What Is a Pass/Fail Grading System?

By Susannah Gruder · August 09, 2023 · 5 minute read

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What Is a Pass/Fail Grading System?

A pass/fail grading system allows a student to receive either a grade of “P” (pass) or “F” (fail) for a particular class instead of the usual letter grading system. Many colleges offer this option in order to encourage students to explore new academic areas without having to worry about it affecting their transcripts.

However, the pass/fail grading system comes with some limitations, including restrictions on which and how many classes you can take pass/fail each year. And, in some cases, taking a class pass/fail can still have an impact on your academic record.

Read on to learn exactly what pass/fail means, what a passing (and failing) grade is, and when to consider a pass/fail option.

How Pass/Fail Grading Works

The traditional grading system was initially established centuries ago by English universities like Oxford and Cambridge as a way of encouraging students to work harder. While letter grades may still be the dominant system in American universities, some schools have deviated from this structure, establishing their own ways of evaluating students largely based on the pass/fail system.

Reed College in Portland, Oregon has a unique style of grading that encourages students to “focus on learning, not on grades.” While students are still assigned grades for each course, these grades are not distributed to students. Instead, students are given lengthy comments and reports on their academic performance. Reed does not have a dean’s list or honor roll either.

At Brown University students can take an unlimited number of classes “satisfactory/no credit (S/NC),” and GPAs are not calculated. They also do not name student’s to a Dean’s list.

Some schools, including Swarthmore College and MIT, have students take all classes pass/fail in the first semester of their freshman years. Swarthmore’s policy is meant to encourage students to stretch themselves and take risks, and is aligned with their policy of collaboration as opposed to competition with classmates, while MIT’s policy is designed to help students adjust to increased workloads and variations in academic preparation and teaching methods.

In both cases, taking the emphasis off grades is meant to improve students’ experiences of higher education, helping them to take full advantage of their time on campus.

Of course, most schools emphasize letter grades more than Brown and Reed, as it allows them to distinguish high achievers and highlight specific areas where students excel or may need to improve.

It’s common, however, for colleges to allow students to take one class pass/fail per semester. Typically, this is only offered for elective (not core) classes. Often, a grade of “P” is equal to a grade of D- or higher, but has no impact on the student’s overall grade point average. A grade of “F,” however, will usually have the same effect on the grade point average as a traditional failure.

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What Are The Benefits of Pass/Fail?

While college can be a rewarding and stimulating time for students, it also has its challenges, including constant pressure to keep up your grades. The beauty of taking a class pass/fail is the sense of freedom it gives you — once the stress of getting a perfect grade is removed, you are at liberty to fully embrace the kind of intellectual curiosity that should be at the heart of a college experience.

Maybe you’re a pre-med student and want to take a painting class, or perhaps you’re majoring in sociology and want to dabble in art history. These options can lead you down unexpected paths, opening creative doors you might have avoided if you were solely focusing on your GPA.

Recommended: How Grades Affect Your Student Loans

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The Limits to Pass/Fail

The pass/fail system also has some potential downsides. One is that should you end up doing really well in the class, you generally can’t change your mind and ask to take the class for a grade rather than pass/fail. By the same token, if you do poorly in a class, you can’t make a belated request for a pass/fail.

In addition, pass/fail grades generally don’t count toward a major or minor, which limits your options when deciding whether or not to go this route.

While it’s hard to know for sure, some students feel that taking a higher number of pass/fail classes could reflect poorly on their college academic record and be a strike against them when applying for a job or to graduate school. However, it’s also possible that a potential employer or an admissions officer might be impressed by a student’s breadth of study and sense of initiative in studying “outside the box.”

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The Takeaway

Taking a few of your classes pass/fail can be a great way to explore new academic areas of interest during college, and is unlikely to adversely impact your post-grad opportunities, including summer internships, employment, and graduate school.

While employers and graduate school admissions officers generally prefer to see quality grades over pass/fail grades, they will typically review applications holistically, and grades are just one of many ways you can show your skills, knowledge, and leadership potential. Indeed, taking a few pass/fail classes that are outside your major can show intellectual curiosity.

Whether you take a class pass/fail or for a letter grade won’t have any impact on how many credits you get from the course — or the cost of tuition. If you’re concerned about how you’ll cover the cost of your education, keep in mind that you have a range of options — including savings, scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and federal or private student loans.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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