Pass/Fail: An Opportunity to Discover What My Education Is Really About

The pass/fail system is wonderful. At Swarthmore, freshmen do not receive letter grades during the first semester. Instead, they are simply given either a “credit” or “no credit” on their official transcripts. This system is often touted by students as it allows them to better focus on their academic and social transition from high school to college. But more importantly, the pass/fail semester is an opportunity to reflect on and reaffirm our beliefs about the value of education.

Have you ever caught yourself thinking, “I want to get an A on the exam / essay / presentation so I will work hard?”

I certainly did throughout junior and senior high school. The fact that I weighed the worth of an assignment based on its effects on my grade shows the extent to which my educational experience has been shaped by grades. Rather than being a secondary indicator of my efforts, grades had somehow become one of the primary motivations and goals.  

In a society where GPA is a significant criteria for acceptance into colleges, graduate schools, internships, and employment, it is inevitable that students are in constant anxiety over whether they get an A or B on an essay. It is precisely this societal emphasis on grades that often obscures the meaning behind education.

The pass/fail semester has given me the freedom to study without the motivation and goal of getting a high GPA. Without the factor of grades, I have been able to explore what really drives me to put effort into my studies. The question I have asked myself was “What is the value of education without external recognition?”

I have not yet reached a definitive answer to this question, but what is significant is that pass/fail has lead me to ponder over this question. By stepping outside my normative perceptions of the grading system, I have been able to reaffirm my underlying aspiration and purpose of receiving education.

Unfortunately, my pass/fail semester will end in two weeks. But from next semester, even in the midst of GPA anxiety, I wish to never lose sight of the values I hold dear.


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Haruka Ono

Grew up in Japan (Kanagawa and Chiba), New York, and Minnesota. Graduated from Shibuya Senior High School in Tokyo. Potential major in psychology, computer science, or peace and conflict studies. Interested in refugee rights and refugee acceptance systems. Fascinated by the why's of human behavior. Personality: very introverted, serene. Motto: enjoy the little things in life.

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