I have a classroom (as opposed to online) course for which I set the date of the first exam about a week before the last date a student can withdraw without penalty, such that I can have grades returned before the withdrawal date. The date was in the syllabus, released on the first day of classes. A student has asked to take a makeup exam at a later date or to take the exam remotely. I generally allow makeup exams when there exigent reasons, and in the United States some conditions, such as military deployment, impose a legal obligation to accommodate the student. So, I asked why.

The student replied that he would be "on vacation" in connection with a later work-related trip. In other words, his job is sending him someplace nice and he wants to go early to allow some play time with the travel paid by the job.

My students, who think I am Darth Vader, would never believe it, but I am torn about this request. The university's rules tell me when I must allow a make-up exam, not when I may. I have decided that if I do allow such an exam, it will be before, not after the scheduled time. Allowing a makeup exam will, as usual I think, be modestly inconvenient for me. I believe I need to consider the appearance of fairness to the other students, and a precedent I may set that would affect other faculty.

Are there general rules or best practices about when professors should/would allow makeup exams? What should one do in the case where a student's absence is clearly voluntary, but which is a "nice" opportunity for the student?

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    I think you're doing the right thing. If it's a make-up for the convenience of the student, have him or her take it early, and commit to not communicating with anyone about the exam; or arrange for a proctor at a university in the location where the student will be, so the exam can be taken on the normal date, and the normal time, with everyone else. // Do you mean unwritten rules, based on generalizing from many different institutions? Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 14:23
  • @aparente001 Yes, I meant best practices. I'll edit my question. And thank you.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 14:34
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    My instinct is close to the same as yours. Having a policy of (strictly) giving optional tests early is not catastrophic; the number of students willing to request that is very small. But depending on the format of the test, if making & grading a variant is very time-consuming, you're surely under no obligation to do so. Time is, as I'm, sure you know, the #1 resource to defend. Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 16:53
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    Find his lack of faith disturbing.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 11:11
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    Since I have limited travel/vacation time, I try to combine wherever I can and so am pretty sympathetic if his work is, say, sending him to Madagascar. Now, if he's just going to Savannah (you're in the ATL area yeah?), I'd say sorry, no luck. I also tend to like to balance in the question of when a student lets me know — beginning of the semester, I'm more likely to given in, if a few days before the trip, far less likely. (I know, I'm a pushover) Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 15:16

9 Answers 9


One good way to approach this kind of thing is to state a policy in your syllabus. For instance, you could have:

Make-up exams will be given only in case of an emergency or unavoidable problems such as an illness requiring hospitalization. You must communicate with me as early as possible about the problem.

Under this policy, you would just tell the student no in this situation. Or you could craft a policy that does allow a make-up exam in this situation.

The advantage of having it spelled out in your syllabus is that it's communicated clearly, it's clear why you're making the decision you're making, and administrators will support you in your decision.

Personally, I just say no in the kind of situation you're describing. The student is making a commitment by taking the course, and the nature of the commitment was made clear from the start in the syllabus. It's quite a bit of extra work for me to write a different exam for one student and make arrangements for it to be proctored. When you're a college student, it's simply not reasonable to expect to have a week off from school with no consequences. Lots of other students would like to have a week off with no consequences.

  • Or give the student two options: to take their vacation at the other end of the trip and be there for the exam, or not take the exam.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 16:07
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    -1 If the student's company is sending him on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or a trip that will significantly affect his job, I think it is unreasonable to "just say no" and not even attempt to find another solution with them. Such a trip, I strongly believe, absolutely rises to the level of an "unavoidable problem."
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 2:29
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    This answer gives some great advice for people who aren't already in the situation OP describes. Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 6:50
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    -1 Because this answer would also imply a "no" to rescheduling if that work trip (Convention at New Zealand, all technical personal must be present to show their new product and provide support) was all across the world on a wednesday. Work isn't an emergency, right? but then he'd be fired.
    – CptEric
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 7:36
  • Wich are still personal, paid work-related holidays, different from the academic holidays that nobody that works while studying enjoys.
    – CptEric
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 11:59

You have to consider carefully whether to allow this. If you do, certainly I would make it be before the class. But of course it is completely your decision.

As far as setting a precedence, there is no way the precedence will affect other faculty. If a student comes up to me, for example, and says "but Prof. X made this allowance for me in the past", my answer is simply "I don't care". But you have to worry about the precedence you set for yourself. What if another student comes to you at the next exam and wants to reschedule to take a vacation? Or if you have an exam right before Spring Break, 3 or 4 students want to leave town early and reschedule their test?

