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Articles / Applying to College / Should I Take the "Pass" or the Grade?

Nov. 10, 2016

Should I Take the "Pass" or the Grade?

Question: I took an AP History class and I had an average of a 70. My principal gave me the option to switch my 70 for a “P" on my transcript. Which grade looks better to colleges? She offered me the same option for physiology. Thanks for your help!

You PROBABLY want to take the “P" (at least in AP History) and not the 70, but it's irresponsible to answer this in a vacuum. “The Dean" could respond more responsibly with answers to questions like these:


-How many other classes are you taking now and how are you doing in them?

-If you take a “P" in one or two classes, how will this be factored into your GPA?

-What is your Physiology grade … also a 70?

-Where are you applying to college?

-How are your grades overall … e.g., do you have mostly 90's and above or are the 70's already well represented?

-Do you have other “P's" on your record from past semesters?

-What other history and science classes have you taken and how did you do in them?

-Will your “School Profile" explain a “P" and, if so, what will it say? For instance, does the Profile proclaim that “Students with a grade above a 60 in a class can request a “P" instead of a numerical grade"? (This could suggest that you almost failed … that your grades are even worse than they really are.) Or does it say something like, “Students can elect to take up to four classes in four years on a Pass/Fail basis." (Not damaging at all.)

-Is it common for students at your school to take classes on a “Pass/Fail" basis?

-What is your intended college major?

Admission officials typically make “holistic" decisions and will look at any “P" on your transcript in the context of other information, such as the answers to the questions that I've listed above. If you are applying primarily to large universities that emphasize GPA and test scores alone when making admission decision, and if your “P's" will not be considered in your cumulative GPA, then agreeing to a couple “P's," might be the way to go. However, for most colleges, unless you are taking a long list of classes this term (perhaps TOO long?) and doing very well in most of them, a first-semester senior transcript with two “P's" on it could work against you. You are far more likely to get away with just one, especially if it's not in an area you plan to pursue in college (e.g., if you're clearly not a “science person," then a “P" in physiology won't hurt as much as if you're aiming for pre-med).

So, if you want to write back with answers to all of those questions, I may be able to advise you more effectively. Meanwhile, it's important for all students to recognize that admission officials rarely few even a single grade in isolation but, instead, will look at it as part of a bigger picture.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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