Most schools from the elementary level through college use grading systems with letter grades. While letter grades are the norm, some higher learning institutions are trying to change the conventional grading system. Decision-makers at these schools take different approaches to education and evaluation. Often, the goal is to create more collaborative and creative learning environments. Some students find that without the pressure to earn a certain GPA, they can explore subject matter and learn more in the long run.

The lack of a traditional grading system does not make a university easier or less prestigious. Students at these schools work just as hard and sometimes harder than their peers. Some of the most elite universities in the country use alternative systems. Many schools on this list use narrative transcripts where professors write individual reports on each student at the end of every term. A few schools even pass or fail students without using letter grades. Other colleges have completely unique grading methods.

Which Colleges Have the Most Unique Grading Systems?

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The New College of Florida

Sarasota, FL

The New College, also called "The Honors College of Florida," does not use traditional grades or credit hours. In place of the 120 credits that most undergraduates must earn, learners complete seven contracts before they graduate. For each contract, degree candidates undertake three to five academic activities that a faculty adviser approves. Traditional-style classes, independent studies, internships, and tutorials all count toward the contracts.

At the end of each contract, advisers write evaluations of the learners for each academic activity. They may give feedback on each student's strengths, weaknesses, and improvements during the contract.

The lack of standard grading and structure does not hold New College graduates back. In fact, 80% of these scholars go on to graduate school within six years, and Ph.D. programs accept 86% of graduating students. Every New School alumni who applied for law school in 2010 was accepted.


St. John’s College - Annapolis

Annapolis, MD

St. John's College-Annapolis (SJC) believes letter grades can damage a student's ability to learn in a constructive environment; however, the school understands that GPAs can help students get into graduate school, obtain jobs, and earn scholarships. As such, SJC devised a compromise between traditional grading and narrative evaluation.

The professors, who the school calls "tutors," submit letter grades at the end of each semester for administration to calculate GPAs. Students do not automatically receive copies of these letter grades. Furthermore, SJC discourages learners from looking at GPAs whenever possible.

Instead, degree candidates focus on the in-person evaluation that the institution calls a "don rag." For every semester until students become juniors, they meet with a tutor to discuss their academic success. Tutors tell learners where they can improve and in which areas they excel. During junior year, the learners initiate the conversations in conferences rather than don rags.


Brown University

Providence, RI

Brown has led institutions away from GPAs since 1969. In place of traditional scores, professors issue students one of two scores: satisfactory or no credit. The school does not record "no credit" scores on the official transcripts. In a few select classes, students can receive "A," "B," or "C" grades; however, "D" and failing grades do not appear on transcripts. This system encourages learners to try new areas of study without the fear of failure. Often, learners discover new talents and thrive in this environment.

Brown does not calculate GPAs, which can make it difficult for learners to qualify for financial aid or transfer to other schools. To combat these issues, Brown encourages students to create portfolios of their course work. Learners can include evidence like performance reports, capstone projects, and letters of recommendation. Employers also value these portfolios since they showcase graduates work.


Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University

Bellingham, WA

This "college within a university" gives students more agency over their degrees than other schools. Fairhaven allows learners to design their own programs with classes from WWU. The college challenges learners to think about complex issues that face diverse communities and develop leadership skills they need to succeed. In order to cultivate such a rigorous and unique culture, the college developed a unique evaluation system.

The first part of the grading method is that learners evaluate themselves, their teachers, and their courses. To graduate, learners must submit a summary of all their assessments. Fairhaven trusts students with these reports and encourages honesty and self-reflection. On the instructor side, educators write narrative transcripts for their learners. These two summaries give students more relevant information than a letter grade. As an additional benefit, the evaluation process helps professors become better teachers.


Hampshire College

Amherst, MA

Faculty at Hampshire uses narrative feedback to help students learn and grow. Not only is feedback in place of letter grades at the end of each term, but professors also give detailed feedback after each major project or paper. Whether degree candidates take traditional courses, internships, study abroad opportunities, or fieldwork, they can expect individualized evaluations.

The lack of letter grades is just one part of Hampshire's unique educational philosophy. The institution also does not have any "off the shelf" degree plans. Instead, learners design their own degrees based on what they want to study and what will help them in their future careers. The school does require learners to take some core courses from specific disciplines. Hampshire also requires degree candidates to be active in their classrooms. Students cannot passively absorb information. Instead, evaluations hinge on each learner's participation. This structure allows students to learn from one another.


