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First-Year Experience

Students sit in desks in a small circle

Pass/Fail Policy

Emma Morgan-Bennett ’20 wasn’t sure whether she wanted a career in the humanities or the hard sciences, or a little bit of both. So she used her first semester to explore. She took biology, intro to education, Spanish, and even costume design. “Because, why not?” Morgan-Bennett told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Swarthmore fosters this freedom with what is essentially a “pass/fail” system for a student’s first semester. You’re graded, but grades don’t go on your transcript—you either get credit or you don’t.

That presents the chance to stretch yourself and take risks—to focus on learning, not letter grades. The policy aligns with Swarthmore’s larger spirit of close interactions with professors, and collaboration—not competition—with classmates.

“We want to help students to learn and grow academically and in a range of other ways,” says Diane Anderson, associate professor of educational studies. “In many cases, in college, the place where you learn the most is not in the course where you got the best grade.”

Students can enjoy learning at a highly selective liberal arts college for the sake of nothing more than learning, adds Anderson—a luxury they would not have at most other selective colleges in the region.

First-Year Seminars

The seminar model of our Honors Program challenges students to lead intellectually stimulating conversations with their peers and professors in intimate class settings. These rigorous courses push participants outside of their comfort zones by forcing them to develop, test, and critically evaluate their own ideas.

But you have to walk before you can run. For freshmen, we offer First-Year Seminars: small courses designed to help students develop the learning skills that will support them throughout their college experience, while introducing them to a particular field of study. They are not required, but all first-year students are encouraged to explore them, and there is no limit on how many can be taken. So go ahead and get your feet wet before you dive into the deep end of what Swarthmore has to offer.

“My First-Year Seminar helped me develop an ability to articulate my thoughts in class while meaningfully engaging in discussion,” says Alex Jin ’19, who took four of these seminars. “Being in a class with only first-years, and being specifically focused for first-years, really helped in this regard. I do not think I would have felt as comfortable contributing if I had gone straight into a course with upperclassmen.”