Pass or Fail a Class

In most colleges and universities throughout the country, there are options to take classes as pass/fail. Generally, this means you are able to take a course without earning a traditional letter grade, but rather for a grade of Pass or Fail (sometimes Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory). There are pros and cons to taking a class as pass/fail, and the rules and protocols differ from school to school.


Passing a Pass/Fail Class

  1. Treat a pass/fail class as a normal class. One of the biggest pitfalls of students who take a class as pass/fail is to exert minimal effort, since it’s not being taken as a traditional class for a letter grade. In most schools, a failing grade in a pass/fail class will show up on your transcript and tank your GPA. Take the class just as seriously as you would any other. While an “A” and a “C” carry the same weight in a pass/fail class, an “F” is always an “F.”
  2. Review the syllabus. The syllabus has all the information you’ll need to know before starting the class. Read through it and highlight important dates, rules, etc. [1] A typical class syllabus will include some combination of the following:
    • Course description
    • Professor’s contact information and office hours
    • Units or topics of study
    • Materials needed
    • Homework assignments
    • Dates of tests, quizzes, projects, etc.
    • Grading policy
    • General classroom policies and expectations
    • Suggestions for success
  3. Come to class prepared. Preparation includes any physical items needed for class (i.e. notebook, laptop, textbook, writing utensil, etc.), as well as having your homework or assigned reading completed. Come to class on time and with all the necessary preparations to ensure you will be as successful as possible.
  4. Establish an effective note-taking strategy. Taking notes engages you during class and helps to document the information covered so that you can study it later. There are lots of different note-taking strategies that work well for different people. Try out different styles of note-taking and see which one works best to help you learn and summarize the material from class.[2] No matter the strategy used, all effective class notes should have the following in common:
    • Be well organized
    • Distinguish main points from details
    • Include examples
    • Allow for self-testing
    • Use abbreviations to help write quickly
  5. Participate in class. Class participation shows your professor that you’re interested and willing to put in the effort to understanding the material on a deeper level. It also helps you to pay attention in the class and not let your mind wander off. In many classes, class participation is factored into your final grade. [3]
  6. Ask questions. If you’re confused or need clarification, ask your professor for help- that’s what he or she is there for! Take advantage of your professor’s office hours, which will allow you one-one-one time to ask questions, review material, and catch up if you're feeling behind.
  7. Complete assignments thoroughly and on time. Every assignment, from a simple homework, to a written paper, to a complex project, is designed to deepen your understanding of the material. Put effort into every assignment, whether it counts toward your grade or not. Handing in an assignment late frequently results in a loss of points, or at the very least will put you behind in the class. Ask for an extension on an assignment only in an absolute emergency.
  8. Study. Find a study routine that works for you and stick with it. Study habits are very personal and one person's approach may not work for you. Try out different methods of studying; use the strategies that help you and forget the ones that don’t.[4] Some popular study tips include:
    • Establish a set time each week to study for your class.
    • Find a quiet place to study with few distractions.
    • Use notecards to help learn important terms, dates, formulas, ideas, etc.
    • Review general concepts first, then focus on the details.
    • Quiz yourself on the information, or have a partner quiz you to see in which areas you are strongest and which need improvement.
    • Study with a classmate or study group that is serious about learning the material.
    • Don’t cram. It’s better to study a little information more frequently than to try to review a lot of information all at once.
  9. Keep track of your performance. Closely monitor your grades on all submitted assignments to make sure you’re staying within the passing range. Don't aim to achieve the minimum grade for passing the class. One poor test performance can send your “C-” grade to an “F,” ruining your chances at passing.[5]

Taking a Class as Pass/Fail

  1. Consider the pros of taking a class as pass/fail. Taking a class as pass/fail can be a great option, depending on your personal academic situation and learning goals. Think about the following advantages:
    • It can alleviate the stress that comes with taking a class for a traditional letter grade.
    • You can concentrate more on the classes within your major.
    • You can explore subjects outside of your major without worrying as much about how you'll perform in the class.[6]
  2. Examine the cons of taking a class as pass/fail. While taking a class as pass/fail does have certain benefits, there are also disadvantages to take into consideration. Weigh the pros against these cons:
    • You still need to do the work required of the class. Working really hard for a grade of “Pass” instead of an “A” can be unsatisfying.
    • You usually can't switch back once you've decided to take a class as pass/fail. That means if you're earning the equivalent of an "A" grade in the class, you can't change your grading option to a traditional letter grade.
    • If you change your major, and a class you took as pass/fail becomes a required class for your new major, you may need to re-take it.[7]
  3. Research your school’s policy on taking a class as pass/fail. While all pass/fail courses generally follow a similar format, the rules and expectations of pass/fail classes can vary greatly among schools. Research your school’s policies on pass/fail classes and talk to a school advisor to verify information or ask questions.[8] Some questions to consider are:
    • How many pass/fail classes can you take per semester? Per academic year? Per college career?
    • What kinds of restrictions are there in taking classes as pass/fail? For example, many schools don’t allow you to take any classes within your major area of study as pass/fail.
    • What is the minimum grade you need to pass a pass/fail class?
    • What is the effect of a pass/fail class on your overall GPA?
    • Will taking a class as pass/fail impact graduation with Latin honors?
    • What happens if you fail a pass/fail class? Does it go on your permanent transcript? Will you have the opportunity to retake it as a pass/fail class?
    • What are the general expectations of students taking classes as pass/fail?
  4. Register for your class as pass/fail. If you decide to take a class as pass/fail, follow the directions in your school’s student handbook or on the website for enrolling in the class. Usually there is a different registration process for taking a class with the pass/fail option- sometimes it's as simple as clicking a button while registering, other times it requires submitting a form. Talk to an advisor if you’re unsure.

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