The “Death Card”: The Best (Really Worst) College Excuses of All Time

College professors from around the country have offered the most outrageous excuses their students have given for missing a class, a test, or an assignment. Here are the best ones where students have played the “Death Card.”

David Wyld
Apr 12 · 11 min read

Overview

As an overview, this article is part of a series (Overview: The Best (Really Worst) College Student Excuses of All Time — Introduction to the Article Series), exploring what excuses college students have offered to explain an absence, a missed exam, a paper or project being late, etc. All of these excuses have been collected from this author’s contemporaries — professors and instructors at colleges and universities all across America. As such, it is a “crowdsourced” piece, and I owe them my gratitude for sharing their “best” excuses — which in reality means the “worst” — from their students over the years that provided the basis for this article series. And in all of these articles, each of which deals with a different “origin area” for student excuses, from health to tech to social to pets and more, we not only see excuses that make us laugh, but we also see some that could make you cry, as there are also stories of students who “went the extra mile” and persevered over the unique obstacles they might have faced in their lives to succeed in school.

So, let’s begin our exploration of student excuses by looking at what is perhaps the ultimate card that a student has to play when it comes to being absent from a class, missing a test, or failing to meet a deadline. It is the “Death Card.”

The Death Card

Now to begin, death is — as they say — really no laughing matter. And as faculty, we know that students will unfortunately experience losses of people near and dear to them during the course of a semester. We know that such a loss can not just make completing the course more difficult for a student, but more importantly, make their life more difficult. That is why to a person, I feel that almost every college faculty member will go out of their way to work with students who experience the death of a loved one while taking their class. Death and loss are something that all of us “of a certain age” can unfortunately empathize with very well, as we have most assuredly experienced the loss of family members and friends in our own time.

Yet, professors also have to deal with the flip side of the “Death Card,” and that is the fact that there are some students who will use a fake death story as an excuse for them to use for a missed class, test, project deadline, etc. How frequently this is done can’t really be quantified, of course. But yes, it’s an old adage among faculty members that exam time is especially risky for grandmothers — and for other family members as well (but especially for grandmas — not grandpas!). There’s even a famous satirical study done on the matter, entitled “ The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome and the Potential Downfall Of American Society,” with the classic thesis statement:

“The basic problem can be stated very simply: A student’s grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of year.”

The author of The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome study concluded that we simply had to stop giving exams in college, as there was simply too high a correlation between a student having a test and grandma dying! And one of my anonymous colleagues freely admitted:

“I personally killed my whole family at least 10 times while I was an undergrad.”

The extreme risk to close family members around exams, paper deadlines, presentation dates, etc. was proven true by the many responses received regarding students playing the “Death Card” — sometimes even repeatedly during the same semester with the same professor!

“Ha! I teach English Composition, which is the Number One killer of Grandmas. Some of them die more than once in the same semester.”

“I don’t know. I teach Anatomy & Physiology. I have killed a shit tonne of relatives. At least eight each semester.”

“Between a colleague and I, one student in our classes had six grandparents die over two semesters.”

“The student who claimed dead grandma… as they had every semester for the previous three years. Apparently, they thought professors don’t chat.”

“At my colleague’s last school, they called graduation ‘Resurrection Day.’”

Don’t have an obituary or a funeral card/program for a death excuse? This is not an issue for some students:

“One girl told me that she missed my exam because her mother died. I offered condolences and requested documentation. An obituary would do. Two days later I came to campus and found a note slipped under my office door. It was a pencil-written letter in girly cursive written on a page torn out of a spiral notebook stating that the girl’s mother had died. It was signed “xxxx’s father.”

Sometimes though, students do experience the “Revenge of the Dead” — for real:

“Oh, I had an epic ‘dead grandma’ story. I received a call from a student the night before the exam (I gave out my number for emergencies) and he gave me this horrible story about his beloved grandmother dying and he just couldn’t function and really needed an extension on the exam. What said student didn’t know was that both Grandma and I were from the same town. And it just so happened that at the time of this call, I was sitting at the same table with her at a church event. I responded to him by name, saying I was so sorry that his Grandma Beth died. Grandma Beth, who is one sharp cookie, took one look at me and said, ‘Is that ____?’ Before I could finish nodding, she ripped the phone out of my hand, stalked off to an empty classroom, and proceeded to give her grandson one HECK of a chewing out. She returned about twenty minutes later, handed my phone back to me, and said, ‘He WILL be in class tomorrow.’ The next morning, he was twenty minutes early and gave me flowers as an apology for his lying and that he ‘would never do this again.’”

“When I was in grad school, an undergrad ended up facing disciplinary actions because she told her professor she would miss an exam because her father died. The professor felt horrible that she would have such an experience as losing her father, so she got the student’s home number and called to give their condolences. The father answered the phone.”

