What is a Pass/No Pass Class?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Many colleges and universities require students to select a mandatory core curriculum of general education classes, along with the specific courses required for their majors. These required courses and major-oriented electives are usually given standard letter grades, and the student's grade point average (GPA) is calculated from those scores. Many students have the option to take elective classes for a grade known as pass/no pass, however. This type of class is usually an elective course outside of the student's major or core curriculum, taken for personal edification or self-interest.

An advantage of a pass/no pass class is an emphasis on originality and de-emphasis on grades.
An advantage of a pass/no pass class is an emphasis on originality and de-emphasis on grades.

The rules for arranging a pass/no pass grading option vary from one institution to the next, but in general, the student must be in acceptable academic standing before requesting the option. Many colleges require students to consult with their academic advisers before taking any class with this grading option, since the credit for such courses does not always count towards graduation. Advisers need to know that the class is not replacing a vital course in the student's major or core curriculum schedule. The pass/no pass option rarely if ever applies to required courses, only to electives outside of a student's major.

One advantage of a pass/no pass class is the reduced emphasis on grading and overall GPA. Many students attending school on scholarships and financial aid programs must maintain a certain GPA in order to remain eligible for the funding. An art major may have a personal interest in a business course, for example, but he may fear lowering his overall GPA if he takes the class for a grade and does not do well. Under the pass/no pass system, the art student can attend the business class without the pressure of making a specific grade, and the result is not factored into the student's overall GPA.

Many colleges and universities treat the pass/no pass option much like an audit, which means that the student must complete all of the required course material in order to receive the grade. In many cases, the instructor is not even aware that a particular student is taking the class with this grading option. The instructor assigns a letter grade for the student's performance, which is converted to a P or NP designation later.

In general, grades of D or higher are considered passing, while an F is considered a not passing grade. Some institutions use a grade of C or higher to determine pass/no pass. These policies are usually defined in a student's handbook. The option should not be viewed as a "get out of class free" card, but more as an opportunity to gain personal knowledge without the pressure of grades or GPA maintenance.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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@Chmander - Wow, that sounds pretty interesting. I haven't taken a course like that, nor have I seen the movies, but I did take an interim class known as - You Are Now Entering the Twilight Zone. In the class, we discussed and analyzed episodes of the Twilight Zone, and watched several episodes. The course lasted for two weeks. I'll admit that it was rather interesting at first, but after a while, it just became boring. All we would do is sit around and watch episodes of the Twilight Zone for three hours a day. Some of the segments were delightfully sinister and creepy, but others were really outdated, and really showed what an old show it is.


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@Chmander - Hey, now that you mention it, I took several interim classes at my college too. We were required to take them twice during our college years, meaning that our Winter breaks had to be shortened. They weren't anything too interesting, to be honest. It was pretty boring sitting in class all day listening to lectures. What classes did you take during your interim?


During my time at college, I was required to take a pass/no pass class of sorts. They were known as interim classes. They took place during the winter (directly after Winter Break) and were fairly straightforward. If you didn't pass the class, it was because you weren't even trying. One thing I really enjoyed about those classes was the amount of variety in them. Some of them covered topics in general media, while in others, you would take field trips downtown. Very interesting stuff.


SurfNTurf-I remember when I was in college I took the CLEP exam for Spanish to fulfill my foreign language requirement.

This allowed me to get a pass or fail option for the requirement which was eight credit hours. The exam was easy. It was a Spanish comprehension test.

I had to listen to a native speaker discuss a story totally in Spanish and then I had to answer questions that was asked in Spanish.

Since I was a native speaker it was easy and it allowed me to graduate early as a result. I don’t know if they still offer this option but it is a great way to bypass classes that you need to take.


A pass value can be really help when you have a difficult class as an elective. My sister used this option when she was in Law school.

She signed up for a tax law course and decided that she wanted to use this option for it because it was a really intense course.

It is really nice option to have because it does not negatively affect your grade point average. Sometimes you sign up for a course and think that it is going to be easy and if actually becomes the hardest class you’ve ever taken.

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