Follow us on Instagram
Try our daily mini crossword
Play our latest news quiz
Download our new app on iOS/Android!

Writing Seminar should be PDFable again

New south, a six story building, is lit up against a dark night with a full moon.
New South at night.
Calvin Grover / The Daily Princetonian

Five years ago, a columnist for The Daily Princetonian argued that first-year Writing Seminar should be pass/D/fail (PDF)-only. Then, when COVID-19 struck, his argument was tested: Princeton made Writing Seminar PDF-only. At the time of the policy change, a peer academic advisor remarked that the change would “[give] people a chance to actually learn what’s being taught” and a writing program professor said that he hoped the change would “encourage students to further experiment with their writing.” Despite compelling reasons to keep Writing Seminar PDF, Princeton went back to mandatory letter grades. But even after the pandemic, the first-year Princeton experience remains intensely stressful, and not all students are equally prepared for a Princeton workload upon matriculation. It’s time to reintroduce the PDF option for Writing Seminar.

The only course every Princeton student must take, Writing Seminar is a rigorous, 12-person course that allows students to work closely with their professors as they develop their writing skills to match Princeton’s high standards. Success in Writing Seminar sets you up for success in other classes. According to the Princeton Writing Program, part of the goal of first-year Writing Seminars is “to emphasize transferable skills in critical inquiry, argument, and research methods.” This makes it especially important that students feel empowered to succeed in Writing Seminar without the pressures of harsh grading.


However, there is significant variability in students’ preparation for an advanced writing class. Many students have little to no experience writing long-form research papers when they arrive at Princeton. This affects their performance in classes like Writing Sem: Research from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis shows that personal background shapes students’ experience with college writing. This background tends is tied to family income: it has been well-documented that, due to educational resource scarcity, among other factors, students from lower-income backgrounds are significantly less likely to be at the same writing levels as their higher-income peers.

Although Writing Sem is meant to level the playing field for future years of college, Writing Sem itself is an unfair playing field because of students’ different prior preparation — and for many students, Writing Sem itself is their most stressful writing class. A PDF grading option could help reduce that stress differential between students who are already comfortable with writing research papers and students who aren’t.

As of now, all first-year Writing Seminars are non-PDF, meaning that they must be taken for a grade, A through F. Yet other colleges and universities, such as MIT and Swarthmore, have instituted programs that make students’ entire first semesters pass/fail, demonstrating that this is a feasible policy even at an academically rigorous institution. While Princeton does not have this policy, the University’s closest equivalent is allowing students to PDF up to four courses during their time at Princeton. But Writing Seminar is not among them, even though students’ first year is often their most academically stressful, and Writing Sem one of the most stressful experiences in it. Allowing students to PDF Writing Seminar would vastly reduce the amount of stress they face by decreasing some of the emphasis put on first-semester grades.

By reinstating the PDF option for Writing Seminar, students with less experience could still be exposed to and expected to produce novel, research-based writing without fear of being behind their peers and earning a grade that does drag down their GPA. The overall goal of the Writing Seminar would still be accomplished — all students would still be able to get up to Princeton writing standards through lessons and assignments.

Policies like those at MIT, Swarthmore, and Princeton during the pandemic clarify that implementing a PDF option for Writing Seminar would not be an unprecedented change. In fact, it would also help students acclimate to University life with less grade-related stress. The expressed goal of Writing Seminar is to teach students to write Princeton-caliber research papers. Allowing students to PDF the course wouldn’t inhibit this educational goal – it would allow students to achieve it with much less stress.

Davis Hobley is a columnist for the ‘Prince,’ and a member of the Class of 2027 and intends to major in Neuroscience. He hails from Rochester, Mich. and can be reached through his email ( and personal Instagram (@davis_20.23).