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In the last year or so I’ve had a lot of clients and parents mention to me that they were thinking of using medication to improve performance on a standardized test.

This was something I almost never encountered when I first started tutoring for standardized tests. But now it seems like something I’m running into at least once a month.

I haven’t really seen this addressed on the Internet in any kind of serious way, so I wanted to weigh in on the issue.

Before I get into this, let’s make something clear: I’m not any kind of medical expert or authority at all. I’m not a doctor, not a pharmacist, not a nurse, or anything like that. Of course, any decision you make about what to take, or what not to take, should be made with the help of an actual medical authority.

Now that that’s clear, let’s take a look at some of the important considerations surrounding the issue of using drugs for tests like the SAT, ACT, PSAT, LSAT, GRE, and GMAT.

First Things First: Parental Consent And Parental Ignorance

If you’re reading this and you’re younger than 18 or you still live with your folks: It is absolutely essential that your parents know what medications you decide to take. No matter what people might tell you, drugs like Ritalin can have side effects. Even multivitamin pills can have side effects. Your parents need to know what you’re taking because they need to know what’s going on if, God forbid, something goes wrong during the test and you need medical attention.

If you’re reading this and you’re the parent of someone who’s going to take a standardized test: Do not make the very common mistake of assuming that your child has no access to drugs just because you don’t know about it. More than once a student has mentioned to me that he’s planning on using a friend’s prescription for Ritalin on test day, and that his parents don’t know anything about it. I’m sure many clients who plan on doing this don’t even bother mentioning it to me, as well. Just something to be aware of.

Something Important That Everybody Overlooks

As far as I’m concerned, the question of whether a student should use drugs to do better on a standardized test is coming from the wrong perspective in the first place.

Most people assume that standardized tests are challenging ordeals that tax test-takers to the very limits of human ability. So they look into using drugs like ADHD medication and beta-blockers in an effort to give themselves every advantage.

The problem is that standardized tests aren’t actually that hard, and they’re definitely not hard in a way that drugs are likely to impact. (This goes back to the whole problem with the traditional approach to test prep in the first place: it’s based on a complete misunderstanding of what these tests actually evaluate.)

To do better on a standardized test, you should learn the rules and standards for that test and then practice using them on real test questions to figure out what the questions are asking you to do. That’s it.

Contrary to popular opinion, doing well on a standardized test isn’t about memorizing tons of vocabulary words or doing anything else along those lines, which is why cramming doesn’t really help; since cramming doesn’t help, drugs that help you cram don’t help much, either.

(Anti-anxiety medication might seem like it would help in some instances, since anxiety is often a part of test-taking for some people. But according to the few students I’ve known who used such drugs and told me about their experiences, the effects were neutral-to-negative. One client told me that she felt her beta-blockers made her so nauseous on test day that she couldn’t focus on the test.)

Drugs Don’t Guarantee Anything

I have a friend who once took some Ritalin to help him pull an all-nighter for a big final. He ended up playing video games for 11 or 12 hours instead of cramming. He ended up doing horribly on his test.

The lesson here is that Ritalin may help you focus, but it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll focus on the right thing. Lack of focus isn’t usually the problem for most test-takers; the problem is usually knowing what to focus on in the first place, and that’s something Ritalin can’t help you with.

My Final Verdict

As you can probably tell, I’m not a very big fan of using medication to improve your score on a standardized test. Admittedly, some of this probably comes from the fact that I try not to take too much medicine anyway. But it’s much more a question of whether the drugs seem to help people at all, and, in my experience, they don’t really seem to help. It’s not that a drug like Ritalin doesn’t do what it’s supposed to; it’s that Ritalin doesn’t help with the things that raise your score.

So I’m against it.

At this point you might be thinking, “Well, even if Mike doesn’t think it’ll help, there doesn’t seem to be much to lose, either. So maybe I’ll just give it a shot–what’s the worst that can happen?”

I’m glad you asked 🙂 Let’s take a look–

Two Hidden Problems Of Using Drugs To Improve On Standardized Tests

Side-Effects

Drugs have side effects that can range from nausea to dizziness to a drop in blood pressure or pulse rate (they can have worse side effects too, of course). Any of those side effects might potentially be exacerbated by the stresses of test day, and before you know it you can find yourself drenched in sweat or with an upset stomach, struggling to pay attention to the test.

Focusing On The Wrong Thing

Students who plan to use drugs as a major part of their test-taking strategy are usually frustrated with their test prep options, or just looking for a relatively easy way to improve their scores. But, as I’ve mentioned, they don’t seem to have very good results. Unfortunately, this reliance on medication also frequently means that people don’t explore other ways to improve their scores.

Some Good News

The good news is that there are ways to improve your test scores apart from the typical approach of memorizing vocabulary and cramming other facts in your head. The better way to approach a standardized test is to focus on the test’s design and attack that in a strategic way.

Approaching the test in the right way might not be as easy as popping a pill, but it’s not nearly as hard or frustrating as the traditional test prep class, and the only potential effects are positive: a much better shot at a raised score, a new way to think about taking tests in general, and improved confidence.