In my second semester of sophomore year, I went out to dinner with friends to celebrate the end of midterm exams, even though I still had one additional exam the next day. While it was fun to spend time with my friends and to eat at a restaurant I had never been to before, I ended up getting sick before an exam- more specifically, developing food poisoning and had to take my cybersecurity midterm while dealing with overwhelming nausea and sitting next to a trash can. Since then, I have dealt with several other medical emergencies that have taken place shortly before major exams, including a concussion, appendicitis, and similar situations. Today, I will be sharing my tips for students who are dealing with illness or injury right before a major exam, as well as options for taking exams while sick.
All information, content, and material of this website is for informational purposes only and are not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider. If you believe you are having a medical emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
Before anything else, seek medical attention
I know that it can seem tempting to try to power through an exam while not feeling well, but if a student becomes sick or injured right before a major exam, I highly recommend seeking medical attention instead of pushing off going to the doctor until after exams are done. Depending on the extent of the illness or injury, medical staff may advise the student to take the exam at a different date/time or recommend short-term modifications or accommodations for taking the exam- more on that later. Many professors also require a doctor’s note or other medical documentation for delaying or modifying exams for medical-related reasons.
For health issues that arise during traditional business hours, the student health center on-campus often provides free or discounted medical care for students and offers same-day and walk-in appointments. However, student health centers may not be able to treat certain types of conditions and will typically refer students to the local urgent care or emergency room if they are dealing with a medical emergency.
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Contact professors to let them know what is happening
Even if a student is not able to provide medical documentation right away, it’s helpful to keep professors in the loop if a student is having a medical emergency. I try to email professors as soon as I can and give them a brief description of what is going on, and sometimes include a picture such as a selfie of me in the hospital or a picture of my bracelet with the medical record number redacted. Here’s an example of an email that I would send, taken from my post “Ten Form Emails To Send To Your Professors.”
I am currently in the hospital and will be having my appendix removed at 7 am tomorrow. I will not be in class on Monday, and will need to reschedule my midterm exam as I will be resting at home. I expect to return to campus in two weeks.
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Consider requesting short-term modifications or accommodations
While it wasn’t for a major exam, I did end up with an eye infection in both of my eyes right before my first pre-calculus test and had little to no usable vision. I already had an accommodation for extended time on my exam, but I was worried that having time-and-a-half would not be enough, as I was going to be navigating the exam exclusively with a screen reader. I sent a message to the professor explaining that both of my eyes were swollen shut and asked if I could have double time on my exam so that I could take the exam with a screen reader. The professor was fine with this, and I’m happy to report that I earned a high grade on that test.
Other examples of short-term modifications or accommodations that can be provided to students with medical documentation include:
- Extended time
- Having food/water at the exam table
- Untimed breaks (note that students cannot use electronics during breaks)
- Large print
- Break to take medication
- Change of testing format- taking a digital test or having a digital test printed out
- Use of a scribe
- Alternative proctoring solution, i.e having a student use a remote proctor
- Use of dictation to record answers
For students who will need accommodations for a longer period of time or for additional classes, I recommend getting a Disability Services file.
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Ask about alternative testing locations
When my friend injured their leg in multiple places before finals, they discovered that they were unable to walk to the location where their final exam would be taking place, which was different from their classroom. Instead of showing up to the exam exhausted or in a lot of pain, they talked to their professor about taking the exam from either the testing center close to their dorm or from their dorm room with a remote proctor, so that they wouldn’t have to walk incredibly far and so that they could spend their energy focusing on their exam. The professor was fine with this, and they ended up taking the exam in the testing center and scoring very high.
In another situation, I was several hours from campus on the day of my final exam as I was dealing with another medical issue. Instead of having me return to campus just to take an exam, my professor set up a digital exam that I could take from anywhere that used several built-in tools to check for cheating and plagiarism. This option worked out really well as I was able to take the exam as scheduled, just from another location.
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Rescheduling for another day
For students who wouldn’t benefit from having accommodations or modifications to take their exam, most professors will allow students to reschedule as long as they have supporting medical documentation. In some cases, the professor or academic department may require an additional doctor’s note from a specialist or primary care physician to determine when the student can return to class- this was the case when I was hospitalized, as the hospital discharge paperwork was very vague and did not state when I could return to school. Professors may have a dedicated make-up day for students who were unable to make it to the scheduled exam, or they may hold the exam during office hours.
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Requesting an incomplete/extension
If a student has a medical emergency at the end of the semester and can’t take the final before the last day of exams, the professor can request an incomplete/extension on behalf of the student, which would give them additional time to finish the course materials. Incompletes typically extend into the next semester of classes and give students the opportunity to turn in missed classwork or other assignments without penalty. Some professors allow students to take exams during the summer, while others require students to wait until classes resume in the fall to turn in assignments.
For students that have extenuating or extraordinary medical emergencies, many schools have a different type of extension or special provision that the professor can request on behalf of the student. In these cases, the students would have additional time that goes beyond the next semester to complete course materials. These extensions are generally only granted for students that have long-term medical issues or medical treatments- I was granted one following surgery that required a multiple day hospital stay.
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What if I miss the exam?
As long as students can provide documentation for what happened, most professors will allow students to take exams at another time. This was not for a medical reason, but I had a family emergency pop up on the same day as one of my midterms and I was unable to get in touch with my professor until after the exam had ended. In this case, I sent them an email explaining what had happened and apologized for not being able to contact them sooner, and the professor was fine with allowing me to take the exam at a different date. Students can also talk to their department chairs or other faculty to get permission to take their exam at another time.
Summary of dealing with medical emergencies before exams
- Prioritize your health over your grades and seek medical attention- medical documentation is critical for getting exam modifications or extensions
- Contact professors via email and let them know what is happening
- Consider requesting short-term modifications or accommodations to take the exam, such as extended time
- Ask about alternative testing locations and proctoring options
- Reschedule the test for another day
- For exams that take place at the end of a semester, request an extension or incomplete
- If a student misses an exam and has medical documentation, then they can typically take it at another time