Using the pass/fail grading option can provide students with key advantages. Primarily, it’s a way to earn college credits without affecting your GPA.
However, pass/fail classes aren’t always a good idea. Learn the implications of taking pass/fail classes and the best way to use them.
What Does Pass/Fail Mean?
When taking a course the regular way, your end-of-term grade would be the usual A, B, C, D, or F. However, when you take a course as a pass/fail, your final grade is one of two options: P for pass or F for fail.
Under pass/fail grading, earning a letter grade between an A and a D would be a pass. However, at some schools, a grade between an A and C is necessary to pass.
At your school, a pass/fail class may also be a credit/no credit class. That’s because passing will earn you college credits, but you’ll get zero credits if you fail.
Keep in mind that taking a class as pass/fail isn't the same as auditing a course. If you audit a class, you won’t get a letter grade, nor will you receive credits for taking the class.
How Can A Pass/Fail Class Affect Your GPA?
Typically, taking pass/fail courses won’t affect your grade point average. The class is simply excluded from the GPA calculation.
However, at some schools, an F in a pass/fail class will count toward your GPA. In these cases, it’s better for your GPA to withdraw from the class than fail.
When Should You Use the Pass/Fail Option?
The pass/fail option is useful under the right circumstances. Students can benefit from P/F grading in these situations:
1. Low grade in a class
: Earning a poor grade can bring down your overall average. In these situations, it may be better to take the class as a P/F than to receive a grade that lowers your GPA.
2. Get outside your comfort zone
: For far-flung interests, students may choose to use the P/F option as a way to enrich their college experience without risking their GPA. Even Steve Jobs expanded his education with a calligraphy course
3. General education requirement
: That Senior Seminar class may be a requirement, but it’s not necessary to stress about getting top scores. Using the P/F option for general education courses can help you meet your graduation requirements without extra workload.
When Should You Avoid the Pass/Fail Option?
Using the pass/fail option isn’t always the best choice. In particular, you should avoid taking P/F classes in these three situations:
1. Within your major or minor
: It can be perceived negatively to take P/F classes within your field of study. Take classes that are major requirements using the regular grading system.
2. Too many pass/fail classes
: A good rule of thumb for undergraduate students is one P/F course per semester and no more than four P/F courses during four years of study.
3. Against university regulations
: Colleges will have their own P/F rules, so read the specifics of your grading system to understand how it may affect your situation.
Does Taking a Pass/Fail Class Look Bad?
Several elite private schools only offer pass/fail grading
. For example, Harvard Law School, Columbia Business School, and Yale Law School have a minimal grading structure by default.
This puts you in good company when taking P/F classes. While there’s no definitive answer about how P/F classes will look, consider the perspective of a mentor, grad school admissions officer, or prospective employer.
It’s likely that your overall GPA will be the most important consideration, and a deep look at P/F classes would be a rarity. This makes using the P/F option an excellent way to hack your GPA
How Do I Sign Up for a Pass/Fail Class?
It’s possible to select the pass/fail option when signing up for a class, or you can switch to P/F mid-semester. Each university is slightly different, so consult your academic calendar to see when the cutoff is for switching to P/F.
Students can request the pass/fail online, but some schools may require that you visit the Office of the Registrar for a pass/fail form. You school may also require approval from your academic advisor or professor before you're able to take a class on a pass/fail basis.
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