What is Pass/Fail Grading?
As you make decisions about your college schedule, it’s important to have a good understanding of the Pass/Fail grading system. At most schools, students have the option of taking classes on a Pass/Fail basis. If you’re unsure about how you’ll perform in a class, Pass/Fail can be a great option to reduce the chance of hurting your GPA. Keep reading to learn more about the situations in which Pass/Fail is a good idea.
How the Pass/Fail grading system works
If you enroll in a Pass/Fail course, you will end up receiving one of two possible grades. Those are, as you may be able to guess, “Pass” or “Fail.” As long as you pass the course, you won’t have any letter grade on your transcript for the course. It will simply say that you passed. Furthermore, it won’t impact your GPA. You’ll receive credit for the course that you can put towards graduation.
If you fail the course, your transcript will show an “F” or a “Fail.” In this case, you won’t receive any credit for the course, and your GPA will be impacted. With this binary, a student who earns a C- will end up with the same recognition as one who earns an A.
Pass/Fail regulations vary by university, but typically, students can choose to enroll Pass/Fail at the beginning of the course up until about 4 weeks in. Sometimes, you’ll need special permission from a professor in order to take their course Pass/Fail. If you are banking on taking a course Pass/Fail, make sure to ensure that the professor allows it before you enroll.
Pros of taking Pass/Fail courses
Taking courses Pass/Fail can be a great idea for students in certain situations. Let’s dig into all of the pros of this grading system.
1. Allows you to experiment with new subjects without risking your GPA
Let’s say you’ve always wanted to try your hand at music theory, but you’re more accustomed to taking biology courses. But you’re not sure whether you’ll perform well on exams and assignments, and you don’t want a C on your transcript. Taking the course Pass/Fail can be a great option. You can expand your horizons without risking your GPA.
2. Can help balance a busy schedule
During some semesters, you may find yourself with an especially busy class/extracurricular schedule. If you are worried that you won’t be able to give each class your all, taking one pass/fail could be a good idea. This way, you’ll have one course that you aren’t so worried about getting an “A” in.
3. May ease your diversification requirements
Academic diversification requirements can be a major source of difficulty for some students. If you have to take courses in a field that is very unfamiliar to you, you may worry about the grade you’ll earn. You can look into taking those courses Pass/Fail, to allow you to complete the requirement without impacting your GPA.
4. Reduces stress
If you are under a lot of stress, it can be tough to juggle all of your responsibilities. Taking a course Pass/Fail helps ease at least one of those responsibilities. With lower performance expectations for the course, you may have a bit more time to decompress.
Cons of taking Pass/Fail courses
Although Pass/Fail courses can be a great option for some students, there are some important stipulations. Make sure to read through these carefully to consider the impact of your choice.
1. Some graduate schools view it unfavorably
If you are planning on applying to graduate school after college, you should keep in mind that some graduate schools are wary of Pass/Fail grades. They want to see that you have performed well across the board, and they may assume that you only slid by with a C in your Pass/Fail courses.
2. You typically cannot use pass/fail credits towards a major or minor
At most schools, you cannot use your Pass/Fail credits towards your major or minor. This means that you won’t be able to take advantage of this grading system for your main fields of study. But it also has other consequences. Let’s say you decide to try out that Music Theory course, and take it Pass/Fail. You find that you do great in the class, and decide to minor in music. You won’t be able to use that credit towards your minor, which could be highly inconvenient. Sometimes, the registrar will be willing to work with you, but it is definitely a drawback to consider.
3. Could lead to slipping grades
If you are taking a Pass/Fail course, you may be less motivated to give it your all. Some students may even let their grade slip dangerously close to that failing grade. If you decide to take a Pass/Fail course, make sure not to let this happen. The last thing you want is to be on the verge of a failing grade at the end of the semester.
4. You could lose a potential boost to your GPA
Once you decide to take a course Pass/Fail, you cannot revert it to the regular grading system. If you take to the class well and perform well, you’ll be missing out on the GPA boost it could have offered. To minimize the chances of this happening, you should not declare your Pass/Fail until close to your school’s deadline. Take a few weeks of the class first to try and get a feel for whether you’ll need the Pass/Fail security.
Frequently asked questions about the Pass/Fail grading system
What happens if I declare a major after taking a Pass/Fail course in the subject?
If you declare a major, or minor, in a subject after taking a Pass/Fail course, you may not be able to use that credit towards your requirements. Typically, Pass/Fail courses cannot be used for a minor or major. Schools may make exceptions in some cases, but you should never bank on being able to use a Pass/Fail grade for major requirements.
What is Pass/D/Fail?
Some schools use a Pass/D/Fail grading system rather than Pass/Fail. Rather than the binary grading system of Pass/Fail, this system has three possible outcomes. If you receive a C- or higher, you’ll “pass” the course. It will have no impact on your GPA and simply show up as a “Pass” on your transcript. You’ll receive credit for the course, and it’ll count towards your graduation progress.
If you receive an F in the course, you will fail the course. You won’t receive credit and the F will show up on your transcript. It will also impact your GPA, and typically have highly detrimental results. However, if you receive anywhere from a D+ to a D-, you’ll receive a D rather than a pass or fail. You’ll still receive credit for the course, but the “D” will show up on your transcript and impact your GPA. While this isn’t quite as bad as failing, it is still a situation you should avoid if possible. To read the sample rules and regulations for a school that uses Pass/D/Fail, you can consult Kenyon College’s grading policy.
Pass/Fail grading is a great way to take a course without worrying too much about grades. But before you decide to Pass/Fail a course, there are a few things you should be sure to do. Here’s a review of each of those things:
- Make sure to speak with your professor before signing up. Ensure that they accept Pass/Fail students.
- Ensure that you don’t plan on majoring or minoring in the subject.
- Wait until a date close to the Pass/Fail filing deadline in order to file. This gives you as much time as possible to decide whether you want to major or minor in the subject, or whether you’ll excel in the class and want it as a GPA boost.
Good luck, and make sure to check out our other resources for college students: