An Overview of Pass-Fail at Swarthmore

In line with Swarthmore’s holistic practices, the first semester of freshman year is “pass-fail.” Rather than receiving letter grades for courses, students either receive credit or no credit. While I didn’t initially know much about this policy, it proved to be extremely beneficial – both academically and socially – throughout my first semester.

Taking your classes pass-fail really allows students to focus on the content and the learning rather than the grades – a philosophy that was echoed in all of my classes after pass-fail as well. The pass-fail semester gives students a chance to transition from the high school mindset of only being satisfied with straight A’s to a more holistic mindset that values learning and relationships rather than the grade. This was a huge – but definitely welcome – adjustment for me. While I loved high school, my experience was definitely characterized by stressing about grades and only aiming for perfection. At Swarthmore, I’ve found a healthier balance. I still care about my grades and aim for my personal best, but I am not defeated if I don’t receive an A because I’ve still learned so much from the course material, my fellow students, and the phenomenal professors.

Students in a sociology seminar course, photo courtesy of Swarthmore College

On that note, the pass-fail semester is also a wonderful opportunity to start forging lasting relationships with professors. All of the professors are genuinely excited to guide any first-year students, and it’s amazing to see how the relationships last. One of my pass-fail professors wrote me a letter of recommendation for a writing program, and I’m taking another class with her this coming fall. We keep in contact via email and I know she’ll continue to mentor me throughout the next three years. Furthermore, it’s well known that Swarthmore is an academically rigorous school. Thus, the pass-fail semester truly gives students the opportunity to navigate new study habits.

Finally, the pass-fail semester is the perfect opportunity for exploration. Many people take classes that might be out of their initial comfort zones. I took a small seminar course exploring social theory, something I had absolutely no familiarity with. While the readings were difficult and foreign, I learned how to take notes that were actually helpful in the long run, efficiently read hundreds of pages of reading, and pose questions to a class.

The pass-fail semester is not only academically beneficial, but also socially beneficial. Having more academic flexibility allows students to take more time developing their new social lives. Whether that means going on day trips to Philly, going to parties on Thursday or Saturday nights, joining new clubs, or taking hikes around the Crum Woods, putting less emphasis on maintaining perfect grades allows people to truly focus on creating healthy social habits at school, something I believe is essential for one’s first semester away from home. Being thrown into a new city, a new school, and a new group of people is never completely comfortable at first, so the fact that Swarthmore openly encourages students to take time getting involved in social activities rather than solely focusing on academics was really reassuring to me. I felt cared for and supported as a student. The pass-fail semester truly reminded me of why I had picked Swarthmore.

Exploring the Crum Woods and taking photos with friends – one of the fun activities to do around campus!

Some last words to incoming students who are about to begin their pass-fail semester: Take classes that seem new or out of your comfort zone! Have fun with friends rather than doing the extra credit problem! Talk to other people in your classes! Go to office hours and strengthen bonds with professors! Ask lots of questions!

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