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What Happens if Someone Dies During an Exam? The Pass-by-Catastrophe Myth, Debunked

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Apr. 21 2022, Published 6:30 p.m. ET

Tests don't stop once you graduate high school. Whether you're getting a degree or applying for a job, you can spend months studying for one test. But sometimes, life gets in the way on a grand scale. If something happens outside of your control and someone dies during an exam, what happens?

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What happens if someone dies during an exam?

A lot of people think that if someone dies during an exam, everyone else taking it passes automatically. But ultimately, what happens when an unexpected event like death occurs during an exam depends on the institution administering it.

Some schools may decide to postpone the exam. Others may choose to cancel it altogether and give their students a passing grade. If you want to be sure, get in contact with your school's administration. Considering all of the unpredicted things that have taken place over the past few years, they may have some kind of policy on file.

Stressed Out Taking an Exam
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During the first round of COVID-19 quarantine, officials in New York City mandated that schools were not allowed to give "most students failing grades," according to Chalk Beat. This was meant to take different factors of remote learning into consideration, like if someone had the virus in a student's home, if the child had reliable access to WiFi, and more.

In an event like the Boston Marathon bombing, The Boston Globe reported that schools canceled their final exams when the manhunts were taking place.

In an unforeseen event, some schools or institutions might postpone an exam or put a secondary assignment in the test's place. Remember that you can typically have tests postponed for personal issues like a death in the family, so the same is possible here.

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What does "pass by catastrophe" mean?

"Pass by catastrophe" is an urban legend that suggests everyone taking an exam passes it if an unforeseen event occurs while the test is being administered. This doesn't just apply to someone dying during an exam. It also goes for natural disasters, a fire, or any other catastrophic event.

Stressed Out Taking an Exam
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Behind this is the idea that the students affected by these events have had to deal with something out of their control. Who knows how they would have performed if the test had taken place on a regular day? Students shouldn't be held accountable such unforeseeable events.

However, "pass by catastrophe" isn't a real thing. According to The Sunday Times, it's an urban legend that has just gotten out of control. "This is definitely an urban legend," said University of Cape Town spokesperson Elijah Moholola. "No matter what happens, students have to earn their degree by passing the exams. If there were any circumstances preventing the university from offering the exams as scheduled, we would reschedule."

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