How do pass/fail classes look to PhD admissions committees?


In short, this looks bad.

When I see a "Pass" or "S" grade on a transcript that I'm evaluating, my default assumption is that the student did work equivalent to the lowest passing letter grade (e.g. a "D" in the US system.)

I tell the undergraduate students that I advise that if they want to go on to graduate school they should avoid taking courses on the S/U grading scale.


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Updated on August 01, 2022


  • eagle34
    eagle34 over 1 year

    I'm a junior hoping to do a PhD. I'm in a graduate level class right now in a different field. I believe almost all the other students are PhD students. The first couple weeks of the course were just barely accessible, though very challenging. Now, however, I really find myself unable to complete the problem sets. There are no office hours either. How bad would it look to pass/fail this class? It's not particularly related to my intended research focus in the PhD. I believe I am a strong candidate aside from this class. Also, I'm really not sure what grade I would get in this class. Probably a B at worst. I'd rather not mess up my GPA though. All of my other technical classes are A's or A minuses.

    • Patricia Shanahan
      Patricia Shanahan over 6 years
      Is the class in question one that covers topics used in machine learning?
    • eagle34
      eagle34 over 6 years
      I'm sure someone could come up with a connection, but it's definitely pretty far from the field.
    • aparente001
      aparente001 over 6 years
      I think pass/fail outside your area is not a disaster. A bad grade would be a disaster. // Please contact the instructor and ask for an appointment to get some help. Just because there are no published office hours doesn't mean you can't ask for help. If the instructor refuses to help, see a department administrator. Perhaps they'd withdraw you from the class without it showing up on your transcript, under the circumstances.
    • eagle34
      eagle34 over 6 years
      Do you consider a B to be a bad grade? I could get a C if the final exam goes horribly. A B is the most likely outcome, it seems.
    • JeffE
      JeffE over 6 years
      I don't think a lone B in a graduate-level class outside your target research area would be a disaster, even though that same B might be considered a "bad grade" for a PhD student in the same field as the class.
    • Anonymous Physicist
      Anonymous Physicist over 2 years
  • User1915
    User1915 over 6 years
    What if those pass or S courses are electives? I have a similar grading system too, but they are only applicable to electives unrelated to my major.
  • Brian Borchers
    Brian Borchers over 6 years
    "Unrelated" spans a large range. I don't really care if a prospective math graduate student has an "S" in a yoga or music class, but I'd be concerned if the "S" was in a physics class and more concerned if the "S" was in a mathematics class.
  • Nate Eldredge
    Nate Eldredge over 6 years
    At many (most?) US institutions, there's a policy that an S grade should be equivalent to C or better (or maybe C-). A student who would get a D in a letter system is suppose to get a U in the S/U system. Of course, some instructors might stretch this.