This study aimed to describe patterns of use and attitudes towards a broad variety of substances for improving academic performance at a New Zealand university. 685 students (from 1800 invited) completed an online questionnaire (38% response rate). They were asked about their lifetime and current substance use for improving academic performance, as well as their reasons for use, attitudes and perceptions of: caffeine, alcohol, dietary supplements, prescription stimulants, other prescription substances, and illicit substances. 80% (95% CI: 76.3, 82.5) reported ever using any substance to help improve academic performance, mainly to stay awake and improve concentration. Caffeine (70%, 95% CI: 66.3, 73.3) and dietary supplements (32%, 95% CI: 28.3, 35.5) were most commonly used. 4% (95% CI: 2.7, 5.9) reported use of prescription stimulants, mostly methylphenidate, and another 4% (95% CI: 2.7, 5.9) reported using illicit substances for improving academic performance. Users of prescription stimulants were more likely than non-users to believe that they were safe, morally acceptable, and that they should be available legally for enhancing academic performance. We close with discussions on broadening the focus of substances for improving academic performance in public health debates. Further qualitative research from small countries is also needed to move towards a place-based approach for clarifying ethical implications, inform policy in universities, and understand how injustices are created through the use of and ability to purchase different substances.