This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are not a reflection of Ping! as a whole.
Update (21st June): As per a recent mail from the Dean, the * from P* will be removed, and instead, there will be a footnote pointing out the different circumstances in which the semester was held, thus offering a P/F option. This move should not have a major change in the decision making process, however it does help in making the grade seem more “natural”.
Everyone who seemed to have a semester going downhill might have rejoiced a little on reading the mail from the Dean’s Office. The idea of taking a P* (or a Pass grade) really uncomplicates things. Any grade which is not an ‘F’ or a ‘Withdraw’, can be converted to a Pass value, similar to the ones in SAVE (Sports, Arts, Value Education) courses. This won’t affect the GPA, and the credits will be counted as completed.
To quote from the mail sent by the Dean,
“Grades will be awarded for all full courses in a coarse range: A,B,C and W. No A-, B-, or C- grades will be awarded. After grades are declared, a student can choose to opt for a Pass grade in place of the A,B, or C grades. This can be done for every full course. This will appear as P* in the transcript to indicate the course was not a Pass/Fail course”
The important question thus becomes, when to take P*? There are several factors that will be in play here, and concerns such as whether companies/academia will disregard P*.
P*: Effect on placements and higher studies
As part of this, we put several posts on social media (sites like Reddit and Quora) and the general consensus1 2 among recruiters seems to be that almost nobody looks at individual transcripts. Moreover, while GPA functions as a somewhat mediocre indicator of skill, and is considered for cut-offs , individual grades are rarely reliable for an idea about the course (The actual relevance of GPA probably needs an article all for itself). An ‘A’ grade will never be converted to a ‘Pass’, so converting a lower grade to ‘Pass’ should be done with the goal to maximize CGPA.
While GPA functions as a somewhat mediocre indicator of skill, and is considered for cut-offs , individual grades are rarely reliable for an idea about the course
While PhD programs do generally look more closely at the overall CGPA, recommendation letters are generally considered more important for admissions to a Master’s or PhD3 4 (alongside the GRE, and other examination scores). The program will generally look at overall CGPA, but the professor may themselves look at the grade in a particular course. To quote a professor in the field (who wished to remain anonymous), “Coming to whether you show your grade or not. It depends honestly. If you’re able to show that you’re good enough, better than the other candidates based off of research publications, participation in projects, it wouldn’t matter if you show a P* because of COVID. However, institutes generally don’t like to see any withdrawn grades etc and you might have to spend more time convincing them that you’re good enough if you don’t have a grade.”
To understand whether P* looks harmful, consider this: A P* is definitely not worse than a C, and it does help the CGPA. On the other hand, if someone is taking a P* for B, their CGPA would already be high enough to warrant it. If a B is lowering someone’s CGPA, then their grades, in general, are already good enough. Thus, it will not harm the person in that case as strategic masking of grades is understandable. The point, therefore, is that P* doesn’t look harmful in themselves, but are just an expression of the grades they are masking.
What is CGPA?
To begin with, grades are usually assigned on a curve. The professor looks at the curve or distribution of marks and assigns grades cutoffs on the basis of frequency, their individual generosity, and expectations of how students should have performed.
Contrary to popular belief, CGPA is not
CGPA is calculated as:
Thus, for P* courses, it does not fall into a lettered grade and has no ‘value’ as such. Thus it does not affect CGPA. Note that SGPA has no direct relevance to CGPA, but both are affected by the grade and value of credits in a course. Thus, plans to take P* in all courses except the ones in A will not boost CGPA in the way one may think; though one might arguably gain bragging rights to proclaiming themselves a ‘dassi’.
Let’s now look at the math-y side of things to see if a P* grade is worth it. Before we begin, there are some concrete assumptions:
- It’s always better to keep an ‘A’ instead of a ‘Pass’
- It’s almost never better to keep a ‘C’ instead of a ‘Pass’. This might change if the CGPA is below 6, in which case taking no P*, or taking a combination of those who yield grade>6 is probably a better option.
Thus, the main consideration is whether ‘B’ grades should be taken.
Decision-making process for the CGPA
We are making several assumptions for sake of brevity
- Each semester has 20 lettered credits by default.
- Thus, we are looking at 160 credits (20*8) in total
Instead of looking at a formal statistical approach (such as regression, the accuracy of which is proportional to the amount of information) to this, we will use heuristics that, most importantly allow for ‘less-is-more effects’, that is, more knowledge (say a decision by a third year who has five semester worth of grades) is not always proportional to the accuracy of the decision.
A simple way to go around the decision making process is by using Simon’s satisficing strategy5 , or at least a partial modification of it. In general, satisficing is defined as:
- Step 1: Set an aspiration level α
- Step 2: Choose the first alternative that satisfies α
The aspiration level can be chosen by factors such as current CGPA, reasonable ambition, and allowing for risks. Someone with an 8 CGPA can ignore B grades provided they are reasonable about their dedication to working on grades, also understanding the fact that this reduces the inertia of the grade.
The more the inertia, the harder it is for future grades to affect it. On the other hand, they can take B grade if they feel that they won’t be able to work as hard, or simply because they would rather have higher inertia to be able to disregard some bad grades later on. Note that the inertia will also apply for good grades, and thus this aspect should be considered. As all alternatives are simultaneously available, Amos Tversky’s elimination-by-aspect heuristic6 can be used.
Here, ones gradually reduces the number of alternatives by eliminating alternatives that do not meet the aspiration level of a specific attribute (or aspect). The alternative remaining at the end will be closest to the original α and can be chosen.
When considering the α, it is important to be aware of biases. In psychology, availability is the ease with which a particular idea can be brought to mind. Thus, someone may be more prone to thinking that “agla sem phodenge”, when they are probably more likely to be sipping Oreo Shakes on mid-sem night. It is also important to not be too pessimistic, and choose suitable expected grade values. However, ‘availability’ is a more frequently seen bias.
Another important bias is that of ‘affect’. “Affect”, in this context, is a feeling such as fear, pleasure or surprise. Thus when making the decision, it is important to be aware of mood, and try to rationalize around several moods.
The most important thing to realize is, however, the decision probably does not matter much.
Consider a person X. We will take the most extreme case possible to illustrate our point.
First semester SGPA: 10 (20 credits)
Second semester SGPA: 8 (20 credits)
Rest of the semesters: 10 (120 credits)
If he had chosen to take his second semester as all Pass, his CGPA would be:
However, had he taken all B’s, his CGPA would be
In this very extreme case, we see a total difference of 0.25. This is the highest amount of fluctuation possible as, if acting rationally, C grades will be taken as Pass. Also, it is highly unlikely to happen, as 10 CGPA in all semesters is usually improbable, and it is more likely for fluctuations to be as little as 0.02 to ranging to 0.05. Thus, as long as the decision has been taken rationally, it is unlikely to cause much of a difference.
Making B’s P* will at most prevent a .25 drop in the overall CGPA, if the student gets a 10 in every other semester. For most people, the change will be lower, and is thus generally not recommended. However, one may consider their personal factors into play and take an informed decision.
Editor’s Note, 21:08, 15.05.2020 – Correction to the final paragraph: was originally “Making B’s P* will have at most a .25 drop on the overall CGPA”
- Simon, Herbert A. (1955). “A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice”. The Quarterly Journal of Economics.
- Tversky, Amos (1972). “Elimination by aspects: A theory of choice”. Psychological Review.