Choosing Classes for the Spring Semester? Check Out the Pros and Cons of Pass/Fail Courses


Back to the blog

With only a few weeks left in the fall semester, it’s more likely that you’re hosting a festive holiday gathering, eyeing the best textbook resale sites, and making grand New Year’s Eve plans than scheduling your courses for next semester. However, your spring semester will be here before you know it, which means that you should probably start thinking about the classes you’ll be taking come January. While perusing your university’s course catalog, however, you might be faced with the perplexing issue of whether or not you should enroll in a pass/fail class.

Unfamiliar with pass/fail classes? No worries – after all, it’s highly unlikely that you ever encountered a pass/fail course in high school. Basically, pass/fail courses are exactly what they sound like. Instead of assigning you a letter grade, your professor will either pass or fail you for the course. If you pass, you’ll receive a mark on your transcript indicating that you have received the appropriate course credits.

Many college students love pass/fail courses because they don’t base achievement on a numerical or letter grade. But, as with most things, there are pros and cons to pass/fail courses. So, if you’re considering signing up for a pass/fail course for the upcoming semester, do yourself a solid and brush up on these 6 pluses and pitfalls to taking a class pass/fail, courtesy of your friends here at uCribs.

Pro: There’s less pressure to achieve a certain letter grade.

Ask any college student around, and you’ll probably find that earning high letter grades is a constant source of stress. Whether you’re a natural overachiever or take a more relaxed approach in the classroom, you have to admit that landing that coveted A+ is always on your mind – not only to make your family proud, but also to boost your graduate school applications and internship prospects. That’s why eliminating the pressure to earn a high letter grade is a wonderful pro to taking a pass/fail class.

Because pass/fail courses only require that you earn a passing grade, they can be a bit easier to manage while you’re juggling countless other responsibilities. Removing the need to achieve a perfect grade also encourages you to really appreciate the subject matter at-hand and might even eliminate some of the stress you feel about your grades in general. We all know how important reducing stress  is to your well-being – so, if you’re facing a full spring schedule of demanding classes and have the ability to sign up for a pass/fail class, you might want to go for it!

Con: You might find it harder to incentivize yourself to succeed.

Despite what most people believe, a little bit of stress isn’t always a bad thing. Some students might even agree that a small amount of pressure is what keeps them motivated through the many long nights spent studying. Sound familiar? If so, you might want to consider that pass/fail classes, which eliminate the grading scale altogether, may make it difficult for you to stay focused and keep your eyes on the prize – AKA, a good grade in the small scale of things, and your college graduation date, if you’re looking at the big picture.

For example, you might reason that there’s little point in putting forth your full effort, when a passing grade is all you need to claim the course credit. Or, you might be acutely aware of the fact that your peers, who habitually put in the bare minimum, will likely earn the same passing mark as you do. This can make the urge to slack off and sleep in all the more difficult to overcome. Tread carefully and remind yourself that a college class is still a college class – no matter how its passing is granted – and should be treated as such.

pass/fail, pass fail classes, schedule, courses, college planning, pros, cons, advantages, disadvantages

Pro: Your peers won’t feel as competitive with one another.

There’s something about an academic setting that brings out the competitive nature in all of us. Maybe, you attend school with many peers who yearn for an impossibly high grade point average, or perhaps, everyone within your inner circle thinks they’ll be the one to graduate Summa Cum Laude. Though this may be true if you attend a small, private school, Ivy League university, or other prestigious institution, even state and other types of public universities house hyper-competitive students – and not only within the athletic department. Our point is that competition is everywhere in academia!

So, just imagine the collective sigh of relief that will fall over your classmates on the first day of your pass/fail class, when each of you realize that there’s no need to squabble over test scores, participation points, and group projects. With no traditional grading scale to worry about, there’s really no way to know who’s the “best” in your class, and odds are, your slightly ill-prepared group presentation on Shakespearean literature will be just fine in your professor’s eyes. It might not sound like much of a perk, but trust us, it will go far in making what might have been a pressurized environment way calmer.

