When to Take a College Course Pass/Fail

Pass/Fail Can Encourage College Students to Explore and Take Risks

Students in further education
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Most college courses require students to take them for a grade, but not always: In some cases, students can take a few courses as pass/fail during their time in college. Whether or not that's a good choice for you depends on a variety of factors, and there are a few things you need to know before choosing a pass/fail option over the regular grading system.

What Is Pass/Fail?

It's exactly what it sounds like: When you take a course pass/fail, your instructor simply decides whether your work qualifies you to pass or fail the class, rather than assign you a letter grade. As a result, it isn't factored into your GPA, and it will show up on your transcript differently. Assuming you pass, you will get the full course credits, just as if you had received a letter grade.

When to Take a Course Pass/Fail

There are a few situations in which you may want to take a college course pass/fail:

1. You don't need the grade. Whether you're fulfilling graduation requirements or you just want to experiment with other areas of study, you'll probably have to take a few courses outside your major. You may want to consider the pass/fail option if a letter grade in one of those courses isn't necessary for earning your degree or getting into graduate school.

2. You want to take a risk. Pass/fail courses have no bearing on your GPA — what class might you take if you didn't have to worry about it affecting your grades? Pass/fail can be a good opportunity to expand your horizons or take a class that will really challenge you.

3. You want to reduce your stress. Maintaining good grades takes a lot of hard work, and opting for a pass/fail course can relieve some of the pressure. Keep in mind your school will have deadlines by which you have to declare you're taking the course as pass/fail, so it might not be an option for avoiding a bad grade at the last minute. Your school also likely limits how many courses you can take pass/fail, so you'll want to carefully plan how to take advantage of the opportunity.

Other Things to Consider

Make sure you're choosing pass/fail for the right reasons, not just because you want to take it easy. You'll still need to study, do the reading, complete the homework and pass the exams. If you slack off, the "fail" will show up on your transcript, not to mention the possibility you'll have to make up for the credits you didn't earn. Even if you withdraw from the class to avoid failing it, that will also show up on your transcript (unless you get out of it during a "drop" period). Keep in mind you may not be able to enroll in all as a pass/fail student, and before you commit to a grading system, you may want to discuss the choice with your academic advisor or a trusted mentor.