Pass by Catastrophe: Reality or Myth?

Pass by Catastrophe: Reality or Myth?

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Have you ever heard of the academic urban legend called “pass by catastrophe”?

“Pass by catastrophe” is a myth in which a catastrophic event occurs during the exam session of a school: a fire, an earthquake, etc. The legend states that in such conditions, the students taking the exams would automatically be awarded passing grades.

This urban legend is partially true. This article will see real-life examples of how schools handle catastrophes.

Pass By Catastrophe: Real-Life Examples

Hundreds of “pass by catastrophe” stories are shared on the internet. However, their accuracy and reliability may be questionable at best. Here, we have gathered some real-life examples to give you an idea of what might and might not happen when all hell breaks loose!

Example 1: Boston Marathon Bombing

Many schools canceled the final exams in 2013 due to the notorious Boston Marathon Bombing (April 15). Since the terrorists behind the bombing were still on the run, schools had to cancel their final exams that were supposed to take place on April 19 to make sure everyone was safe.

Although exams were canceled, there was no guarantee of passing the semester. So what the schools did was calculate the students’ grades without the exam. In a nutshell, students who performed well before the exam — passed; those who did not — failed.

The education system just made it seem like the final exam was never part of the semester.

Learn more about this tragedy on BostonGlobe and TheAtlantic.

Example 2: Coronavirus

In Sri Lanka, all students passed the exams due to COVID-19. However, they only received a “C” or just passing grades. 

The students had the chance to improve their marks when the pandemic has eased. If they choose to, they may take an exam that will supersede the special-consideration grades.

Example 3: Hong Kong Police Raids

According to this news report, the Chinese University of Hong Kong shortened its semester due to the Hong Kong police raids in late 2019. There is anecdotal evidence indicating that some students were given a passing grade after the event. However, it wasn’t clear if they were all given passing marks. 

As you can see, this story lacks a lot of details. It is the only real example where all students could have been given a passing grade. However, there is no hard proof regarding that matter. The only proof we have are interviews with some of the students. 

Is “Pass By Catastrophe” a Myth or a Reality?

Many students ask themselves what would happen to their college if a student’s roommate commits suicide or if a particular catastrophic event puts an end to the exam session.

The truth is that the chain of events following such catastrophes will depend on the university policy.

In most scenarios, the exams are just delayed. We don’t have many use cases where all students were given a passing grade (see real-life cases above). This is why people have labeled the “pass by catastrophe” story as a legend. But it doesn’t mean that it does never happen — again, it is hard to predict how those events would unfold since these kinds of catastrophes are extremely rare.

However, schools do provide some leeway during times of hardship. “Hardship” covers students suffering from a disease, experiencing extreme financial difficulties, or getting into any form of accident that may hinder them from attending school. Most universities throughout the world can provide alternatives instead of giving everyone a good grade: delayed exams, online exams, the exam can be retaken, etc. The professors may adjust the grade or give a project to students to compensate for their shortcomings.

The Myth That Many Students Have Heard Over The Years

Below is a popular version of the “pass by catastrophe” myth. In this version, all students present passed the exam.

Imagine yourself in the last semester — unable to focus on your exam, and struggling!

You’re dead sure that there’s no way for you to pass and complete your course. Instead of that picture-perfect graduation party, you’re going to weep throughout the summer.

You are in a four-year college program turned into a half-decade study. 


Out of nowhere, and for some random reason, your university’s main faculty office explodes!

Fortunately, everyone is safe and sound, except for the imperative student files that got shredded into pieces during the accident. After a few hours, here comes the miracle; the headteacher declares “due to the explosion, the school year is canceled and every student graduates!”

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it true that if someone dies in an AP exam, everyone passes?

No. No one gets a free pass just because someone died, whether it’s a bar exam, AP exam, finals, or any exam.

This superstition is a misunderstood line coming from most universities that provide an honorary certificate (certificates that consider the deceased a successful graduate). These certificates are sometimes given to deceased students if their relatives would ask for them. 

These certificates provide no academic value and are certainly not useful for deceased students. The likeliest thing to happen when someone dies during an exam would be a postponement of the examination. 

What happens if a family member dies before an exam?

Death in the family is a hardship that many universities respect. 

If you experience death in your family while needing to take the exam tomorrow, you may talk to your advisor and request a make-up exam instead.

Most of the time, universities allow one to two weeks of grieving. However, you must take the examination after the grace period or risk failing. 

What happens when someone dies in an exam?

The likeliest scenario would be a postponement of the exam. 

Depending on the university, the students taking the exam will end up with two options: continue taking the exam in a different room or take the exam on another day. It’s illogical that the examiners will pass because someone died during the examination. 

What happens if a university closes?

When a university decides to close, it will likely finish its current semester. 

The government will aid the school in finishing the semester before closing and help the students move to a different institution. Schools rarely close abruptly. The common practice is allowing the graduating class to complete their studies first.

What if my professor dies?

During such an unfortunate event, the class will continue with a new substitute professor. Your class will possibly have a one-day break to show respect to your professor. Apart from that, the school schedule will resume as normal.

What happens if war occurs in my country?

If all hell breaks loose and war is inevitable, there will be “flexible education.”

It just means students will have to make do with whatever is available to complete — if even possible — their studies. The likely scenario is that everything will just come to a halt. However, if your university can preserve your records, it’s possible to get back to them after the war.

If you can get the original copy of your records, digital or physical, you may use that to enroll in a different institution. 

Does the university have the authority to make me pass if it wants to?

Technically, it is your professor that has the power to do so. Even if you are about to fail, your professor can turn that around. However, a learned professor will never do that as it will only contribute to your failure in the future. 

The Bottom Line

Pass by catastrophe may be very real, but it is incredibly rare.

If you’re hoping to get an easy ticket out of college to skip all its intricacies, passing because of some event is unrealistic. You’re better off studying and trying to get exceptional marks than praying for a deus ex machina to happen. 

We get that college life is hard. It can even be unforgiving at times.

However, you shouldn’t pray for luck; you should pray for the strength to carry on and pursue your studies the right way. Pass by catastrophe isn’t entirely a legend. However, it’s best if you would think of it as such to focus on what truly matters — your future. 

Passing without any substance is just like charging into a battlefield without a gun. 

About The Author

Nathan Brunner
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Nathan Brunner is a labor market expert. He is a mathematician who graduated from EPFL.

He is the owner of Salarship, a job board where less-skilled candidates can find accessible employment opportunities.