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To alleviate student stress, Princeton must expand the pass/D/fail option

The interior of a neo-gothic lecture hall
McCosh 50 is the largest lecture hall on campus and often hosts midterm and final exams.
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

Let’s be honest, Princeton students are stressed about their grades. And there’s an easy fix that could help alleviate this stress: Princeton should extend the current three-week-long window to elect the pass/D/fail (PDF) option to allow students to PDF a class at any point in the semester. This change would help to reduce grading and GPA pressure, as well as relieve some student stress.

With Princeton’s Honor Code, and the grade-deflation that only recently became grade neutral whilst our peer institutions such as Harvard remain active practitioners of grade inflation, Princeton is well known for being academically challenging. According to research from 2019, Princeton’s average GPA of 3.49 ranks the lowest among all Ivy League schools, while the highest-GPA school, Brown, had an average GPA of 3.71. 


For most of us playing by the rules of the game in this world, your GPA is an important part of getting internships, jobs, and sports in graduate school programs. Since many firms — though oftentimes not explicitly stated on their job posts — use 3.5 as a benchmark to sift through piles of resumes, an average-GPA Princeton student would be less competitive than an average-GPA Brown student when faced against the resume screener. Many graduate school programs engage in similar GPA screening. It follows that GPA is an immediate concern for most students and a big factor in their school-related stress.

To make students less stressed about their grades and GPAs, and to improve their standing in the post-graduate market, we can make the PDF option more useful by allowing students to PDF a course at any time throughout the semester. The University may have originally envisioned the PDF option as a way for students to explore classes they’re interested in but not particularly skilled at. However, it has ultimately served as a way to protect students’ GPA from taking a hit, either due to these exploratory courses or distribution requirements. To a certain degree, this means that the PDF option is aimed at lessening students’ stress. Princeton’s pass/D/fail option grants a maximum of four PDF options throughout the four undergraduate years, with at most one being used per semester and none to be used on your departmental requirements. 

During the period of peak COVID-19 restrictions, the PDF option regulation was loosened to accommodate students with online learning. The loosened PDF option enabled students to PDF more than one course in a semester, and even allowed it to be used on traditionally off-limits courses such as departmental requirements, the writing seminar, and the BSE prerequisites. My AASA (Asian American Student Association) ORFE mentor told me that, during this period, she PDF’ed two ORFE departmental requirements and subsequently landed an internship at a prestigious firm. Another Princeton alumna shared that it was thanks to PDF-ing her lowest course grades during COVID that she was able to save her GPA from sinking. This ultimately helped her get — or rather, did not hinder her from getting — into a top consulting firm. 

The COVID-era PDF expansion was important for these alumni. Once again, allowing students to elect the PDF option at any time and to PDF departmental classes would take off another layer of stress that students have concerning grades and GPAs.

Additionally, students should be allowed to decide whether to PDF a course after final grades come out. Currently, the registrar requires students to make a final decision on the grading basis of their courses between the seventh and ninth week of the semester. However, this is not the most effective use of the PDF option for many students. In some courses, the midterm grade only reflects 25 percent of one’s grade for the course, and for others, the midterm grade reflects only the student’s score on the midterm exam without considering any other components of the course grade. Some students regret having not chosen the PDF option after a less-than-stellar performance on their course final, which could make up to 50 percent of their entire course grade. In other scenarios, students have mistakenly PDF’ed a course they would have received an A in after performing better in the second half of the semester than in the first.

We should normalize PDF-ing a class, especially for first-years, who sometimes hear from professors that the PDF option means that you’ve made a mistake. When I was a frosh, taking a course in the huge McCosh 50 classroom, the professor told us that if employers see a “P” on your transcript they are going to assume you received a “C-.” The professor was trying to discourage the use of the PDF option solely for the purpose of avoiding a “B” on your transcript. However, having gone through the career recruiting process, I find that employers, who don’t always require a copy of your transcript as part of the application, prefer a high GPA. After all, if the PDF option is aimed to lessen students’ academic stress, it should make the process surrounding electing PDF as stressless and painless as possible. 


Kelsey Ji is a junior from Cambridge, Massachusetts majoring in Operations Research and Financial Engineering. She can be reached at

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