Do You Know What to Do If You Fail a Test in College?

College student sitting on the floor of the library using the electrical outlet to power his laptop.


Worried that you failed a test in college? You're not alone, and fortunately, failing a test in college doesn't necessarily mean you're going to ruin your GPA. To handle the problem directly, assess the situation, determine what went wrong, and then follow up with your professor to see if any options are available.

Failed an Exam in College?

Often, when walking out of an exam, you'll have a gut feeling of what didn't go well. Immediately sit down and reflect on the experience. First, determine if you understood the material. If you did, then assess your test-taking environment. A noisy room, a temperature that was off, or lack of supplies could impact your scores. Similarly, distractions from your own life or not getting enough sleep or a good breakfast can impact your ability to succeed.

On the flip side, if you felt unprepared for the test, break that down. Perhaps you studied the wrong material or did not study enough. Be realistic in your assessment and take stock of what you can do better next time.  

Whatever your difficulties were, make note of them. You can review these notes yourself and determine if reviewing them with your professor or TA might be useful. If you simply made a mistake and were not prepared or fit for taking the test, learn from the experience and use this situation to help you better prepare for the next exam you have to take. 

Assess the Damage

Failing a test in college can feel like a major disaster, but consider the impact this one exam has on your overall grade. If the exam is one of several throughout the semester or a year-long course, ask yourself how truly damaging this one grade will be for you. Most professors offer a syllabus that outlines the weight of each assessment within the overall grading structure, which can help you determine what your next steps should be.

Take the time to understand why you didn't perform well, so review the notes you took after you left the exam room and see if you can find correlations. If you determine that this one exam can make or break your course grade, then schedule a time to meet with your professor or TA. 

If you're not sure if you failed, or simply feel like you may not have aced it how you wanted to, simply relax and see what your score actually is before running to your professor. You may have done better than you expected, and you don't want your professor thinking you haven't mastered the material before she even reviews it. If you know you completely missed the mark, then it's time to talk to your professor.

Talk to Your Professor or TA ASAP

If you'd like to reach out to your professor before you receive your scores, you could send an email or leave a voicemail asking to speak. Perhaps you didn't feel like you grasped the material as well as you should have, or you feel that you didn't perform well within the given test format, and you'd like to talk. This way, if you actually did okay, you aren't telling the professor you thought you failed — just that you'd like to better master the material or better demonstrate your mastery. And if the test didn't go quite as you had hoped, you've set the stage to perhaps get additional assistance or have a chance to make up the grade.

If you're someone who typically understands the material but often doesn't perform well on exams, you should still reach out to your professor or TA. You may wish to make a visit during office hours. Don't be afraid to be honest. You can just start off by saying that you don't think your score is going to reflect your understanding of the material and go from there.

Your professor may offer you another option to demonstrate that you do understand what was covered in the exam — or they may not. The professor's response is their own choice, but at least you've presented your concerns about your performance on the test itself and asked for assistance.

Explain Any Special Circumstances

Were you suffering from a horrible head cold you thought you could work through? Did something with your family pop up? Did your computer crash during the exam? What the room too cold for you to properly concentrate? Let your professor or TA know that there were special circumstances, but only if there truly were, and only if you think they really had an effect. You want to present a reason why you did poorly, not an excuse. Repeated instances of special circumstances may reflect poorly on you as well, so carefully assess if the extenuating circumstance was really an issue that affected your grade.

The Bottom Line

You can't guarantee that your grade can be changed or that your TA will believe your reasons for doing poorly on the test. Unfortunately, your professor isn't always going to give you another shot. Bad scores happen, and when they do, you need to accept that you didn't perform well and move forward. Be prepared, follow the steps above, and have a game plan for what you will do if you do receive a poor score on the test. This way, you can know what you should do instead of simply panicking. The moral of the story is to make sure that you learn from the experience, and prepare yourself to perform better in the future.

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Your Citation
Lucier, Kelci Lynn. "Do You Know What to Do If You Fail a Test in College?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lucier, Kelci Lynn. (2023, April 5). Do You Know What to Do If You Fail a Test in College? Retrieved from Lucier, Kelci Lynn. "Do You Know What to Do If You Fail a Test in College?" ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).