the big test I’m worried about?”

In my practice, I’ve seen traditional and nontraditional students from Las Cruces, El Paso, Albuquerque and other areas of the Southwest. I’ve had potential patients approach our practice asking about stimulants for help on tests, and I can understand how they may have gotten this idea. 

Maybe you’ve overheard one of your classmates bragging about how he scored some Adderall before his Biology final exam and got his highest grade of the semester. Or, perhaps you remember how tough tests seemed to be for your older sister before her Vyvanse prescription. Then, after she started taking her ADHD medication, she could finally focus, and school wasn’t so hard for her.

So, why not you?

ADHD Medications Won’t Help You On a Test If You Don’t Have ADHD

Let’s just get this out of the way: stimulants don’t make you smarter. Stimulant meds help with symptoms of ADHD. When young adults who are in college are diagnosed with ADHD, it can be incredible how they are finally able to focus and achieve the grades they want. 

It is dangerous to take ADHD medication prior to an exam without a proper diagnosis.

If you have noticed the symptoms of Adult ADHD, such as:

  • Trouble staying focused on a task
  • Daydreaming instead of getting needed work done
  • Talking over others or not being able to wait your turn to talk
  • Losing important items frequently 
  • Being fidgety or being unable to sit still
  • Having difficulty following a conversation or seeming like you’re paying attention when someone else is talking 

then a stimulant medication such as Vyvanse, Adderall, or Concerta may be effective in relieving your ADHD symptoms. And, if your ADHD is better-controlled, you will be able to concentrate on studying more effectively. When your ADHD is treated properly, your focus and ability to sit still will be better on exam day. 

But, what if you haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD, and you don’t currently notice the symptoms of ADHD in your day-to-day life?

ADHD medications can actually harm your test-taking abilities if you don’t have ADHD.

Okay, so you don’t have Adult ADHD, and you don’t think you have Adult ADHD. But you still want to try taking a stimulant to just see if it might help on an upcoming big exam. What’s the harm, right?

Well, if you don’t have Adult ADHD, taking a stimulant like Concerta, Adderall, or Vyvanse to help you with your test-taking could actually backfire. That’s because you may end up experiencing potential side effects of these stimulants, which include:

  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Increased heart rate and/or blood pressure
  • Hallucinations
  • Irritability 

Coping with those unneeded and disruptive side effects aren’t likely to help you to focus during an important exam.

If Taking a Stimulant Isn’t the Answer, What Is?

You now know that if you don’t have ADHD, taking Concerta, Vyvanse, or Adderall won’t help you do well on your upcoming exam. Here are some other tips to help you do your best on a test.

Procrastination can lead to poor academic performance when patients forget to take their ADHD medication.

Prepare for the Test Ahead of Time

In the weeks leading up to the test, take steps to make sure you know the material. You can quiz yourself on concepts that you’ve already learned using your textbook and notes. Once you determine what areas of the material that you need the most practice with, make a list of the topics you need to review. Then you will be able to focus on the areas that you need to spend more time on.

Schedule Time to Study

Actually put study time in your planner or calendar app. If you just tell yourself that you’ll review material when you have extra time, that time will likely never appear. Experiment with studying alone and with someone else from your class. You might find that you can retain certain information better when studied with a partner, or you might find it easier to remember some things if you’ve reviewed them alone.

Take Care Right Before the Exam

If you’ve studied and learned the material to the best of your ability, all that’s left is to make smart choices before your exam, like:

  • Eat something nourishing so hunger won’t distract you during your test
  • Make sure that you drink enough water before the exam
  • Dress comfortably
  • Give yourself plenty of time to get to the test site so that you’re not stressed by traffic or any other outlying things that could make you late
  • Remember to breathe and trust that you’ve prepared well

Whether you’re a student at the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, or at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, it’s understandable to be looking for an “edge” to do your best on exams. If you don’t have symptoms of Adult ADHD, taking a stimulant like Concerta, Adderall, or Vyvanse won’t give you that edge you’re looking for. Taking a stimulant recreationally is likely to do more harm than good.

If you’re concerned that you might have symptoms of Adult ADHD, getting diagnosed is the right place to start. In addition to seeing patients in El Paso, Las Cruces, and Albuquerque, Upper Valley Behavioral Health can see patients in several other US locations. Click here for a list of all locations that we serve. To meet with a board-certified behavioral health expert who can help you determine if you have Adult ADHD, please click here to fill out our application for treatment. 

Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not replace instructions from your licensed prescriber. Please consult your healthcare provider for guidance on your specific medication regimen.

Tags: mental health, mental health awareness, mental health matters, living with adhd, adults with adhd

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