Will Choosing Pass/Fail for Senior APs Hurt College Chances?

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I'm a high school senior looking for some information on taking AP classes pass/fail vs. grades during COVID. My school has condensed classes each semester into two sets of four classes. This has made the workload for AP classes that usually span the whole semester to happen in half that time. I'm struggling keeping it all in balance and wondering if it would be better to take an AP class pass/fail vs. getting a lower letter grade that could hurt my GPA. I'm not at risk of failing, just not getting an A, which would maintain my 4.0. The five AP classes I'm taking this semester are AP Calculus AB, AP Physics 1, AP Bio, AP Language and Composition, AP Government. I've already taken AP US History, AP Literature and Composition, AP Chemistry, AP 3D Design, and AP Human Geography. AP Calc is the one that's giving me the most trouble. I'm applying to college for marine science if that helps. Thank you.

It's difficult to answer this question responsibly without know a lot more about you and, especially, without seeing your current college list. If you're aiming for highly selective colleges (the ones that should be called "Reach" schools for everyone), then "The Dean's" answer will be different than if your current roster is full of places where your acceptance is likely.

So, since you've said you're a 4.0 student so far, let's assume that you're aiming high. In that case, I'd say that it's okay to take that one class that's really bugging you (AP Calc) as Pass/Fail, but it could hurt you to take more of them that way. However, if you strongly feel that two Pass/Fail courses would make a big difference in your stress level, then I'd vote for choosing AP Gov for your second Pass/Fail class, because this will still allow the college admission officials to see actual grades in several APs that they are likely to consider more rigorous. (AP Gov can be viewed in admission offices as a "poor relation" to many of the other APs, even though at some high schools it's actually really tough). Of all of your current classes, AP Bio will probably be the most important one to take as a graded class since it's linked to your prospective major.

If, however, you feel like your health (mental and/or physical) is on the line, and you need to take more — or even all — of your classes via the Pass/Fail option, then that's what you should do. This could have some negative impact on your admission odds — especially at the hypercompetitive places and particularly if you have classmates applying to the same colleges who are also taking these classes and being graded in them. But no college acceptance is worth the price of your sanity. In addition, if you haven't done so already, research schools with well-regarded marine science programs and generous acceptance rates and add one or two to your list. For instance, the places named here (except for UNC Chapel Hill, UCLA and B.U.) are probably "safe" for a 4.0 applicant. And because your record to date is strong, if you create a well-balanced college list, you will have plenty of great choices, regardless of how you proceed this fall.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at

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