Exam steroids

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You’re about to sit an exam. You’ve got your pens and water bottle, your glasses and a watch. You’re feeling nervous, but you’ve studied and you know your shit. You’re almost fully prepared to ace this test. No one is looking. This is your chance. You pop an Adderall and take a swig of water.

Some back story: you don’t have a prescription. You don’t have any kind of Attention Deficit Disorder. You’ve never even seen a psychiatrist. You’re a happy, content, generally-satisfied-with-life human being. Quasi-normal. Like most of us. You just bought these pills from a friend for £10 because you heard they’re great for helping you focus. You’ve never done poorly on an exam before, but then you’ve never scored a 20 on one either. You can always be better, you think. There is always room for improvement, you assume. You dose yourself appropriately. So, are you cheating?

Yes and no. Like any interesting controversy, this is not a simple issue. Nowhere in the St Andrews Examination Rules for Candidates does it even mention medication, much less condemn the use of performance enhancing drugs. And make no mistake – that’s what Adderall, Ritalin, Metadate, and other psychostimulants qualify as. They literally enhance your performance by increasing your ability to focus on a singular objective.

So it’s probably safe to assume that, for now, self-medication of psychostimulants with the intention of performing better academically is not exam misconduct, and is not grounds for exam failure, expulsion, or any other form of reparation at St Andrews. In other words, you can pop those pills and get away with it. But should you? Let’s talk ethics.

For some reason the obsession with prescription psychostimulants is mostly an American phenomenon. When I brought this issue up to several English and Scottish friends, they all seemed astounded. They couldn’t believe people would sell drugs for exams or essays. When I asked them if they thought the students purchasing these drugs were cheating, if they thought it was an unfair advantage, every person I talked to agreed that it had to be. And I am inclined to concur with my British peers.

It does look that simple. Most students do not self-medicate to perform better. But a few do. And those who do so are raising the bar unfairly for those who don’t. After all, an exam is a kind of competition. We are trying to do better than the other students in the class as much as we’re trying to do our personal best. You may not be consciously aware of this, but it is the reality of the situation. That’s just a cold hard fact about education anywhere.

But why should a competitive exam be treated any differently from a competitive sport? Athletes aren’t allowed to take steroids, even though most steroids aren’t necessarily illegal. Athletes aren’t even allowed to dope their blood with more of their own blood – a fascinating case where nothing new is really added to the human body at all. Athletic competitions are similar to academic ones. There are winners and losers, and the losers lose because the winners win.

But where do we draw the line with what the winners are allowed to use? Isn’t caffeine a drug that enhances performance and focus, for some individuals, to a certain extent? Nicotine can have the same effect as well. Not allowing the use of coffee or cigarettes before an exam would be ridiculous. There simply cannot be a clear-cut solution or universal application to fix the problem of unfair use of prescription drugs.

For an outside perspective, I consulted a close friend of mine who attends Princeton University. He reported that a significant number of students use psychostimulants regularly. The use of prescription drugs by students without prescriptions is considered misconduct by the Princeton Honor Code, but in the history of the university no student has been found guilty, or even once accused, of self-medication of such drugs.

So what does it all come down to? Pop those pills if you want to, I guess. No one’s going to stop you. But feel guilty about it. You’re cheating, even if you can’t get caught for it.

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