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Transitioning between high school and college is not the easiest process to go through. As a freshman, you find yourself living in a new city, surrounded by people you don’t know. Add this to the fact that you’re going to have to start worrying about grades in one of the most competitive academic environments in the nation, and Penn can begin to seem pretty intimidating.

This situation prompts the question, “Should your first semester at Penn be graded?” A non-graded first semester of college is not as out-of-left-field as it may seem to be on the surface. Nearby Swarthmore College — one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the nation — makes first semester pass/fail. So does Johns Hopkins University, an institution now led by former Penn Provost Ron Daniels. Such a policy could really have a positive impact on Penn.

The University prides itself on recruiting classes that are diverse in many ways, including recruiting students who went to different types of high schools. A lot of students at Penn went to great preparatory schools with stellar International Baccalaureate programs. Other students, myself included, went to schools that didn’t even offer Advanced Placement classes. This amounts to a lot of students beginning their years at Penn at completely different academic levels.

A pass/fail semester would allow students to acclimate themselves to Penn’s competitive academic environment without the carnage that such acclimations leave on your transcript. There would be other benefits as well. College freshman Anna Sabo believes that a pass/fail semester would allow students to “focus on their passion for learning” and worry less about their desire for perfect grades. “I found throughout the semester that my determination to earn straight A’s clouded my interest in my classes at times,” she said.

Not every person I spoke to shared such a rosy view of this policy. College senior Alex Berger, chairwoman of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, said that though she understands that a pass/fail semester would help freshmen cope with the transition between high school and college, she has reservations. “My fear, and it’s a fear that comes from having met with many administrators, is it’s just infeasible. Faculty members don’t think freshmen are mature enough to take classes seriously unless there is a grade hanging over their heads,” Berger said.

Benjamin Watkins, a College freshman, agreed. “There wouldn’t be as much of an incentive to study,” he said.

Another SCUE member, College junior Michelle Perlin, offered perhaps the most interesting perspective on a potential pass/fail policy. Perlin has the distinction of being one of the few Penn students who have actually experienced a pass/fail semester, as she transferred to Penn sophomore year after spending her freshman year at Johns Hopkins. “On the one hand, it’s a good tool to allow new students to acclimate without the stress of grades. However, some students don’t have as much of an incentive to try as hard as they should,” Perlin said. When asked if she thought Penn students were mature enough to handle such a policy, she said they were. “I think that Penn has a competitive academic environment so students are generally inclined to do well.”

Even though I know this policy has a very slim chance of ever being implemented, it would do a lot to help ease the transition that every freshman goes through. Penn currently does not do enough to make sure that the freshman class is able to successfully cope with such a drastic change in their lives. There is currently an advising system in place, but I don’t think it does enough. Adding a pass/fail semester could be the solution to this problem. If administrators disagree, then they should work to implement some sort of solution that would help to make sure freshmen don’t become too stressed over grades during their first semester.

Dennie Zastrow is a College senior from Wilson, N.Y. He is the former chairman of the Lambda Alliance. His e-mail address is

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