• Helpful Guidelines on Pass/Fail Opt-in: Fall 2020

Helpful Guidelines on Pass/Fail Opt-in: Fall 2020

Please consult your faculty advisor, RAS advisor, instructor or departmental mentors if you need further advice to help you make this decision.

Perspective about pass/fail

Normal Engineering academic policies allow students to take up to four courses pass/fail.  Further, these courses are allowed only in the social science, humanities, or free elective categories.  The intent of pass/fail is to allow the student to stretch and explore courses of interest possibly from schools across Penn.  Further, pass/fail allows students to focus on their “core” classes if they feel academically challenged. The instructor does not know if a student has selected the pass/fail option; regardless of grading choice, all students will receive a grade and then receive a pass/fail if the grade is D or better.  Since the foundation of engineering is built on math and natural science, Engineering does not allow these courses to be taken as pass/fail. Similarly, engineering core and technical/professional electives must be taken for letter grades.

Pass/fail opt-in: Spring 2020

For Spring 2020, the University allowed students to choose between letter grades and pass/fail option.  There was no limit to the number of pass/fail courses.  Further, these courses did not count against the total limit of four pass/fail and could be taken in any course.  There was no option to uncover the grade or change a grade to pass/fail after the deadline of April 29th.  For Fall 2020, the University extended the same grading rules to undergraduate students across the four undergraduate schools with a hard deadline of October 30th, 2020.

Pass/fail opt-in: Fall 2020

Although taking a course pass/fail can help alleviate stress, students should consider the pros and cons of this decision. First, sometime in March of the Spring 2020 semester, many schools across the country nearly uniformly provided students with pass/fail policies.  However, during Fall of 2020, many schools, including our peer institutions, have returned to regular grading policies. This means that students need to consider how taking a pass/fail course, particular in STEM courses, may affect their academic standing at Penn and beyond.  If you are receiving financial aid, you should ensure that changing to pass/fail doesn’t impact your grant aid, particular if it is merit based.  It is also important to consider that this policy affects students differently. Because pass/fail grading was installed prior to the Fall 2020 semesters, students have time to think through the pros and cons for their particular situation.  Here, we offer a few thoughts on how this policy may affect students based on their academic year of study.


1st year students

Pros: Taking a course pass/fail may help students to ease the transition from high school to college. It removes somewhat the stress associated with grades while allowing students to focus on learning and on “learning how to learn.” One of the main issues that 1st year students face regarding performance at Penn has to do with adapting their study style to the fast pace and rigor of Penn courses. Some students adapt faster than others, but the transition is real. Another important issue that can be mitigated by taking a course pass/fail is time-management. Incoming students often struggle to find the right balance between work and play.

Cons: Abusing the privilege is perhaps the most serious drawback of the pass/fail policy. It is worth noting that the new pass/fail policy is there to help alleviate the burden on students facing challenges that range from food/housing insecurity and mental health to internet connectivity and disparate time zones. But if taking a course pass/fail means that a student will no longer pay attention or engage in class, then the policy has failed.


2nd year students

Pros: Just like 1st year students, taking a course pass/fail may help remove the stress associated with grades while allowing you to focus on learning.

Cons: As a sophomore, a student is now taking important introductory courses in his/her/their major. A student should know where he/she/they stand in those so that adjustments can be made, and the sooner the better. Taking a course in the major pass/fail may provide the student with a false sense of accomplishment and material understanding.

To consider: For the reasons above, it may be best to take courses within your major, as well as any other STEM course associated with your major, for grades. If you are on probation, this is an opportunity to increase your overall and/or major GPA by taking courses for grades. Use pass/fail only if strictly necessary.


3rd year students

Pros: Again, taking a course pass/fail may help remove the stress associated with grades while allowing students to focus on learning. As a junior, the policy allows students to take upper level electives that may seem too challenging. That is, the pass/fail policy allows the student to explore the major deeper. Pass/fail may also free up time to focus on job hunting.

Cons: Junior-level courses in the major are too important to be taken pass/fail. A future employer or graduate/professional school recruiter may question the wisdom of such a move.

To consider: Like sophomores, it is best to take courses within your major, as well as any other STEM course associated with your major, for grades. But students are encouraged to explore.


4th year students

Pros: Pass/fail may allow students to take a graduate course without much penalty and explore other challenging subjects.

Cons: As mentioned above, students will be competing for jobs/fellowships/graduate school admissions with students from other Universities. A pass/fail may put a student at a disadvantage against peers particularly if applying for graduate/professional schools and fellowships.

To consider: How will a pass/fail on my transcript in my senior year affect my chances for professional employment and graduate admissions as well as securing fellowships, etc.