Is it okay to fail exams?

What to do if you definitely fail your third attempt

by Tim Reichel

It should not be.

Disappointed, you clear your desk. With one click you close the browser window with the exam results. The 5.0 next to your matriculation number is still marked. You flip through the folder with the study materials one last time before you drop it in the trash bag. Your studies are over. It should not be. To be precise, it shouldn't be this one test. You weren't badly prepared, but it wasn't enough in the end. Unfortunately for the third time - and that's why it's over now.

The Third attempt is the last chance for many students to still pass an exam during their studies. If you fail, you will be de-registered. The dream of completing a degree is bursting and the career path you are aiming for is vanishing. Accordingly, the pressure on the shoulders of the test specimens before the said third test is heavy. But this condition is nothing compared to the bad mood that arises after a finally failed exam.

Understandable - but a negative third attempt does not mean the end of your university career. There are still ways in which you can continue your studies or find an alternative of equal value. In this article, I'll show you what options are available to you and how you can best proceed.


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When is an exam definitely not passed?

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, we need to clarify a few basics so that you can properly classify your situation. Let's start very simply: Your studies consist of various subjects that are grouped together in so-called modules. Each module is linked to an exam that you have to pass - otherwise you will not be admitted to the final exam and you will not be able to successfully complete your course.

You have a certain number of attempts available for each (partial) examination. So if you don't pass an exam right away, you can repeat it. A (module) examination is only finally failed if you fail it in the last repetition. The number of possible exam attempts is stipulated in your examination regulations and is usually two or three per exam.

It is important that you pay attention to the exact designation and do not allow yourself to be confused: The first repetition attempt is the second examination attempt; a second retake is a total of the third attempt at the exam, and so on. At this point, many students get confused and confuse exam attempts with repetitions. Therefore, you should know the regulations of your examination regulations exactly and be aware of your situation.


What happens if you definitely fail an exam?

If an examination in a module is finally failed, the final examination (e.g. the bachelor's or master's examination) of the course is also definitely not passed. Your studies will be terminated prematurely and you will be de-registered. But: Depending on the university and degree program, this may only apply to compulsory modules.

The final failure of an elective module or a partial examination within an elective area would therefore not lead to de-registration. Your studies will only be discontinued if you fail to pass all the modules within the options in the last exam attempt - unless your examination regulations stipulate otherwise. The same applies to supplementary modules or voluntarily taken minor subjects that are not necessarily included in your curriculum.

So not all tests are equally relevant. If you do not pass a binding third attempt, you will lose the right to be examined for your course of study and will no longer be allowed to study it. Your examination office will then send you a corresponding notification and initiate de-registration.


Third attempt failed? You can do that now!

The official regulations of your university are clear: Failed third attempt = de-registration. But they are not as binding as the legal texts sound. If you fail your last exam attempt, your academic career doesn't have to be over. There are a couple of things you should know about. Here is a brief overview.

You have these options:

  • Read exam regulations
  • Exam review
  • Additional repeat appointment (hardship application)
  • Oral supplementary examination
  • Substitute examination
  • Perceive help
  • Lodge an objection
  • Legal challenge to the examination
  • Change of course
  • Change of university
  • Searching for help

Let's take a closer look at these points.


Read exam regulations

The first step after a failed third attempt is to read your examination regulations. Even if you already know your study regulations, it is essential to read them carefully at this point. The reason: All the rules of your degree program are defined in the examination regulations - and they are binding. And this also includes the exact examination regulations and their framework conditions.

You can only correctly assess your situation and assess possible courses of action if you have understood the examination procedures in detail. Your examination regulations form the basis for your legal examination claims. In addition to the exact number of examination attempts, you should also carefully study the examination descriptions, deadlines for contradictions and the relevant contact points within your university.


Perceive examination inspection

Many students give up too early after failing their final exam attempt. You accept the examination result without a fight and finish your studies at the moment the grades are announced. But that's too early. In any case, you should at least take part in the exam review and look at your exam and its assessment. First, you have nothing to lose (except negligibly little time) and second, you may find correction errors that bring you additional points and thus a saving 4.0.

Therefore, approach the insight carefully and work your way through your examination papers carefully. Create your own assessment of the correction or make a copy of the examination documents if this procedure is permitted at your university. If possible: Talk to the examiner or supervisor about the assessment. Eliminate ambiguities and try to question the scope for evaluating additional points. Clumsy bargaining usually doesn't work well at all.


Additional repeat appointment (hardship application)

The number of possible repetitions of an examination is specified by the respective examination regulations, but some universities allow additional repetition dates in individual cases. These additional appointments usually have to be requested separately - in the form of a so-called hardship application. This is nothing more than an application to your examination board in which you have to explain why the special regulation should be activated for you.

As a first step, find out whether your university offers this option and which formalities must be taken into account. Then you should check critically whether your case is a hardship or an exceptional situation. Then you formulate the application and provide a good reason why your application should be granted. Illnesses, personal accidents or family problems that influenced your performance during the exam are often accepted as reasons.


Oral supplementary examination

In addition to an additional (written) repetition date, some universities offer the option of an oral supplementary examination. This type of examination is rare and is more of an exception in Germany's higher education landscape. First find out whether this option is available in your degree program and under what circumstances you are entitled to it.

