Ask a Professor: When to Take a College Class Pass/Fail

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on August 9, 2021

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Ask a Professor: When to Take a College Class Pass/Fail

As a history professor, I often agonized over assigning final exam grades at the end of the semester. For students on the cusp between two grades, I'd often go back to their final exam and look for ways to give them another point or two to push them into a higher grade. After a semester of hard work, a lot of students deserved the credit.

But some of those students didn't care about their letter grade at all — they were taking my class pass or fail. How does pass/fail work?

Professors don't know when students sign up for their classes pass/fail. In fact, professors assign each student a letter grade, which the university system automatically translates into pass/fail grading — a "P" for pass or an "F" for fail. (Alternatively, your school may use "CR" for credit and "NC" or "NCR" for no credit.) In many cases, students never know their final letter grade.

Many college students worry about their GPA. Some need to maintain a minimum GPA to qualify for scholarships, while others want to boost their chances of getting into grad school with a strong GPA. Policies about pass/fail classes vary widely, so it's important to carefully consider the options before switching from a letter grade to pass/fail.

What Is a Pass/Fail Class?

Most schools let students choose between a letter grade and a pass/fail option for certain classes.

In a pass/fail class, students receive either a passing grade or a failing grade. In contrast, most classes assign letter grades — an A for 90-100%, a B for 80-89%, etc. Many universities also use the plus and minus system to further break down letter grades.

Students who sign up for a class pass/fail complete the same assignments, papers, and tests. At the end of the term, however, their transcript doesn't list a letter grade; instead, it simply says pass or fail.

The cutoff between a pass and a fail differ by college. At some schools, students must earn a C-minus, or 70%, to pass. At other schools, a D counts as a passing grade. Most graduate programs require at least an 80% to pass a class.

The Benefits of Taking Classes Pass/Fail

The pass/fail option lets college students receive credit for a class without a low grade negatively affecting their GPA. For example, STEM majors can take humanities electives pass/fail without a B-minus on a research paper bringing down their GPA.

Some students choose the pass or fail option for classes outside their major. These students know before the semester that their primary focus will be on their major courses and they'll have less time for other classes. By changing to pass/fail grading, they can devote more energy to their major requirements without worrying about their GPA dropping.

Classes taken within the pass/fail system factor differently into your GPA. A passing grade does not change your grade point average, but keep in mind that a failing grade can mean a big drop in GPA.

The Drawbacks of Taking Classes Pass/Fail

While pass/fail classes offer several benefits, they also come with significant drawbacks. At some schools, a failing grade equals a zero toward your GPA, which hurts your GPA more than getting a D in a letter-grade class.

Colleges also limit how many pass/fail classes students can take. For example, most schools do not let undergraduates take courses in their major on a pass or fail basis. Similarly, credits from pass/fail classes might not count toward your minor or your general education requirements.

The standard to pass the class also varies depending on the professor. A pass/fail class doesn't mean you can skip assignments or miss class — in many classes, attendance and participation still factor into final grades. Some instructors also require students to complete every exam or paper to pass the class.

Colleges typically cap the number of pass/fail credits students can apply toward their degree. At the University of Southern California, for example, undergrads can only take 24 pass/fail credits out of their 120-credit bachelor's degree. Ohio University enforces an even lower cap of 12 pass/fail credits.

Finally, pass/fail grades can raise a red flag if you're applying to graduate school. Admissions committees might assume students took a class pass/fail because they were worried about their ability to earn a good grade.

Should You Take a Class Pass/Fail?

Before considering switching to a pass/fail grading system, students need to research the pass/fail policies at their school. That's because the rules for pass/fail classes vary a great deal. Some colleges, for example, only permit pass/fail grading options on a restricted number of predesignated courses.

Note that while undergraduates have many pass/fail options, graduate students typically must take most or all of their classes for a letter grade.

Once students know the pass/fail policies at their school, they can make strategic decisions about whether to switch the grading option for their courses.

Consider Taking a Class Pass/Fail If …

You're taking a class outside your major, particularly in one of your weaker subjects. You need the credits but don't want to affect your GPA. You're interested in the subject but scored poorly on your first graded assignment. You have test anxiety and the final grade relies heavily on test scores. You're taking a heavy course load and have less time for an elective.

Avoid Taking a Class Pass/Fail If …

You're taking classes in your major or other graduation requirements. You're close to the limit for pass/fail classes. You're planning to apply to graduate school. There's a good chance you might fail the class. There's a good chance you'll get a high grade.

Frequently Asked Questions About Taking Classes Pass/Fail

What is the university limit on pass/fail classes?

Many schools limit the number of pass/fail credits undergraduates can take toward their degree, and graduate programs may not offer pass/fail options at all. As a general rule, undergrads should take no more than one pass/fail class each year.

Can you take pass/fail classes in your major?

Most departments do not let majors apply pass/fail courses toward their degree requirements. Instead, undergrads must receive a passing letter grade for every class in their major.

Can you take general education requirements pass/fail?

Undergrads often take 36-60 credits of general education classes to earn a bachelor's degree. Many schools do not let undergrads take general education requirements on a pass/fail basis.

How late can you switch to pass/fail?

At most schools, you have to switch from a letter grade to a pass/fail grade early in the term — often by the end of the first or second week of classes. This policy keeps students from bombing the final and changing to pass/fail, so you're out of luck if you miss the deadline.

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