And yes, students may be surprised to learn that sometimes, they can play the “Death Card” one too many times:

“Had a student walk in my office crying that her mother died and asked if I would work with her. Well yes, obviously. She walks out of my office and another instructor walks in my office and says did her mother die again this semester? That was many years ago. I now require an obituary or service program.”

“The student who claimed dead grandma… as they had every semester for the previous three years. Apparently, they thought professors don’t chat.”

“One time, a student of mine had his Aunt pass away. I obviously said no worries hand it in when you could. About 2–3 months later, I was sitting down for lunch with other faculty members on the program … and one of my colleagues told us to keep an eye on the student because he had an aunt pass away. I asked if it was the same aunt from 2–3 months ago. By the end of the conversation, we realized that over the past two years he had roughly 7 aunts pass away.”

It is important however to recognize that a student using a false death of a family member as an excuse can be quite painful for the faculty member on the other end of the transaction — especially at certain times for all of us. This was exemplified by this submission from an anonymous colleague:

“I had a kid lie to me about the death of his father once. It was especially awful since the class was aware that my own father had just died over break.”

Now sadly, most of the time, of course, when students play the “Death Card’ it is legitimate in that they truly have experienced the loss of a loved one or even a close friend. And yes, sometimes the “Dead Grandma” stories are indeed true — even if they are statistically unlikely if they become “Dead Grandmas” stories:

“Once had a student claim a dead grandma three times in one semester. I can’t remember the specific circumstances, but it turned out to be true!”

Conclusion

Now while we may laugh at some of these excuses for their statistical unlikelihood and their absurdity, there are also excuses that are both absolutely true and in many cases, positively inspiring. So, almost every one of the articles in this series on student excuses will conclude with one or more stories submitted by professors across America of students who overcame adversity in dealing with their personal issues. And so, we will wrap-up this article where we have indeed had some fun looking at the excuses submitted by college faculty on how some students have used death as an excuse with a reminder of how others have overcome their circumstances to succeed in their college work and displayed qualities that will likely serve them very well in their careers and futures.

And so in dealing with death issues, there can also be stories of family tragedies that are indeed incredible, but sadly true as well, such as this one offered up by a colleague:

“I once had a student who called me and said, ‘I know I have no excuse and no right to ask for an extension because I have missed so much class, but I have been keeping up with the reading and I think I can do a good job on the paper.’ I encouraged her to tell me what was going on and this was her story: She had a nine month old baby, and her grandmother who had raised her died shortly after the birth. She decided that she would hire a private detective to find out what happened to her Mom who disappeared when she was in elementary school. It took the detective 2 weeks to find her mother’s body in the basement of an abandoned house not far from where they lived when she was a kid. Her mother and another woman had been murdered and their bodies were in this abandoned house for like 10 years. She finished by saying, “I know it is no excuse, but I have had trouble concentrating. I don’t want you to think I don’t care about your class.” To say that I was humbled at that moment is an understatement.”

Sometimes, in the wake of suffering a significant loss of someone close to them, students will persevere and still do very well on the task at hand, whether that be taking a test, turning in a paper, making a presentation, etc. This makes them inspirational stories, as in this instances relayed by these contemporaries:

“I had a student find out the morning of the final that her father died. She took the final anyway. I was amazed at how composed she was. She ended up doing fairly well. I would have given her an incomplete and let her take it the next semester, but she didn’t even ask. She just didn’t want something else worrying her.”

“I teach at a Federal Service Academy, so my students are all military members. I believe I actually broke down in tears when a student ‘respectfully requested’ an extension on a paper because a parent had passed and they were requesting emergency leave to attend the funeral. Dear Lord, the parent in me wanted to reach out and hug them!”

The Article Series

If you enjoyed reading this article on the best excuses offered by college students regarding health issues, please check out the other articles in the series exploring a whole host of other “causations” of absences, missed tests, late projects, etc. It’s all offered in a good spirit, and I hope you will check them out for yourself and perhaps share with your colleagues — and maybe even your students!

So, I would encourage you to kick back with a good cup of coffee (or more) and scroll through this series of articles. You will laugh at many of these excuses, and yes, in some instances, you may be inspired and even shed a tear or two!

The Book

Enjoy this article — or these articles? Please buy Professor Wyld’s ebook — The Handbook of College Student Excuses — that compiles all of these excuses in one place — for yourself, for a college student you know (or parent), or for a college faculty member. It is a great, fun read, and makes a great gift! Get it today from Smashwords ( https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1073655) or on Amazon ( https://amzn.to/3rM5IXZ). You can also view the college student “Excuse of the Day” on Dr. Wyld’s blog at http://www.collegestudentexcuses.com/the-best-excuse-of-the-day/.

About David Wyld

David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness.

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