In short, if you make this allowance for one student, you are committing yourself to make this allowance to any student who asks, for at least the rest of the semester. I wouldn't want to put myself in that position.

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    Th' good news about setting a precedent for myself is that I will be retired as of May 15!
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 17:09
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    "I don't care" is a bit harsh. I would recommend "I am not Prof X"
    – Mawg
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 14:02

It sounds like you want to do this, but have a few concerns: fairness to other students, inconveniencing yourself, and setting a bad precedent.

If you have the student take the exam early, then they don't get any sort of advantage over the other students. No one is going to be jealous that a fellow student took the exam early. There is a chase that the student will blab about the exam to other students. However, I don't think you should punish everyone because a few people are dishonest. Tell them explicitly that you expect them to keep the test confidential until after everyone else takes it, and you should be fine there.

Most universities have a proctoring system set up specifically because it's a common thing for students to take exams outside of the normal time, and using that system shouldn't be a real inconvenience. If you feel you can trust the student to keep the test confidential, then you don't need to create a separate exam. If they're taking it early, then you can grade it with the other exams. I don't see why this should be a burden on you at all.

Most students are not going to be willing to take the exam early, so I don't see this becoming an epidemic that you need to worry about. If other instructors want to be sticklers about following the schedule in their syllabus, I doubt your "precedent" will phase them any.

In short: there's no real reason to tell them no. It's not going to cause any problems. If they asked respectfully, then let them take the exam early.

FYI, I'm answering this from the perspective of a former student that has taken several exams early for similarly "trivial" reasons. None of my instructors that I ever asked have ever batted an eye at it. There was one time a fellow student of mine wasn't allowed to take an exam early, and the reason the instructor gave was "it'd be unfair for him to take it early." We all thought it was BS and unreasonable to turn down his request. So, in my experience, the most common and accepted practice is to allow these sorts of requests.

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    Note that you are putting a very large amount of trust in this student. If they do "blab" about the exam, you have a huge problem; your exam's integrity is ruined, and you don't know which grades you can trust. Large-scale incidents like this can look really bad for the institution and instructor (look up "Harvard cheating scandal"). Can you justify this risk for something that is a convenience to the student but otherwise carries no academic benefit? Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 19:08
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    By the way, the fact that the "just say no" answer below has +14 upvotes suggests that your experience of common and accepted practice may not be typical... Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 19:09
  • @NateEldredge it might not be common and accepted in the US, but that's how every institution i've studied at works. I've even seen some unviersities (usually those that pair presential with online education degrees) that allow the students to pick their prefered exam date out of a bunch ( in my case, 4, 2 during week, 2 on weekend for those that work).
    – CptEric
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 10:21
  • Because of the issue Nate mentions, I never give make-up exams early. And I often make the make-up exam different than the regular one.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 16:08
  • @NateEldredge I've only been to a few schools in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, so it's admittedly a small sample size, but that has been my experience. I've also been in small programs where all the instructors knew me fairly well, so that may make a difference too. I'm sure some people do cheat, but it's not that hard to cheat regardless if you really want to. Plus, this person was honest enough to admit he is just going on vacation. If you don't let them take any notes from the exam room then it seems relatively safe IMO.
    – Kat
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 19:19

I honestly thought the general rule was that you couldn't ask to sit the exam some other time for personal reasons - like you needed a medical/legal reason why you couldn't sit it at the specified time. Maybe your university has different rules though.

Seems a bit iffy that you can just go on vacation and expect the university to accommodate you, which is essentially what kind of precedent you're setting here. That being said, if you are committed to allowing it, definitely set it earlier, not later.


The way I see it the question, it is ultimately whether you're willing to or even should pay for a student's trip: You're asked to invest your highly qualified time and effort to make a trip cheaper for one of your students. You might as well give him the money to travel on another date, the effect for both parties would be pretty much the same in the larger scheme of things (assuming that you're paid by time).