In an oral supplementary exam, you will be tested for passing or failing. That means in grades: 4.0 or 5.0. The examination takes place irregularly and usually after consultation with the module examiner. The content of an oral supplementary examination is variable. Therefore, you should endeavor to have a preliminary talk with your examiner and ask for a substance restriction so that you can better assess the focal points.


Substitute examination

At the beginning of the article I explained to you that elective modules and additional subjects can be exempted from the third-party attempt regulation. At some universities, this special case is also possible for compulsory modules - but only in the form of an examination law trick. It feels like it works in one of 10,000 cases and it works like this: If you have definitely failed a compulsory examination, you submit an application to your examination board and ask for a substitution option for the corresponding module.

So you are requesting a change to the structure provided for in the examination regulations and thus transforming a compulsory module into an elective module à la "I request to be able to take module B instead of module A because ..." Should a failed third attempt for elective modules in your degree program be irrelevant , you can continue your studies and be tested in the "new" module B. This procedure is bureaucratic, tedious and insecure. When I read about it, I didn't believe it because I am well versed in examination regulations, university law and all that stuff. I had never seen anything like it before. But maybe this exotic tip will help you.


Lodge an objection

If you are of the opinion that something was wrong with your last attempt at the exam, you can file an objection to the exam. This takes place in the form of an application to the examination board, in which you request a new appointment or a repetition of the examination attempt. If your application is approved, the failed attempt does not count and you can take the exam again.

In general, you can object both to the examination procedure (organization, implementation, etc.) and to the evaluation of your performance. The reason given is decisive for your chances of success: Only if you provide a sensible, valid reason why your attempt at the exam should not count, the examination board will follow your request and you can repeat the exam. Please note the objection deadlines of your university and, if necessary, seek legal advice so that you do not commit any formal errors.


To challenge the examination legally (lawsuit)

If your objection is unsuccessful, you can appeal against the decision of your examination board and sue against the rejection notice. Your university will inform you of all relevant deadlines and the responsible institutions via so-called legal remedies. As a rule, the local administrative court is responsible for the legal proceedings.

In general, you can always dispute your exam if it ran under incorrect conditions, if there were errors in the correction or if the assessment of the examiner is unfair. The chances of success can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis and it is advisable to hire a lawyer as legal advisor. They can objectively assess your situation from the start, know possible weaknesses in the examination process and can represent your rights optimally. You may find this investment worthwhile.


Change of course

As mentioned at the beginning, if you fail a third attempt, you will generally lose the right to be examined for your degree program and will not be allowed to continue studying it. However, that does not mean that you are not allowed to study another degree program. A change of degree program is therefore a serious option for you. The decisive factor at this point is the module that you have finally failed. As a rule of thumb, you can still enroll in a course in which the module in question does not appear (as a compulsory subject).

Why only as a rule of thumb? Because the assessment of whether a module from course X corresponds to a module from course Y can be very different. And that for each federal state, university and course of study. The content equivalence of two modules is checked on a case-by-case basis and thus depends on the subjective assessment of the respective supervisory body. For example, it can happen that in one case the modules “Mathematics I” and “Fundamentals of Mathematics” are not regarded as equivalent in terms of content, while in another case the modules “Chemistry” and “Thermodynamics” are considered equivalent. So you have no choice but to have an individual test carried out for each change option.


Change of university

If a change within your university is not possible, there is always the option to continue studying at another university. In the same way as with a change of degree program, a check is made to see whether the final failure of a module expires or continues to give you the right to take the exam. It often happens that similar-sounding modules from universities in different federal states are rated differently in terms of content.

The organizational effort is particularly high when changing university and it is by no means certain that the modules you have already passed will be fully recognized. That means: You may have to take some exams again - and you lose time as a result. In addition, the application deadlines can vary greatly depending on the university and type of university (university, technical college, etc.), which in the worst case could cost you another semester. Therefore, plan a change of university early on, pay attention to deadlines and formalities and ideally go multi-pronged by applying for several courses.


Searching for help

Many students feel left alone after a negative third attempt. They don't know who to turn to and ask for help - even though there are numerous institutions at your university that can support you in this situation. After your attempt at the exam, you should first speak to your (subject) student advisory service. Together you can analyze the situation and go through possible options. You can also take this opportunity to inquire about experience and the chances of success of the respective alternative courses of action.

In addition to the student advisory service, you can also contact your examination board and find out about the legal framework. In addition, the student union of your university and the AStA and possibly your student council are available as contacts. In addition to these higher education institutions, you can of course make use of private (paid) offers and, for example, hire a lawyer to save your academic career.


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A failed third attempt is a serious setback. The situation is mentally stressful and presents great difficulties for many students. It's no small matter after which you can shake yourself briefly and then go back to normal. But the situation is not as final as it appears at first glance.

Depending on the situation and the university, you have a few options to repeat your exam again or to replace it. If this is not possible, you can always change the degree program or university and start another degree in this way. You are not alone, but can fall back on free help from your university or organize legal assistance.

It is important that you remain calm after an unsuccessful third attempt and analyze your situation soberly. Get an overview of your options and weigh your options for action wisely. There is no generally applicable strategy for this because university laws differ widely across the country and the individual courses are too different.

If you have failed your third attempt, you have an individual problem - but not an unsolvable one.


Image: © Sydney Sims /