For a PhD application: assuming a student has a good technical GPA (whatever that means from your point of view) and took some challenging technical classes and some grad courses; what would you think if he has taking some "challenging" courses for unrelated topics on Pass/Not Pass basis. My university lets me take one third of my whole units for P/NP basis. For example, as a math major, what if instead of taking easy humanity courses, I take hard humanity courses; but not for letter grade. How would this affect a grad school application?

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    Why do you need to take any humanity courses as a math major?
    – Olorun
    Oct 16, 2015 at 1:28
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    @Olorun: In some educational systems, students of every major are required to take a certain number of courses in a variety of subjects (so-called "general education"), including humanities. For instance, this is almost universally true at US universities. Oct 16, 2015 at 2:01
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    I suspect it will make very little difference; I think PhD admission committees are unlikely to pay much attention at all to grades in fields outside the major, unless they are notably low. But there are people here who have actually been on math admission committees, so they can answer better than me. Oct 16, 2015 at 2:03
  • @Olorun as others said it is a university requirement to take some certain humanity classes and they will be counted on my GPA. So it will appear in my transcript with other classes. Oct 16, 2015 at 2:20
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    They will be looking closely at your grades in your field. P/NP is fine outside your major. Oct 17, 2015 at 16:05

2 Answers 2


I have been to Ph.D. admissions committees both as a grad student and as a faculty member. Generally speaking, if those courses are not very relevant to your major and your intended area of research, I wouldn't pay much attention to "Pass" grades (whereas low letter grades would probably stand out) We get plenty of domestic and foreign applicants with very diverse backgrounds and there are much more important things to look at in their application package.

I assume that the genesis of your position is that you want to be challenged in class, but not at the expense of risking a bad grade staining your otherwise impressive transcript in a subject that probably won't define your career. While this is certainly not the only approach, it seems sound thinking to me.

If they do affect your GPA in a negative way, however, I would consider a bit more carefully--perhaps not in a binary way, but in regards to how many courses to do this with.

By the way, remember that as a Ph.D. student you can also take courses outside your major you feel curious about. I certainly did that.


Short answer, yes it could affect your grad school application. If the school is looking at those non-major classes.

What you should do is check with the admissions councilors at the schools you are interested in. Each school may look at this differently, but be prepared to give an explanation as to why you took those classes, in case they ask.

The best way that you can do this is in your personal statement or any other essays that might be included in your application. Within that paper, I suggest that you talk about the areas of study that you wish to grow your knowledge, even if it is a "basic class". If you word it right, you can show how you enjoy learning new and challenging topics, which is why you chose to take certain classes at a harder, but pass/fail, level even though they did not apply to your major.

Edit: I only suggest that you add this into your statement if the councilors state that those classes will be taken into consideration. If they deem otherwise, then there is no need to worry about those classes.

  • Justifying non-major classes in a personal statement seems like a tremendous waste of space that could be used to make application stronger in other ways.
    – ff524
    Oct 19, 2015 at 15:23
  • I should clarify, I suggest doing that after a conversation has been had with the admissions councilors. If they state that those classes will be looked at, then I suggest that you add it to the statement. If not, then there is no need to bring those classes up at all.
    – Engelbre
    Oct 19, 2015 at 15:27
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    For PhD admissions, decisions are generally made by members of the department, not a separate admissions office with "admissions councilors."
    – ff524
    Oct 19, 2015 at 15:40
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    @Engelbre: I would not expect "admission councilors", of the kind that I'm familiar with (the staff of the office that handles undergraduate admissions), to be able to meaningfully answer any questions regarding graduate admissions. If you're lucky, they'll refer you to someone in the department. If you're unlucky, they'll give you an answer which may simply be wrong. Oct 19, 2015 at 16:26
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    @Engelbre this is really confusing for me. When I talk about non-major classes I do not mean elective class for my major. Let's say I want to study math in PhD and specialize in computability theory, should I really waste my personal statement with explaining my Russian Literature or Human Genetics classes? Will they care about these classes even a slightest bit? Oct 19, 2015 at 23:42

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