Grades and Assessment

Harvard courses are graded on either a letter or non-letter basis.  Click here for a description of both grading systems, and here for a description of Harvard’s GPA calculation

The specific grading basis each course employs is noted on its course page in my.Harvard.  Students have the option in certain courses, with instructor permission, of changing the grading basis of a course from letter to Pass/Fail (PA/FL) or vice-versa.  Changes can be made up till the 5th Monday of the term.

Why might I consider changing the grading basis of my course?

The decision whether to pursue this option is an entirely individual one.  Some students elect to change the grading basis of a course from letter to PA/FL early in the term (even as early as registration) because of they feel that doing so confers a psychological advantage, lessening the pressure they feel at the prospect of taking all letter-graded courses.  Some students find this especially appealing if, for instance, they have a course list that is especially heavily weighted with reading/writing or problem-set based courses.  Another reason students sometime consider this option is if doing so gives them greater confidence in taking risks (for instance, by enrolling in an challenging elective course in a field they’ve never encountered before).

What's the difference between SAT/UNS and PA/FL?

It is important to note that SAT/UNS and PA/FL are not the same.  “Passing” work (PA) is work that would earn a D- or above if one were taking the course for a letter grade.  “Satisfactory” work (SAT) is work that would earn a C- or above if one were taking the course for a letter grade; in courses graded SAT/UNSAT, “unsatisfactory” work is considered failing.  The bar is set higher for courses taken SAT/UNSAT than ones taken PA/FL.

Can a course with SAT/UNS grading be changed to letter-graded?

In those courses that are graded SAT/UNS (for instance, all freshman seminars and many junior and senior tutorials), students do not have the option of switching to letter-grading.

Should I be cautious about changing the grading basis of a course?

When considering whether to change the grading basis of a course you’re enrolled in, the first question you should ask is: what role is this course playing in my overall degree program?  If you’re taking the course purely as an elective, then changing its grading basis should generally pose no problems.  If, however, you planning to count the course toward your General Education (Gen Ed) requirement, then it would be a problem: Gen Ed courses must be taken for a letter grade.  The same is true, for instance, of courses taken for a language citation, and is also generally true of courses taken in fulfillment of concentration requirements

The College expects you to be aware of your requirements and of how curricular decisions you make can impact them.  If you change the grading basis of a course to PA/FL, and only realize after the 5th Monday that you needed to take the course for a letter grade to fulfill a degree requirement, you will ordinarily not be able to undo your error.  (Similarly, if you decide after the 5th Monday that you would rather take a course for a letter grade that you changed to PA/FL earlier in the term – for instance, because you’re doing much better in the course than you thought you would – you will ordinarily not have the option of doing so.)   

Before you make any course grading-basis changes, consult with your advisers.  And be sure to note the grading-basis change deadline (the 5th Monday of the term) in your calendar.