In case this is a foreign concept to you, let’s dial back for a moment. Some schools will let students convert a limited number of credit hours to pass/fail instead of a letter grade. Now, if your school does this, but lets you see your grade before you make the decision, you probably don’t need any help. Get your grade, decide you hate it, convert the grade so that it doesn’t impact your GPA. Easy, right?
Well, it’s law school. It is almost never that easy. Most of the people we hear from are from schools where they have to decide whether to pass/fail at one of two points in the semester: either before the add/drop period is over, or before finals. A bit tougher, right? So, how do you decide?
You know how in law classes, there are two main types of tests? There are rules with elements that are either satisfied or not, and there are rules with factors that you just have to balance. This is one of those factor-balancing tests, and as usual, I’ll provide a non-exclusive list. Factors include: the importance of the class to your career goals, your current GPA, the quality of the class/professor, and your motivation.
If you’re in law school, you probably want to be a lawyer (I know that seems obvious, but it’s actually not true of everyone there). What kind of lawyer do you want to be? Lots of options, right? Well, if you want to be a prosecutor, you might not want to pass/fail your Evidence class. If you want to work in real estate, you probably shouldn’t pass/fail Property. You see where I’m going with this? It’s just not a good look if your potential employer checks your transcript and sees that you don’t have a grade for a key subject related to the job. You also should probably show that you can excel in the areas that you plan to practice in, and a stellar grade shows this. Meanwhile, if you’re hoping to be a prosecutor, but you’ll be taking the bar in a UBE state, you might decide to take Secured Transactions. That…really doesn’t have a ton to do with most prosecutors’ jobs, but it’s a tough subject that is likely to show up on the bar exam. Big check mark in favor of pass/fail!
This is something that cuts both ways. If you have a really great GPA and don’t want to risk coming below a certain percentile, you might choose to pass/fail a course that you think could tank your grades. If you have a really bad GPA and you’re at risk of probation or dismissal, you might choose to pass/fail a course that would make things worse. BUT, if you pass/fail a course, it also won’t help your GPA. And this is where you have to do some math with a bit of fortune telling thrown in. For the person with a high (or even middling) GPA, the pass/fail is a missed opportunity to climb higher in the rankings, especially compared to others who might edge past you. For the person with a low GPA, the pass/fail is a missed opportunity to get out of the danger zone. The only person for whom this is really a no-brainer is someone with a 4.0. (Yes, it happens. No, it didn’t happen to me).
Quality of the Class/Professor
This is probably the first thing that most people think of. That class is so hard. This professor is incomprehensible. The curve is an absolute nightmare. A hard class obviously tends to weigh in favor of pass/fail. Why would you not take a grade for an easy class? A professor that has a reputation for being awful (either a bad teacher or just plain mean) is probably someone who you don’t want a grade from. But, as always, stop and think. Is this class hard for “everyone” or would it be hard for you? Some people love procedural classes and really get them. Others hate those classes and look at me in horror when I say that I absolutely loved Civ Pro. Some people love all things abstract, and could hold debates about Con Law for hours (please, with someone other than me). Some professors are universally loved for good reason (like my amazing Crim professor), and other professors are just an acquired taste (I’ll…avoid naming names here). So, if you have this option, try not to put too much stock in reputation. Meet the professor if you can, or check out some exams. Talk to TAs or other students who took the class. Learn about the challenges and benefits, including class size and curve type.
Ooh, this is the hard one. When you think of a pass/fail class, you’re probably thinking about a freebie, right? I take the class, I put in minimal effort, I get a check mark and a few credit hours. Yay! But, that’s not actually how it always works. Some people just can’t motivate themselves without a legit grade. So a class that could have been a B or even higher turns into a fail because they couldn’t be bothered to put in the effort. As usual, this is about self-reflection. Can you treat it like a “real” class even though you won’t be getting a grade? Will you keep up with the readings, participate in class, and do your best on the final? If so, go for it! If not, don’t take the risk.
So, should you pass/fail that class you’re worried about? Honestly, I have no idea about that decision for you personally. Weigh the factors and figure out whether this is more likely to hurt you or help you. Talk to an advisor if you need an outside opinion, and then make the best decision for you. One additional note: many schools switched to pass/fail during the Covid pandemic. This was an across the board change that employers realize happened. If that happened to you, don’t spend time dwelling on what grade you might have gotten or how it might have moved your GPA up. You have no idea what the stress of this pandemic would have lead to grades wise, and you can’t go back in time and know. So, if you had to pass/fail at some point in the last few years, it is what it is.
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