SAT ruins a Saturday | October 17, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - October 17, 2008

SAT ruins a Saturday

by Maria Shen

As a 17-year-old, I love Saturdays for the leisurely pace of them. I'm free to procrastinate and just float in the middle of things. Whatever was done on Friday was just a prelude to more fun, and whatever I needed to do over the weekend could be taken care of on Sunday. Saturday is sacred in that way. It's like a cup of chamomile tea - perfectly relaxing.

That's why I was bitter, you see, when I had to be woken up by my flashing/vibrating/screaming alarm clock at 5:45 a.m. and drive for 40 minutes to a testing site in near darkness for the recent October SAT. By the time I got there, my head was pounding, my eyes refused to stay open, and my skin felt clammy because I was about to pass out from lack of sleep.

I'm not a morning person. I am not happy before noon and even less happy when I have to face three hours and 45 minutes of testing. There were two five-minute breaks, during which I was allowed to use the bathroom. And, for some reason, the person I stood next to in the bathroom line was humming a very catchy tune, "What is Love," which I ended up bobbing my head to through the Critical Reading section, and over some lovely Geometry problems in the math portion of the test.

The bottom line is this: It's hard to stay awake during the SAT, and even harder to concentrate. To sharpen our minds before the test, high school students take large doses of vitamins, drink tea, or guzzle caffeine. I can definitely claim I drank a large amount of black coffee last Saturday - my test proctor practically had to pry the coffee cup out of my unwilling fingers. Caffeine's probably bad for me, but I figured that propping my eyelids up with little wooden sticks wouldn't end well, either.

However, in order to really gain a competitive edge over their peers, some teens will take prescription medication. And, believe it or not, it happens in Danville, too. Using stimulants for Attention Deficit Disorder, in particular, is widespread.

"Ritalin - I think that's the best focus drug out there," said a student, who asked not to be identified. He told me he hadn't ever taken the drug but claimed, "Yeah, I definitely know people who took it." He did admit to a few protein shakes before the SAT.

A quick search online yields instant results. led me to an article titled "Pressed to Do Well On Admissions Tests, Students Take Drugs." The article describes a 17-year-old senior who took Adderall, another ADHD medication, two hours before the test.

This anonymous student reports, "It just felt like I was on top of my game. I knew I was going to get the questions right."

These drugs aren't deadly, but they aren't exactly candy capsules either. Adderall is a mixture of amphetamines and definitely not intended for people without ADHD. Amphetamines mimic the neurochemical dopamine, which is known to increase alertness, but they also cause dangerous side effects and dependency.

Similarly, Ritalin is a medication for Attention Deficit Disorder, approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Here's the scary part: It's normally prescribed to children. Medication like Ritalin isn't difficult to get. Students can easily get a pill from a sibling or a friend.

This is what I think: It's bad. Don't do it.

On pain of sounding like a cheesy D.A.R.E slogan or anti-drug crusader, I really must say that taking anything that messes with the chemicals in your brain probably isn't the safest-sounding idea. And, that, frankly, includes caffeine.

On Saturday, after an hour of feeling jittery from the coffee, I started to slog through the remaining test sections, feeling more tired than when I started out.

Take a leaf from my anonymous friend who drank protein shakes, or Shazia Manji, a senior at Monte Vista, who drank black tea for breakfast.

Oh, and I heard sleeping helps, too.

Maria Shen, reporting on Generation Y, is a senior at Monte Vista High School. She founded Contra Costa County's Young Bohemians creative writing club and is editor of Voicebox, a literary magazine. E-mail her at