Skip to main content

Understanding the Difference Between Letter Grades and Pass/Fail

The last few weeks have been challenging for most college students. The coronavirus pandemic has left students and staff around the country with questions, concerns, and frustrations. Colleges are making daily adjustments to their spring and summer terms to accommodate state and county mandates. Students are rapidly adapting to their new “normal” during these unprecedented times. Petitions to shift the current grading structure have gone viral (#PassFailNation), as most classes have transitioned fully online. Many universities are attempting to mitigate the strain on students and faculty by using a “pass/fail” grading system.

If your university is among those offering a pass/fail grading option, there are some things to consider:

  • Switching to a pass/fail grade in college is irreversible.
    Many schools have stated they will offer a pass/fail option but have not yet opened the application to do so. Before making the switch, take some time to consider the pros and cons of pass/fail grading, because once it’s done, your educational institution will likely not allow you to reverse your decision.
  • Choosing “pass/fail” in college may not increase or decrease your GPA.
    For many colleges, opting into pass/fail indicates that you will receive a “pass mark” if you earn a D or higher in the class. Note that some schools set the “pass” grade at a C or higher, so be sure to check the guidelines set by your respective university. Typically, a student’s GPA will not be affected if given a “pass mark,” but they will still receive credit for the class. However, a “fail” may count negatively against a student’s GPA, and they will not receive credit for the class. Be sure to check your school’s policy regarding the impact pass/fail might have on your GPA.
  • Some institutions have restrictions on the number of pass/fail classes you can take throughout your academic career.
    If you are planning to opt-in to the pass/fail grading system, know that doing so may restrict your ability to do it again later. Most colleges and universities only allow a student to take no more than four pass/fail marks throughout the student’s program duration. While it is likely that colleges will offer some leniency with this policy, I encourage you to double-check with your school to avoid any future issues.
  • Switching to pass/fail grade in college may have potential consequences to your financial aid or scholarships.
    To ensure you don’t lose any of your financial assistance, scholarships, or funding, consult the requirements for your source’s “satisfactory academic progress” requirements. Enrolling into the pass/fail program could adversely affect your tuition assistance in future terms. Call or email your financial aid counselor to get an idea of what needs to be done to retain your aid or scholarship.
  • Switching to pass/fail grading in college may have potential consequences for your future graduate or professional degree applications.
    While graduate and professional schools will likely recognize the extraordinary circumstances students faced during this period, you should still carefully consider the impact pass/fail grades might have on your future academic goals. Research programs of interest to gain an understanding of their admissions requirements. If you’re currently in the application process, communicate with your program’s admissions office to find out how pass/fail grading might affect an application.

While we are all overwhelmed by the rapid changes due to COVID-19, it’s important to research your options before making a decision that may have implications on your future. Stay safe and healthy; we will get through this!