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Taking a Class with a Pass or Fail Grade

written by: Brian Nelson•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 5/1/2010

College can be a stressful time. In addition to the rigors of classes, studying, and taking tests, is the pressure of keeping high grades. However, taking a class Pass-Fail might be just the ticket to relieving some stress.

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    Why Take Classes Pass/Fail

    For many students deciding which classes to take involves several factors. One of the most important factors is ensuring that the desired progress is being made toward your major. Taking all the required classes in order to graduate with a Bachelor's degree or even a Master's Degree can mean that some classes must be taken at certain times in order to have the necessary prerequisites for later classes in time to get them all in. Other factors include taking classes that might lead to a minor (or double major), or for those seeking higher education, classes that might serve as either a prerequisite for those advanced programs, or ones that look good on an application and transcript.

    That isn't all that must be taken into consideration. The amount of emphasis placed upon things like class rank, and a good grade point average by both graduate schools and employers cannot be understated. Finding a job for new graduates can be difficult as it is without finding yourself out of the running for a great job before you even apply due to not meeting the requirement of being in the top 20% of your class. With all of the pressure about grades, it is no wonder that many university students choose to round out whatever optional slots they have in their course schedule with as many easy, fluff, classes as possible.

    However, attending college is not just about getting the basic training for your future career. Every major university from Harvard to Po-dunk U. says that they strive to educate well-rounded graduates. Indeed, one of the major advantages the U.S. College system has is that it does more than just train workers. However, getting a fully rounded education that includes subjects of high-interest to the student requires more than just hitting all of the mandatory classes and then getting 100 level exposure to whatever else fits in the schedule.

    An advanced course in Medieval History, or an Art History Major taking an economics class to better understand the world we live in, are just the ticket to obtaining a broader education. Unfortunately, interesting courses that require you to stretch beyond your traditional comfort zone are exactly the kinds of classes that can stain your otherwise pristine student record with a lowly C-.

    One solution is to take these more advanced classes on a pass or fail basis. Most universities allow students to take a certain number of credit hours as pass/fail and still count toward the requirements for graduation. Doing so encourages even A students to take electives that they find interesting, challenging, or even confusing without fear of hurting the all-important GPA.

    Unlike auditing courses, where the student attends, but does not receive a grade, the Pass or Fail grade carries forward on the student's transcript. Those classes can be used not only to meet graduation requirements, but to show graduate schools or employers that this student has some outstanding qualities beyond the standard graduate. Using pass-fail classes properly can all but ensure one of the first questions asked at the interview for Medical School admission is, "I see that you took and advanced course on Poetry of Inuit Tribes. That is an unusual choice for most medical students. Can you tell me a little about this interest?"

    A question like that one will be more fun to answer than, "I see that you have all the standard science and biology courses here. What other interests do you have other than medicine?"