Thus if I rephrase the question accordingly, I see a clearer picture, which is: I'd help the student with this if in any other case just out of charitableness or personal responsibility or anything similar I'd give him a suitable amount of money if he approached me about it. This could be because of any family or health situation which makes it otherwise impossible for him to afford anything ever in life, yet alone a trip. Or any other emergency where you might be inclined to help a stranger financially with a considerable amount. Yet, such cases are obviously very rare, and the student does have a job and seems to be okay financially etc., so for me this is a situation where the student can't normally expect this for free. Thus I would very briefly explain this perspective to him and ask him to at least offer a compensation. I don't know if this is even possible under your legislation. Maybe he could review exams of lower semesters to save you an appropriate amount of time or anything like that. The goal would be that he realizes that he might as well work somewhere else to earn money for the trip and refrain from his request of his own accord.

Your careful consideration honors you, but I really assume that the student just has an attitude of: "It's free to ask.", I'm not sure he's really expecting you to say yes or believing his odds are high, especially if or once he's aware of the implications it has for you. Nevertheless I think it will help everyone, you included, if you show heartfelt consideration and express some understanding for his situation and empathy for why he asked and if you turn down his request, do it in a gentleman-like way.


My personal experience is that you always need to have make up exams to deal with special circumstances, as there always seem to be some. I put it after the main exam to cater for students who have issues on the day. This is in fact part of my School's policy, and an administrator arranges all make up exams for a specific week after the main exam period. If you're already offering make up exam for some people you can be generous and allow this student, who has led compelling need, to sit this extra exam. If that's still inconvenient for them then I think they just have to deal with it: you aren't subservient to all their whims.

What's really tricky is when people have reasons why they can't attend either for more justifiable reasons. In such rare situations I give them a viva voce (oral exam) instead, which students generally prefer to avoid.

  • what is the exam is not the final exam but an in-term test?
    – user67075
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 15:11
  • @zero You could waive the exam and reweight the final mark, but I'd say a student should have a really compelling reason for this. Increasingly universities are centrally administrating such decisions to make them more uniformly applied.
    – beldaz
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 17:13
  • yes increasingly the administration is worried about decreasing the administrative complications whereas faculty is worried about academic fairness.
    – user67075
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 20:54

The first thing to do is to find when this trip was booked. a) If it is before you distributed the syllabus, then you can accommodate the student by holding the exam before the scheduled date.
b) If the trip was booked after the student had knowledge of when would be your exam, I would certainly make a point of having the exam after the drop date and at some inconvenient time, i.e. immediately after another exam.

(In fact, my personal position in case b) would be to give 0, let the student explain to various Deans and boffins that he/she chose to go on holidays rather than take an exam already scheduled. I realize this is not necessarily an option.)

  • I don't think it's valid. If the student knew he won't be there for exams that's even more sloppy of him. He should have at least asked that before taking the course or not take it at all.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 11:15
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    Tough love- but might help form an adult
    – Mawg
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 14:04

It sounds like the university has given you good guidance about when you MUST offer alternatives, but has provided leeway about how accommodating you may be. In my experience, following the minimum set of rules often results in

My students, who think I am Darth Vader ...

If you want to go beyond the minimums, you could

  • Drop the lowest exam grade for all students. It would be best to tell students at the beginning of the semester, but you could likely implement it now. The student could then skip the exam. This reduces the need to offer make up exams. If you are really generous, you could offer to let the student take the exam late and grade it so they still get feedback

  • Drop the exam for this student only. Assuming that there are 4 exams weighted 20%, 20%, 20%, and 40%, you could grade the student on 3 exams weighted 25%, 25%, 50%. This has the potential to be gamed a little more, but a reasonable policy is students need to tell you about conflicts the first day/week.

  • Provide an alternative assignment like an essay or take home exam that covers the same material but is easier to proctor remotely. You could offer all students the option of skipping one exam for an essay.

  • Let the student take a makeup exam when they get back. Make them aware that they will not get their grade until after the drop period.


Dunno in which country you are a lecturer but at my Austrian university, resit exams are common practice in 99% of the courses. This provides a second opportunity for students who are absent at the first attempt (or who failed in the first attempt) of course. If this is isn't a common practice at your facility, I suggest that you at least adopt it for your courses if it is possible. If not, try to convince the head of the university.

The student is making a commitment by taking the course, and the nature of the commitment was made clear from the start in the syllabus.

My advice: Be careful which such generalizations as they portray you as someone that has little understanding for turbulent circumstances that students often have to suffer from in their life and thus you foster the opinions about academic ivory tower. However I may be biased because at my university exam dates are almost never announced at the beginning of a course but in a very late stage.

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