Swarthmore has its charms – the campus arboretum, the eccentric student body, American Gothic courtyards, free laundry, raspberry oat bars in the dining hall every couple of weeks. However, one of my utmost favorite things about the school cannot be touched, looked at, or consumed- it exists as one of our first experiences as first-year Swarthmore students and lives on as a distant memory in our psyche as we frantically write 60 pages in the span of one finals week per semester for the rest of our college career.
It’s the pass/fail semester.
To those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, your first semester as a Swarthmore freshman will be a pass/fail semester. This means that each of the classes that you take this semester will not be for a grade that will factor into your GPA and won’t be shown on your transcript. You will get a “shadow grade” because you’ll still be taking exams or writing papers, but think of this shadow grade as more of a personal/private indicator of your progress in the class. On your transcript, you either receive a pass (D- to an A+) or a fail. If you get a C in one class and an A in the other, there’s no differentiation between the classes on your transcript – they both show up as simply a pass. There is no way that your shadow grade will factor into your GPA, be uncovered by any graduate school, or be seen by any job. This semester is solely a time for you to adjust to college life and explore disciplines that you may not be comfortable with or that you just want to try out!
As a liberal arts school, Swarthmore encourages you (if not forces you through distribution requirements) to explore different areas of study. Especially coming from a high school where the course offerings were not nearly as extensive as that of Swarthmore’s, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of options in the course catalog. Pass/fail is designed to encourage students to get out of their comfort zone since you don’t have to worry about your grade in the class. If you’ve never heard of Nietzsche, but you’re interested in philosophy, then take an existentialist philosophy course. If you’ve always been curious about programming, then take Intro to Computer Science.
The pass/fail semester is the ideal time to test out disciplines that you are curious about and, just as importantly, that you realize are not your forte. Coming into Swarthmore, I thought I would do my English major along with completing the pre-med track. My whole life I thought that being a doctor seemed most logical for my career path – my whole family was made up of physicians and I liked the idea of a distinct, clearcut plan to adulthood. I stacked my first semester with pre-med classes, and quickly realized that pre-med was not what I wanted to orient my time towards. I know that the intro biology material isn’t what being a doctor is, but taking these classes was the first time that I really considered what everyday life would be like as a doctor and if that’s what I really pictured myself doing. As an always-needs-a-plan type of person, I was very thankful that I had the buffer time of pass/fail to make this drastic pivot in my academic trajectory. I was also just really bad at biology and chemistry… so it was nice knowing that my poor exam scores weren’t going to tank my GPA.
That being said, I did still try during my first semester – I was at every single bio breakout session and even got a student tutor for the class. I think Swarthmore’s pass/fail system is successful because the students still want to do well even without the incentive of grades. It’s not a free-for-all. Everyone still works hard. However, I may have spent all of reading week before finals just watching movies all day with my roommate, while all of the upperclassmen were grinding in McCabe library.
Finally, I always get a lot of questions about how I learned how to manage my time in college. Personally, pass/fail was an integral part of my transition. When I first came to Swarthmore, I had to learn how to balance my work and make new friends, all while spending a lot of time as a player of a fall sport. The pass/fail semester is a manifestation of the school’s dedication to nurturing the students’ holistic experience outside of just academics.