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Can I Take This Course for Credit/No Credit?

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You're halfway through a class and you're starting to worry about your final grade.  Should you take this class for Credit/No Credit?  While your Academic Advisors usually recommend taking a class for a Letter grade and most requirements can only be fulfilled with a Letter, there may be certain limited situations in which it's okay to take a class for CR/NC or S/NC.  Keep the following considerations in mind before making your choice.

Credit/No Credit vs Satisfactory/No Credit

Stanford has two pass/fail grading systems: Credit/No Credit (CR/NC), or Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC).  The two systems differ based on whether or not a Letter grade is an option.

If a class has a Letter grade option as well as a pass/fail option, the pass/fail option available is CR/NC.  This means that if you receive a CR grade in the class, someone looking at your transcript will know that you had a Letter grade option available and chose not to take it.

If a class does not offer a Letter grade option, then the pass/fail option available is S/NC.  If you receive an S grade in a class, someone looking at your transcript will know that there was no Letter grade option available, and you could not have received a Letter grade even if you had wished to.

Note that for both CR/NC and S/NC, there is no GPA impact regardless of whether you pass the class or not.  

Grading Basis Deadline

If a class offers you both a Letter grade option and a Credit/No Credit option, you can change your grading basis (or even switch back and forth) up through the Grading Basis Deadline, which is usually the Friday of Week 8 of the Quarter at 5 pm.

If you are interested in taking a class for Credit/No Credit, we would recommend starting with the Letter grade option (to track your progress) until later in the quarter. By the Week 8 deadline you will hopefully have a clearer idea of how you are doing in the class and can make an informed choice. Your Academic Advisors are always available to talk through your options with you.

Keep in mind that not all classes will offer you multiple grading basis options.  Some classes are only offered for a Letter grade, and some classes are only offered for Satisfactory/No Credit.  In these cases, Axess will not allow you to change your grading basis for the class, even if it is before the Week 8 deadline.

What counts as a passing grade?

To receive a Credit (CR) or a Satisfactory (S) grade, you must receive the equivalent of a C- or better.  Otherwise, you will receive a No Credit (NC).

Note that in the Letter grade system, a passing grade is normally a D- or better.  So if, for example, you're on track to receive a D in a class, you would pass the class if you remained in the Letter grade system, but fail the class if you switched to Credit/No Credit.  Of course, the Letter grade option would have an impact on your GPA, whereas the CR/NC option would not (regardless of whether you pass or fail the class).

Most Requirements Need a Letter Grade

Keep in mind that most courses you are taking for university requirements, including General Education Requirements and major requirements, must be taken for a Letter grade.  Any courses you are taking for pre-med requirements (if applicable) should also be taken for a Letter grade.

Classes that fulfill COLLEGE, PWR, and Ways requirements must usually be taken for a Letter grade.  (There are exceptions for certain Ways courses: if the Ways course is only offered for S/NC and there is no Letter grade option, it can be used to fulfill that Ways requirement.)

Language is the only General Education Requirement that does not require a Letter grade.  Language classes may be taken for CR/NC and will still fulfill your Language requirement if passed with a CR grade.

If you are a pre-med student, you should plan to take all pre-med requirements for a Letter grade.  Choosing to take a pre-med requirement for CR/NC will usually mean you will need to repeat the course for a Letter grade at a later point in time.

As a general rule, most departments do not accept CR/NC courses for major requirements.  If you take a major requirement for a CR grade, you will usually have to repeat the course for a Letter grade at a later point in time. There are certain rare exceptions: consult with your chosen department or program to inquire if you can use a CR grade in a particular course to fulfill a major requirement.  If you're not sure whom to talk to in the department, the Student Services Officer is a great starting point!

Pass/Fail Units and Graduation Requirements

Students must complete 180 units to graduate with their Bachelor's degree, regardless of their major.  Of these 180 units, only 36 can be pass/fail units (i.e. courses where you received either a CR or an S grade).  

If you take more than 36 units pass/fail, only 36 will count towards your 180 minimum units required for graduation.

Special Exceptions for Academic Years 2019-20 and 2020-21

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Stanford created a number of grading policy exceptions applicable to the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years only.

