Fact Check

'Pencil Death' Exam Suicide

The high-pressure environment of college has led to many legends that express the stresses and anxieties felt by students.

Published Aug 23, 1999

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A student, stressed to the breaking point by the pressures of exams, committed suicide during a test by shoving pencils up his nostrils and into his brain.

The high-pressure environment of college has led to many legends that express the stresses and anxieties felt by students by describing desperate or bizarre behavior, especially in connection with examinations. The suicide and the special grading consideration given to other students affected by it are both elements found in one of the most widespread of collegiate legends, one holding that a student whose roommate commits suicide automatically receive a 4.0 grade point average for the current school term.

A related legend treads similar ground, in a more grisly fashion:

A guy was taking his finals in the Whitlaw Hall, with about three hundred other students. Finals in Britain at most universities are what 80% or more of your degree is based on. Most classes don't have >mid-terms like in the US. You take six courses — three in the autumn, three in the spring — and then at the end of the whole year, do the finals.

This guy couldn't take it. He sat up in the middle of the exam (he was a science student I believe), stuck a sharpened pencil in each nostril, threw his head back and then slammed it into the desk, thrusting the pencils into his brain. He died pretty instantaneously.

The other students were given credit for their exam. Whatever grade they obtained in other exams was used for their final degree.

Though we've yet to happen upon an instance of a despondent student ending his life in such fashion, an article in a 2000 neurological magazine described the case of a male in-patient in a psychiatric ward who was found to have shoved a 14 cm ball-point pen up through his nasal passages and lodged it between the two hemispheres of his brain. (A full length pencil was also retrieved from his nose.) The pen was removed and the patient made an uneventful recovery.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor.


Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.     London: Virgin Books, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (pp. 233-234).

Sharif S, Roberts G, Phillips J.   "Transnasal Penetrating Brain Injury With a Ball-Pen."     Br J Neurosurg.   April 2000   (14(2), pp. 159-60).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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