Education and grades may seem inextricably linked.

But there actually are some colleges and universities that have a different approach to course evaluations, opting for narrative assessments in place of or in addition to traditional letter grades. Current students and alumni from these types of colleges weigh in on their experience with a nontraditional evaluation system.

How It Works

Rather than assigning a number or letter to your progress, professors are tasked with writing a detailed evaluation of your progress in the course, including strengths and suggestions for improvement. Some schools also have students complete a self-assessment so they can reflect on their own development.

Despite the lack of emphasis on grades, most colleges that offer narrative evaluations do keep in mind that their students may need a formal transcript in the future. Often professors will also enter a letter grade that students can see if they ask. The school could also require students to fill out a request for a letter grade ahead of time if they think they may need their traditional GPA in the future.

A More Personal Approach

Santa Wolanczyk, who graduated from Bennington College in Vermont in 2014, went to a very conventional high school with a strong focus on letter grades and standardized tests. “I didn’t feel represented and it felt so impersonal,” she recalls. As a result, she gravitated toward Bennington, a school without traditional grades or tests.

“At Bennington, the evaluation grading process was so much more personal,” says Wolanczyk. “The professors were forced to get to know you and discuss your work because they are invested and personally reflect on your progress. Also, because of the open dialogue about my work, I felt more comfortable approaching my professors about my progress and interests outside of evaluation meetings.”

Cutting Back on Competition

When grades are involved, it’s hard not to get competitive with your peers. There’s a clear scale for comparison and often class rankings. With narrative evaluations, it’s much harder to draw a direct comparison.

“I went to a very competitive high school and felt a strong pressure to be the best in my class, which was unhealthy,” says Eugenia Quintanilla, a senior at New College of Florida (NCF) in Sarasota. “Being at NCF has helped me develop a better relationship with learning and academics. I feel like the system allows students to strive to better their work rather than stress about grades, which are often arbitrary.”

Jordan Norenberg, a student in the class of 2019 at Alverno College in Milwaukee, agrees, saying: “By not knowing the grades, I find there is less competition with peers but rather a competition with myself and understanding how I can continue to do better.”

Motivating Feedback

While a poor grade can be discouraging, a narrative evaluation offers specific feedback on ways to improve and move forward. Norenberg, who described herself as an average student in high school, was surprised by the tangible and positive impact of evaluations.

When she got mediocre letter grades in high school, she didn’t feel she had any clear guidance on how to improve. “Receiving evaluations and feedback is more encouraging because we see where our strengths and weaknesses are and how we can continue to grow and develop. I find it more motivating when I know how I am doing because the feedback given here is thorough and clear.”

Wolanczyk wholeheartedly agrees. She noticed that professors often pointed out that she had a tendency to start out enthusiastically but lose steam midway through the semester, which allowed her to reflect and change course. She found it helpful to get specifics on how she was perceived by adults, something she never got in high school. “To know that my educators noticed that I would lose interest midterm made me re-evaluate myself as a person and student,” she says.

It’s an Adjustment

If you’re accustomed to letter grades, making the switch to narrative evaluations can take some getting used to. “It’s often easy to lose sight of your abilities without a grading system. You feel like maybe you’re not doing as well as you are,” Quintanilla explains.

Norenberg echoes this sentiment, saying that sometimes she finds it difficult to gauge how she is doing in a course without letter grades. “I find myself constantly contacting and asking my instructors how I am doing and if I should be worried about failing the course or not,” she says.

Real-World Prep

One of the greatest benefits of narrative evaluations in place of grades might be preparation for life beyond college. After all, your future boss will likely be giving you performance reviews that include a similar type of narrative feedback.

Norenberg also has a job and has already seen the benefits in the workplace. “I am constantly reaching out to my supervisors at work and fellow colleagues for feedback on how I’m doing,” she says. She credits her time at Alverno College with her healthy relationship to critical feedback. “It is very beneficial to be able to not take criticism personally. Criticism is not always a bad thing and just shows where improvement can be made, which could make me a better employee.”

Wolanczyk has also experienced real-world positive effects of attending a college with a nontraditional grading system. It helped me build confidence in my work and in myself as a developing person,” she says. “I still recall positive evaluations my professors wrote or said and they pop up sometimes when I am unsure of myself.”

While it may take some getting used to, narrative evaluations have many benefits. Depending on your learning and motivation needs, it may be worth adding a few schools with nontraditional grading systems to your college list.