What Are Pass/Fail Classes?

Learn how pass/fail courses work and in what ways they can help your GPA.

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Most colleges have Pass/Fail classes but not all are created equal.

A Pass/Fail course is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a traditional letter grade based on a numbers system, the student receives a passing grade or a failing grade.

Proponents of the Pass/Fail grading system believe that taking the pressure off students to earn an A allows them to take more risks when choosing their course schedule .

Pass/Fail Classes – The Basics

For many colleges, a student receives a Pass if he earns a D or higher in the class and Fail if they earn anything lower. However, some colleges, such as the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Columbia College in Chicago designate a C or below as failing.

Typically, a student’s GPA is not affected if she receives a Pass, but she will earn credit for the course. A Fail normally counts negatively toward the student’s GPA, but some schools, such as the University of Wisconsin, Madison, do not count the F toward the GPA.

Each college has different eligibility requirements for Pass/Fail courses. It varies by school, but there are usually a certain number of credits that one must take in order to be eligible.

Before registering for a class as Pass/Fail, make sure that you’re eligible. For example, at the College of William and Mary, only juniors and seniors are allowed to take Pass/Fail courses. You don’t want to start the semester thinking you’re Pass/Fail, only to find out that you will have to take the class under the regular grading system.

Most colleges and universities allow students to take only one Pass/Fail course per semester and no more than four during the student’s entire program. Typically there are restrictions as to the type of courses students are allowed to take as Pass/Fail. The University of Pennsylvania does not allow students to apply the Pass/Fail grading system to any general education, major-requirement or minor-requirement courses.

The timing on whether the course will be considered a Pass/Fail or be graded on a regular grading scale depends on your school. Some schools require you to make that decision by the time the add/drop period is complete. Other colleges allow you until the end of the semester to decide. Some schools, such as Brandeis University in Massachusetts, give you plenty of time to decide. Students there do not have to make up their minds until three weeks after classes have begun.

Community colleges also offer the Pass/Fail option. They work pretty much the same way as they do in four-year colleges and universities, with restrictions varying by college. For example, Lansing Community College in Michigan restricts Pass/Fail classes to fewer than 10 percent of the student’s total credits required for an associate’s degree or certificate.

Advantages of Pass/Fail Classes

Many students choose this option to explore subjects unrelated to their major. For example, a science major may take an art course knowing their abilities might not be up to par with other students in the class who are art majors. Earning a Pass or Fail grade allows the student to relax and not worry about grades while they are learning something new.

Proponents of the Pass/Fail grading system believe that taking the pressure off students to earn an A allows them to take more risks when choosing their course schedule and challenge themselves to learn new subjects that they might have otherwise shied away from. This creates a well-rounded individual with many skills and qualities to offer an employer after graduation.

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