Making first semesters more bearable: Proposing a pass/no record system for first-years’ fall semesters

The College is an amazing opportunity for all students who come here  from different parts of the U.S. and the world. It can open doors to amazing post-graduation opportunities in the form of prestigious fellowships, admission into high-ranked graduate programs and top jobs across different sectors. The College, however, is also a very stressful place. Being constantly ranked No. 1 on U.S. News & World Report as the best liberal arts college, along with a super low student to faculty ratio of seven to one, comes with professors having very high expectations from the students about their work. But students have to juggle more than just academics – they are involved in varsity sports, cultural and creative clubs and other pre-professional societies. Being able to maintain and implement the delicate balance of attending classes and giving their very best, engaging in different extracurriculars, socializing and getting time to wind down and sleep is an art and a skill that is acquired over time at the College.

First-years are especially prone to being overwhelmed and stressed out when they enter the College (or any other top academic institution, for that matter). There is so much they want to do – so many classes they want to explore, new friendships that they want to cultivate, new clubs they want to try out, and they want to find themselves settled into college, familiar with the neighboring city or town. Amidst all this rush, many students, coming from different types of schools with different academic curricula and modes of testing, find themselves struggling with academics in their first semester. Many students realize that college isn’t going to be like high school and that they have to put a lot of effort into their classes and work harder to earn those grades, while for others, college can be somewhat of an easier academic transition.

One solution to ease the stress and anxiety for many first-years is to make the first semester at the College into a pass/no record – credit/no credit system. Under this system, first-years would be required to take the usual academic course load of four courses, and at the end of the semester, the professors would assign grades (the usual grading rubric, but with the bar for receiving a passing grade being comparatively higher) and provide feedback to students, but the students’ transcripts would only show the courses taken and passed (with courses failed omitted from the transcript). Many top schools such as MIT and Swarthmore have implemented this policy. It is now time for the College to follow their lead.

Here’s what justifies this system of grading and assessment. For starters, it makes the transition into college for first-years less stressful and more comfortable. This system would provide first-years with a slight break from the highly competitive and grade-oriented high school environments that they come from and encourage them to step outside their comfort zone, take intellectual risks, be a little more fearless in choosing courses that they may otherwise have not taken and focus on learning rather than academic achievement alone. Through constant feedback from professors about their performance in the courses during the semester, students can learn to adjust the amount of time and effort that they need put into their courses and acquire the skills and habits required to ace their classes and manage their time well starting next semester. The one common argument against this system is that it would lead to first-years slacking off and not working hard enough. Well, at the College, where 95 percent of the students were in the top 20 percent of their graduating class, it can be said that a certain level of work ethic and commitment were required to gain admission, and students are expected to continue this work ethic and really take advantage of the system of pass/fail to be better positioned their next semesters. On the other hand, under the current system, when a first-year fails a class in their first semester at the College, not only do they receive a failing grade on their transcript that becomes a permanent record to be explained to job recruiters and graduate school admissions, but they also have to work extra hard to make up for the significant drop in their GPA due to the failing grade. Due to the current system, such a first-year would be likely to always fall behind in their academic achievement (measured here by cumulative GPA) during their time at the College, affecting not only their mental wellbeing (with high possibility of stress and low self-esteem), but also their job and graduate school prospects. All these challenges would be significantly reduced if the first semester at the College were made into a pass/no record system.

Ashish Solanki ’19 is an economics, religion and psychology triple major from New Delhi, India.

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