Con: If you excel in a pass/fail course, your GPA may not reflect your accomplishment.

Most college students are on a continual quest to raise or maintain their GPAs. That’s why it feels so good when you earn that A after working hard all semester, and watch your grade point average increase as a result.  That’s also why it might come as a shock to learn that most colleges and universities do not factor pass/fail results into your grade point average. You heard that right – even though you’ll still receive the appropriate credits for passing the course, it’s unlikely that your GPA will rise, no matter how much you slayed that class.

Of course, you should always consult your student handbook or meet with an academic advisor before taking our word for it, since policies differ between universities. But, if you’re hoping to easily boost your GPA with a whole roster of pass/fail courses, it’s safe to say that you’ll want to reconsider going that route – or risk being sorely disappointed in a few months’ time. Our advice? Stick to traditionally graded classes if you need to boost your GPA, and only pepper in a few pass/fail courses to take some of the pressure off, when your schedule and grade point average allows.

Pro: You can truly delve in and explore course material.

Unlike high school, college is an ideal place to explore your academic interests on a whim. Before college, you had very little choice aside from pursuing your high school’s core curriculum, which is really nothing more than a one-size-fits-all route until graduation. Now, the more traditional structure of high school shifts into something with a bit more freedom, which is great news for the many of us who like to spice up our class roster with courses that appeal to our other interests – some of which might not have a single thing to do with our declared major.

The pass/fail structure allows you to immerse yourself into the course material even more so. Because you don’t have to worry about achieving a certain grade, you can simply enjoy learning the material. That’s a huge reason why the pass/fail structure is so awesome. Rather than getting bogged down with pressure surrounding your grades, taking a pass/fail class ensures your success, as long as you put in the necessary effort. Not to mention, being enrolled in a pass/fail class means that you won’t have to fret over a small slip-up or faulty research thesis that could lead to a poor grade. (What a relief!)

pass/fail, pass fail classes, schedule, courses, college planning, pros, cons, advantages, disadvantages

Con: It’s hard to determine your understanding and gained knowledge from a course.

With traditional grading systems, it’s pretty simple to determine how well you understand any given subject. That C you received for your quantum mechanics presentation, for example, illuminated you to the fact that you didn’t understand certain theories quite as well as you thought you did. So, consider how challenging it might be to gauge your knowledge of a course when your efforts aren’t assigned a corresponding number or letter grade.

Sure, if you’re a math major taking an art history course pass/fail, your academic success probably isn’t dependent upon knowing exactly where you went wrong with your final project. But, if you’re taking a class important to your major, not receiving a letter grade can leave you clueless as to whether you’ve mastered the material…or not. This is especially concerning if you only plan to put in the bare minimum needed to receive that passing mark, without worry of actually retaining the material. So, heed our warning, and save the pass/fail option for courses that aren’t critical to graduation or your future career.

When it comes to college courses, you’ve got a lot of options, including the ever-popular – but often misunderstood – pass/fail class. While pass/fail courses can be great for students looking to dip their toes into certain subject matter or get a course of lesser importance out of the way, there are also plenty of reasons why this type of course might not be ideal for everyone. Fortunately, uCribs has made it a little bit easier for you to determine where a pass/fail class might fit into your upcoming schedule by breaking down the good and the bad of this non-traditional grading system. Now, go forth and create your ultimate spring schedule – it’s gonna be a semester to remember!

Share this article:


Amelia Woolard is a graduate of Millsaps College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Communications Studies and an Art History minor. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Amelia moved to New Orleans in 2014 to begin her career in marketing and design. She is particularly interested in the intersection of art and language, and enjoys projects that merge the two fields. Amelia is an avid yet critical pop culture consumer and a loving mother to her cat Faulkner.

Find Your College Crib