During Spring quarter of 2019-20, all courses were offered for a mandatory Satisfactory/No Credit grading basis.  No Letter grade options were allowed in any course.  During this quarter, courses that earned S grades did not count against the 36 unit pass/fail limit.  Courses that earned S grades during this quarter fulfilled THINK, PWR, and Ways requirements.  In most cases, courses that earned S grades also fulfilled major requirements, though this was left at the discretion of each individual major department.

During Academic Year 2020-21, all courses offered for a Letter grade were also required to offer a CR/NC option.  Courses that earned CR or S grades did not count against the 36 unit pass/fail limit.  During that year, courses that earned CR or S grades fulfilled THINK, PWR, and Ways requirements.  In many (though not all) cases, courses that earned CR or S grades could also be used to fulfill major requirements, though this was left at the discretion of each major department.

But what about my GPA?

Sometimes you may be fairly confident you can pass the class, but you're worried about the GPA impact of the grade you will receive.  In most cases, if you can pass with a C or better your Academic Advisors would recommend taking the Letter grade.  

For one thing, putting in exactly a CR worth of effort (no more, no less) is difficult for many students.  In many cases, you may end up either not passing at all, or passing with what should have been a solid B or even an A.

In addition, passing a class with a Letter grade (even an imperfect one) puts you in control of your requirements.  Taking a required class for a CR grade means you will be forced to repeat the class someday.  Taking a required class and earning a C means you can choose whether you want to repeat the class someday.  You may find later in your Stanford career that the grade no longer matters as much to you: perhaps your GPA has improved even without repeating the course, or perhaps there are other courses or opportunities you wish to pursue that now take precedence.

Keep in mind that any opportunities that might be interested in your GPA will likely also be interested in your transcript.  This includes coterms, graduate schools, scholarship committees, and certain internships and jobs.  To anyone looking at your transcript, a CR grade often looks as though you were not wholly invested in the course.  Most people who see a CR grade on the transcript will assume that you got the lowest possible passing grade: that is, a C-.  If you did better than this, it may be worth demonstrating that ability on your transcript.  It's also worth noting that certain post-graduate opportunities (like Law Schools) may not like to see too many CR grades on the transcript: this can suggest a candidate who often takes the easy way out or is hesitant to challenge themselves.

Remember too that your GPA is often less important than the narrative your transcript tells. A B+ (or even a B or B-) in a class tells a better story about your drive and work ethic than a CR grade does. And challenging yourself outside your comfort zone is an excellent demonstration of your adaptability.  Admissions committees are also very interested in seeing how you improve over time.  If you earn a C in your Chem 31A class but go on to earn better grades in later Chemistry classes, that tells a strong story about your resilience and your ability to overcome setbacks and thrive.

Furthermore, over time, a single C or the like has a minimal impact on your overall GPA. With every future class you take, the GPA impact of that one "bad" class will diminish even further.  If you want to see what sort of impact your expected grade will have on your quarterly or overall GPA, you may use this GPA calculator.

So should I take this course for Credit/No Credit?

It depends.  If you need the course for a Ways requirement, for a COLLEGE or PWR requirement, for a major requirement, or for a pre-med requirement, you probably will want to take the course for a Letter grade, especially if you can earn a C or better.  Switching to CR/NC means you will have to repeat the class at a later point in time, which can slow down your progress towards graduation.

If you are fairly certain there is no chance you can pass the class, then you may want to switch to CR/NC.  This will protect your GPA for the time being, but keep in mind that you will most likely have to repeat the class for a Letter grade at a later point in time.

If you are feeling stressed this quarter and looking to relieve some pressure, you may want to consider Withdrawing from the course rather than switching to CR/NC.  (See Should I Withdraw from this Course? for more advice on that topic.)  Remember that even if you take the class CR/NC, you will likely have to put in some time and effort into passing the class.  Whereas Withdrawing from a class often means you can redirect that time and energy into your other classes, or into other pursuits.

If you are taking a class just for your own enrichment and you do not need it for any sort of requirement, you can probably take it for CR/NC if you wish.  

And if you're still not sure after reading all this, why not come talk to your Academic Advisor?

See Also

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