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Weighing your options


One of the stranger things about how students handle course selection is the avoidance of the pass/D/fail option. Perspectives differ, but one attitude is that using P/D/Fs, specifically those not used in a strategic manner to fulfill course requirements, is detrimental. Equally a function of the large-lecture format and the general-education focus, introductory courses are typically the vehicle for distribution requirements. Notwithstanding the parity of courses toward the degree requirement of 31 for A.B. students, why not take as many courses for a grade as possible?

There are some reasons to use a P/D/F option, such as forgoing an introductory lecture course in favor of an advanced lecture or seminar course on a more interesting topic without the risk of getting a bad grade. Holistic education is the prerogative for the elective, designed to bring students outside the comfort zones created by concentrated study. Even though someone might benefit from the introductory course, taking advanced courses with the P/D/F option might confer a greater benefit.


Deemed essential for the cultivation of flexible thinking, electives prompt different ways of interpreting the world. One ought to dwell on this last point. Often, advanced courses outside one’s concentration require a significant amount of background reading, which can deter people from considering them. Reasonably conservative people can use their P/D/F options after concentrating in their field of interest and later branch into similar fields at a higher-than-intro level.

Grading is considered harsh in most courses, and there is evidence that low marks make admission into business school less likely, regardless of the quality of the institution. Even for other graduate schools, the assumption is that it is detrimental. Too often, we retreat to the comfort of courses we know to be within ourselves, defeating the purpose of the distribution requirements.

One argument is that people simply wouldn’t want to spend time studying for a course for which they will not be graded. Noble though misplaced lines of thought say that one should place all of one’s effort into courses directly relevant to the concentration, with the assumption that strenuous mental activity for the vague concept of broadening horizons would be frivolous.

Therefore, the risk-averse strategy of taking courses within one’s comfort level, whether based on the content or the introductory format, is common. However one allocates distribution requirements, the ultimate purpose of them is to provoke critical thought using different paradigms. Even if one doesn’t have a full command of the entire field, there are often options only slightly more complex than the introductory-course level.

For all the individual arguments, there is a trade-off to be made. Leaving aside the problem of course topic, we can look at level and grading option. One trade-off is that between workload and how rewarding the course would be. Overarching time constraints and background are also valid considerations. Reiterating an earlier argument, the complexity of specific courses is most rewarding once comfortable with the course format, assignments, etc.

Even considering this, there is a conflict between having the maximum amount of experience in a particular concentration and the cognitive benefit one might gain. Valuing the two can be complicated. Excess courses past the necessary 31 are one avenue, and P/D/F options can be incorporated into demanding schedules. Beneficial as they may be, one might look toward courses similar to one’s own expertise. Often, this results in silos, isolated areas of knowledge broadly ignorant to the outside world. Depth is essential, and it seems intuitive that depth in a secondary field is helpful. You ultimately will be the judge of how cordoned off your particular set of expertise is or isn’t.


With that in mind, we should examine the critical process of actually choosing courses. Alternatives can be valued by potential impact on overall grades, workload, topics, etc. Looking at individual conditions would help us figure out which options seem more appealing. Knack for an individual topic should be considered, since this will motivate regardless of grading option.

Three options remain. Heretofore the most common is to take the easiest course available for a grade, though alternatives include taking the most rewarding for a grade, switching to a P/D/F option if necessary and adding on additional courses with the P/D/F option. Each has its merits, but the third especially so.

Doubtless there are personal details that inform each decision. Indeed, someone with an excess of courses might find the decision much easier in general. Nor should we oversimplify by focusing only on the particular circumstances of individual students. Often, there are valuable generalizations to be made regarding the decision process that might apply to many cases. Significant among these is the value to the student. Academic exploration is viewed favorably by hiring and admission officers. Universal advice is difficult to extrapolate, but one may gain more from a P/D/F-optioned course early in one’s academic career rather than waiting until later, when paradigms are more fixed in the student’s mind. Revising the grading option to P/D/F is possible, but one can’t retroactively broaden an education.

James Di Palma-Grisi is a psychology major from Glen Rock, N.J. He can be reached at

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