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Pass/Fail vs. Letter Grades This Semester


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Hey! I'm currently a 4th year undergrad majoring in statistics at UC Berkeley. Right now, my plan is to apply for a master's in statistics or data science within the next 2-4 years, as I'm planning on doing data science work for at least a year before applying. My question, though, has to do with my grades this semester--in particular, due to the coronavirus, my school has given us the option to either take our classes pass/fail or we can request a letter grade. They are pushing hard for us to do pass/fail, but I'm not sure this is the best option for someone like me who hopes to go to grad school in the future.

My main concern is that I was hoping to improve my major GPA this semester, as I'm finishing my last 2 stats requirements. My major GPA is a 3.5 right now, and my overall GPA is 3.7 if that's important. So, I'm conflicted as to what to do... I feel like I should be able to take my school's advice and stick with pass/fail, but at the same time, I'm not sure how this would affect my grad school applications. I also do believe that as time goes on, my grades will matter less and less, but I could be wrong on this. Anyway, since I'm not applying right now and should be working for at least a year before applying, perhaps I just shouldn't stress about trying to get good letter grades and should just chill and do pass/fail? Still, it's an annoying decision to have to make, as I feel like I could probably do well in these classes despite the craziness going on in the world right now.

Lastly, I understand grad school admissions committees will obviously understand that we are amidst a global pandemic and that therefore tons of other students will also have pass/fail grades this semester. But still, I'd hate to take my classes pass/fail if it seems good letter grades could really help me in my grad school pursuits.

That's it... I'm just very conflicted. Thank you for any clarity you all can provide!

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As you said clearly nobody will look down on you for pass/fail grades given the circumstances -- but if you are going to get straight A's (or at least A's in your stats classes) and improve your GPA, you should obviously do that.  If you are going to get A-s or below, and thus not improve your grades, maybe you'd be happier relaxing?

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13 minutes ago, bayessays said:

As you said clearly nobody will look down on you for pass/fail grades given the circumstances -- but if you are going to get straight A's (or at least A's in your stats classes) and improve your GPA, you should obviously do that.  If you are going to get A-s or below, and thus not improve your grades, maybe you'd be happier relaxing?

First of all, I unfortunately just have no idea what grades I might get, as a large percentage of my grades rests on how I do on my finals, which could potentially be hard. I wish I had the luxury of seeing my final letter grade before choosing pass/fail or the letter, but this is not the case. Lastly, there is a lot of uncertainty about how teachers are going to curve classes given many will be taking classes pass/fail and many will want letter grades, and so the decision is just a tough one to make. My question then, I guess, is how does my GPA look now in terms of getting into some good master's programs a couple years down the line? I'd like to get into some good programs (top 30 or so, I guess). Should I even be worried?

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FWIW I also did my undergrad in stats at Cal a couple years ago and had a similar (but slightly worse) gpa. I applied to Stat PhDs this cycle and ended up getting into a couple of top 40 programs, with the caveat that they were big state schools so were easier to get into. Our LoR are obviously going to be different, as well as the rest of our resumes, so I don't know how seriously you should take this data point but this is just to say that the gpa you have now is definitely not terrible.

One potentially important point though is which classes you're taking. I'm not sure about masters but PhD programs really care about real analysis (or similar advanced math class). I have no idea how admissions committees will compare someone who did P/NP for real analysis during the crisis vs. someone who got an A or A-. The cynical part of me thinks that there must be at least a couple of top programs that will overtly prefer the latter over the former, but I'm obviously just speculating. But if masters programs don't value real analysis that much (or you're not taking it) then this is a moot point.

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2 hours ago, justarandomguy said:

FWIW I also did my undergrad in stats at Cal a couple years ago and had a similar (but slightly worse) gpa. I applied to Stat PhDs this cycle and ended up getting into a couple of top 40 programs, with the caveat that they were big state schools so were easier to get into. Our LoR are obviously going to be different, as well as the rest of our resumes, so I don't know how seriously you should take this data point but this is just to say that the gpa you have now is definitely not terrible.

One potentially important point though is which classes you're taking. I'm not sure about masters but PhD programs really care about real analysis (or similar advanced math class). I have no idea how admissions committees will compare someone who did P/NP for real analysis during the crisis vs. someone who got an A or A-. The cynical part of me thinks that there must be at least a couple of top programs that will overtly prefer the latter over the former, but I'm obviously just speculating. But if masters programs don't value real analysis that much (or you're not taking it) then this is a moot point.

Good to see a fellow Cal stat major here! I appreciate the information--it's definitely useful to know that my GPA is in a pretty good spot. I'm not interested in doing a PhD really, just a master's, and so although I have taken real analysis (which I only managed a B in), I'm not too worried about that grade. Aside from that, though, I'd love to hear about how you went about getting LoR. Like I said, I'll be applying after working for a couple years, and I've been wondering how to go about the LoR process... to be honest, I haven't made any great connections with professors here, but there may be one or two I could potentially talk to about getting a letter. Let me know if you have any useful tips about this or anything else!

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I think since most  master's programs aren't extremely competitive, and you're coming from a good school with a decent gpa, you'll be fine.  Since you're paying for the degree generally and not doing research, letters are much less important than for a PhD.  Just some professors that you did fine in their class and maybe a future boss will be fine.  There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of upside to getting the letter grades given that you're not sure you'll improve your GPA. I'd personally take the free opportunity to take all classes pass/fail without raising eyebrows. 

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Got it, that's good information to know. Didn't realize master's programs were significantly less competitive and that letters aren't a huge deal. With this in mind I'll probably stick with pass/fail, at least for now. Appreciate everyone's help!

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