What can I do if I fail my university exams? | Education
Kirsty Ackah was in her second year at Southampton Solent University when she went to hospital for 24 hours with mental health problems. “I missed my last exam,” she says. Although her university knew what had happened, it was marked down as a fail.
“I was going through severe mental health issues and I didn’t realise I needed to organise retaking the exam over the summer,” she says. “By the time I found out, it was too late.”
Ackah had to wait 12 months before retaking her third year. “It’s really sad because many students are young and not that well equipped to handle life-altering decisions,” she says. “Some guidance would’ve made all the difference to me.”
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), increasing numbers of students are dropping out. Failing assessments can be a reason, as retakes are potentially expensive and stressful. Universities minister Michelle Donelan says institutions need to step up and take action. “We cannot let these students down and let talent go to waste,” she says. If you’re struggling or you’ve failed already, here’s what to consider.
Was it out of your control?
Although each university has its own rules and regulations, Lanisha Butterfield from the University of Oxford says key reasons for mitigating circumstances include acute illness, unforeseen circumstances such as a traffic accident or bereavement, or a disability or long-term health condition. “All cases are looked at individually. It’s about putting your case forward and asking for help with your application,” she says.
Be aware that financial difficulties, mild illnesses, work commitments, poor time management or loss of material do not generally count as mitigating circumstances.
Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help
People often put off applying for extenuating circumstances because they think they don’t deserve it. James-John Connorwood, a law student at Glasgow Caledonian University, developed abdominal pains before sitting his last exam but the prospect of not graduating with his friends terrified him. “I attempted to push through and go ahead with the exam but the pain was excruciating,” he says. “I left the hall before finishing the paper.”
Many universities now allow self-certification requests for extensions. You can often apply for one or two per academic year and they can be used for coursework, written assignments, dissertations and projects. Be careful not to waste them. “I used my free pass for the sake of having extra time on a subject I disliked,” says Valerie Cole (not her real name), who studied sociology and media studies. When she was unwell later that year, she was unable to use a self-certification request and failed two exams. “It cost me. It was £1,500 just for the retakes and I had to pay for the extra year. I’ve had to defer my graduation because I’m still paying my fees back in instalments.”
Keep a record
If you think you may be unable to perform in an exam, act quickly and make sure you keep a record of all events. Most universities will require written evidence. This can include an official police report if you have been a victim of a crime, a death certificate if you have suffered a bereavement, or a dated letter from a doctor or hospital. “It can be difficult as it can be quite defeating to fight your case. But you have to do it,” says Ackah. Take advantage of academic skills support services, student counselling, lecturer office hours and personal tutors.
You can challenge a mark
If your application has been declined, you can request a review of the decision. Education lawyer Rhys Palmer says students are increasingly taking legal action. “Many people don’t appreciate at the time that they have mental health conditions or were unwell and they want a fair chance to resit,” he says.
After a conversation with lecturing staff, Connorwood was made aware of the mitigating circumstances process and will resit the exam. “It’s meant that I haven’t had to give up on my dream of becoming a solicitor. I feel hugely supported by my uni,” he says. “I recommend any student that finds themselves in a similar situation seek help. It could save you from dropping out.”