Auditing a Class: What Does It Mean and the Pass Fail Grading System

Tuesday, February 20, 2024
What if you could take a college course without worrying about the stress of letter grades and competition from classmates? Some colleges and universities offer that opportunity, allowing students to either audit a class or enroll on a pass/fail grading system. Keep reading to understand more about these options and if they affect your grade point average, as well as the pros and cons of the pass/fail grading system.

What Does It Mean to Audit a Class?  

Some colleges and universities allow students to audit classes if space allows and the instructor approves. This often means that the student attends a class without receiving a grade or academic credit. The level of participation is often determined by the instructor, but students who are auditing a class typically are not expected to complete assignments and may not have to participate in class discussions.  

Auditing a class provides an opportunity for students to explore their personal or academic interests more fully without the pressure of exams or assignments or an impact on their GPA. College students will typically see audited courses listed on their transcript even though they don’t count toward credit hours or GPA. 

What Is a Pass/Fail Class? 

A pass/fail grading option is an alternative to traditional letter grades. In a pass/fail system, students are typically assessed as either “pass” or “fail” based on their overall performance in a course. At some schools, it might be called credit/no credit or satisfactory/unsatisfactory.  

Pass/fail grading methods can be implemented differently between schools and even among different courses within the same institution. Some courses may have mandatory pass/fail grading, while others may offer it as an option. Additionally, the specific criteria for passing may vary. Before taking any course pass/fail, speak to an academic advisor about your options and review the policies to ensure you understand what to expect and what’s expected of you.  

Do Pass/Fail Classes Affect GPA? 

Generally, students who satisfactorily complete a pass/fail course won’t see any impact on their GPA. This is why students might opt to take courses outside of their major as pass/fail, for example — especially if they have a high GPA. However, students who receive a failing grade in a pass/fail course receive zero points, which can cause a steep drop in their cumulative grade point average.  

Is Withdraw Better Than Pass/Fail? 

Withdrawing is always a better option than failing, at least for your GPA — though pass/fail is the better option if you pass the course. A withdrawal typically appears as a W on your transcript, meaning the course was not completed or graded. You might want to consider the financial implications of withdrawing from a course, such as not being refunded your tuition if you don’t withdraw by a specific deadline. You may find it helpful to book an academic advising appointment before withdrawing from any class to ensure you fully understand the implications.  

Pros and Cons of the Pass/Fail Grading System 

A pass/fail grading system has both advantages and disadvantages. Let’s look at the pros and cons associated with this grading approach. 


Pass/fail grading can reduce the stress and anxiety associated with achieving high letter grades, leading to a more positive and relaxed learning environment. While that’s a good reason to consider taking a course pass/fail, there are other advantages. 

  • It encourages a focus on learning and mastery of the material rather than on competition for high grades.  
  • Students may be more inclined to take risks and explore subjects outside their comfort zone.  
  • Students can take on challenging subjects without fear of a negative impact on their GPA — that is, if they get a passing grade. 
  • Since everyone who passes receives the same credit, pass/fail grading can promote collaboration and a sense of shared learning goals among students. 


Because pass/fail systems provide limited differentiation between students, employers and graduate schools may find it challenging to evaluate a student’s performance accurately. This is one of the primary issues of using this grading system, but there are others:  

  • A passing grade has no impact on a student’s GPA, but a failing grade may greatly affect it. This could be a concern for students aiming to maintain a high GPA. 
  • Some argue that the absence of letter grades may diminish students’ motivation to excel in their studies, as there is less incentive to strive for top grades. 
  • Pass/fail grading may make it harder for students to identify specific areas of weakness or improvement in their academic performance. 
  • In some cases, students might misuse the pass/fail option, choosing it to avoid challenging coursework rather than for legitimate reasons related to learning goals. 

Pass/Not Pass Policies of Different Universities 

University of Richmond 

According to Richmond’s policies, students in the arts and sciences or leadership studies program who have completed at least 18 units of academic work can choose one standard-graded class per semester to be graded pass/fail. Credit from this course counts toward the degree but cannot fulfill general education, major, or minor requirements. Students can opt to take a maximum of four pass/fail courses for degree credit. The equivalent of a D- or better is required to pass.  

Boston University 

Students in good academic standing who want to take advantage of Boston University’s pass/fail grade policy can elect to take two courses pass/fail for academic credit. These courses cannot be taken in the same semester. A passing grade is the equivalent of a D or better. Exemptions include major or minor requirements, coursework required for the student’s college or school, directed study or research courses, and study abroad courses. Learn what it takes to be admitted if you apply to Boston University.  

Columbia University 

The Columbia grade policy includes pass/D/fail and pass/fail options — students should check the policy of their school or department. Eligible schools include Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of General Studies, the School of International and Public Affairs, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Professional Studies. The number of pass/D/fail or pass/fail classes a student can take per term or total is determined by their school or department. Major and core requirements are exempt from this policy. Learn what admissions officers look for when you apply to Columbia. 

Georgetown University 

Georgetown’s grading policy allows sophomores and above to complete one elective (worth three credits) per semester as pass/fail for a maximum of 24 credits or six courses. Alternatively, students may opt to register for one- or two- credit electives on a pass/fail basis, up to a maximum of four credits per semester. Students receive an S (satisfactory) for an equivalent of C or better or a U (unsatisfactory) for an equivalent of a D or F. Neither grade affects the student’s GPA (Quality Point Index), but students only earn academic credit for an S. Learn about applying to Georgetown.  

Harvard University 

Harvard’s grading system includes pass/fail and satisfactory/unsatisfactory. Independent study is graded only pass/fail. All first-year seminars and several junior and senior tutorials are graded only satisfactory/unsatisfactory. A passing grade is the equivalent of a D- or better. A satisfactory is equivalent to C- or better. An unsatisfactory is given for work below a C- and is considered a failing grade. Students who receive unsatisfactory or failing grades may be subject to academic probation or withdrawal for a year. Learn what’s required to apply to Harvard. 

How to Excel with Grades 

Grading policies aren’t always straightforward, which can leave you confused about the best option to take. IvyWise academic advisors can help college students decide whether taking courses pass/fail is a good option for them. If you need guidance on course selection, degree requirements, and other aspects of college life, learn more about our academic advising services


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