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What To Consider When Declaring Pass/Fail

With the deadline to declare a course pass/fail arriving at 12 p.m. EDT tomorrow, uncertainty remains in terms of how a pass/fail designation may impact students moving forward. Boston College announced in mid-March that it would be loosening the constraints on the pass/fail course grading policy for this semester only.

For the Spring 2020 semester, the University has lifted the usual one-course limit for declaring classes pass/fail. It has also removed its usual prohibition on declaring courses that fulfill core, foreign-language, or major and minor requirements as pass/fail. Courses in the Carroll School of Management and Woods College of Advancing Studies can also be taken pass/fail, as a deviation from the schools’ usual policies.

“The decision will have to be one that you make yourself,” reads an FAQ page sent to Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences students after the policy change. The page suggests that students analyze their course progression before making a final decision. A CSOM FAQ page says the same.

The policy change, which the University said in its announcement was implemented to ease the potential negative impacts of online learning, has raised questions about how graduate admissions offices and prospective employers will perceive pass/fail grades on a transcript.

“[Graduate] programs understand that the pandemic has caused a major disruption to learning in the spring 2020 semester, and they will be understanding that many students may opt to take courses pass/fail,” Salvatore Cipriano, assistant director of the Career Center, said in an email to The Heights. “Having said that, if students are continuing to excel in a course that has moved online, I would encourage them to consider maintaining a letter grade.” 

The MCAS FAQ page says that the University does not know how a pass/fail designation will be viewed by graduate schools and that students should check with individual institutions.

“I would encourage students interested in graduate school—whether it be medical school, business school, or other programs—to follow up with their academic departments or with the graduate schools directly for program-specific information,” Cipriano said.

The FAQ page for MCAS students says that the University does not know how employers will view a pass/fail designation but notes that many peer institutions have implemented similar pass/fail policies this semester.

The FAQ page for CSOM students says that employers will not view pass/fail designations negatively, but that the school does not know how pass/fail designations will look to graduate schools.

“We have reached out to employers and recruiters at many of the most frequent recruiters of BC students, including the banks, big 4, and management consulting firms, among others,” the page says. “All recognize the difficulty of the times. As such, employers have told us they would not look negatively on a semester with some or all pass/fail courses.”

All BC Law classes for this semester are being graded on a pass/fail basis. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC), the organization that administers the LSAT, issued a statement reassuring students interested in pursuing law school that law schools “will not penalize any applicant for presenting Pass/Fail grades.”

Cipriano said that BC Law School specifically, in addition to many other graduate programs, will likely not punish prospective students for taking courses pass/fail.

“I can speak specifically to law and some public policy graduate programs, where the consensus is that taking any course pass/fail—whether by the University or student’s decision—will not be detrimental to any future application,” Cipriano said. “Law schools in particular have been emphatic about this point.”

There is less clarity as to how medical schools will view pass/fail courses. A representative from the BC Pre-Health program said in an email to The Heights that “there is no consensus” among professional health schools regarding how pass/fail grades will be viewed in place of a letter grade, and it may be beneficial not to elect the pass/fail option.

“In some cases it may be beneficial for a student to maintain the grade option for science coursework, especially in prerequisite science courses, to ensure a universally competitive application and provide the necessary foundational knowledge to perform strongly on standardized entrance exams,” the Pre-Health representative said.

With the exception of several nursing classes, one biology class, one palliative care class, and one math class, all undergraduate BC courses are eligible for the pass/fail designation this semester under the amended policy. 

If a student passes a class they have designated as pass/fail, a P will appear on their transcript in place of a letter grade. They will receive full academic credit, but the grade will have no impact on their overall GPA. In order to receive a score of P, students must achieve a score equivalent to a D- or higher. 

Failing a pass/fail class, however, results in an F on a student’s transcript, which will count as a 0.00 when calculated into overall GPA.

When the University expanded the classes eligible to be deemed pass/fail, it also expanded the amount of students eligible to utilize the designation. While freshmen are typically barred from designating a course pass/fail, the new policy permits them to do so for this semester.

Other colleges and universities have joined BC in widening the pass/fail option for the spring, such as Duke University and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Students can declare a course pass/fail in the Current Courses and Grades option in the Agora Portal. Once a course is declared as pass/fail, it cannot be undone.

Featured Image by Keara Hanlon / For The Heights

April 29, 2020