Sarah Lawrence College

Bronxville, NY

Sarah Lawrence promises students a rigorous and personalized experience. Since its founding, the college based programs on learners control over education and careers. With a 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio, the institution offers a personalized experience without emphasizing letter grades. Instructors discuss past performance, but emphasize future goals. Every two weeks, learners meet with professors to assess their learning. These meetings help shape the narrative grades that educators issue at the end of each term.

Faculty members also use critical abilities assessments to measure student progress. These evaluations ensure that graduates have the skills to succeed after their time at Sarah Lawrence. The third part of the evaluation process at Sarah Lawrence is the traditional letter grade. The school encourages learners not to emphasize these grades. They only issue them so that students can compete for scholarships and transfer schools if necessary.


Prescott College

Prescott, AZ

Prescott presents students with opportunities to challenge themselves, solve problems, and become leaders. To do so, Prescott approaches education differently. Instead of requiring educators to give letter grades that don't narrate a students experience, the college insists that faculty members create narrative transcripts with optional grades. The school does not have cum laude awards. Prescott has expanded student learning avenues to include real-world experiences that books and classrooms cannot teach.

The lack of GPAs and grade-based awards reduces peer competition. Instead of using someone else's successes to define their own, students rely on their accomplishments. In addition to academically rigorous classes, the college encourages students to get involved in the community, join social movements, and become activists for causes that are important to them.


Northeastern University School of Law

Boston, MA

Unlike other law schools where students compete for the top spot in their classes, Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL) fosters a cooperative environment for legal students. Professors give students narrative evaluations rather than letter grades. In these reports, students learn about where they can improve. Degree candidates who perform exceptionally well may earn honors or high honors. Students who want to transfer programs must first request official transcripts. Administrators as NUSL evaluate narrative transcripts and translate them into letter grades.

NUSL requires all upper-level students to complete substantial writing projects before they can graduate. Learners can complete 15-page papers through a course, co-op, clinic, or independent study. The final graduation requirement is centered around public interest. Degree candidates must fulfill this requirement through co-ops or free legal counseling in clinics. Students learn the importance of public service and give back to the surrounding community.


The Evergreen State College

Olympia, WA

Like many schools on this list, Evergreen uses narrative evaluations for their students. Faculty members look at each learner's completed work, the thought process, and reactions to the finished products. Each report contains several vital pieces of information that help graduate programs and employers understand graduates skill level. Students meet with their professors during the school's evaluation week to talk about the term before the institution publishes evaluations.

First, faculty members describe what the classes are about and what skills they teach. Then they break down each student's performance. Educators describe the assignments that the learners complete, approaches they take, and objectives. They may explain how well degree candidates work with one another and put a student's performance in context or add details about attendance and participation in class. These in-depth analyses help students achieve career goals after graduation.


Goddard College

Plainfield, VT

This innovative college in Vermont does not use letter grades. As such, learners do not worry about GPAs and spend more energy on their studies. As each semester ends, the students and professors write evaluations of one another. The dual evaluation system ensures that both learners and educators improve each term.

Faculty members may consult with program directors to decide whether students have completed enough coursework to earn credit towards their degree. This process takes time, but ensures accurate and detailed evaluations.

Learners at Goddard College enjoy small class sizes, which can help learners with the attention needed to earn these evaluations. A small class size also gives professors the time to think about each student individually. At the end of their studies, degree candidates must present to peers and officials about what they learned before they officially graduate.


Alverno College

Milwaukee, WI

This Catholic women's college uses narrative transcripts to evaluate academic success. As opposed to letter grades, narratives help future employers know if students understand theories and can work in real-world circumstances. Professors use Alverno's tools to create these assessments. Furthermore, students evaluate themselves. The reflection process helps students grow as productive professionals and lifelong learners. Alverno uses transcripts to show how learners grow throughout college.

When students need GPA scores to apply for financial assistance, graduate school, or transfers, they can request a score on the 4.0 scale. Professors submit letter grades to the university at the end of each semester. Learners who want these records for any purpose must meet with an academic advisor to request them. GPAs are not part of the official transcripts at Alverno and are only added at the request of the learner.


Bennington College

Bennington, VT

Bennington allows students to choose whether letter grades help achieve their goals or stifle their progress. All students receive narrative transcripts, which can help learners understand obstacles and successes. Only students who request letter grades receive them. Within the first two weeks of each term, learners can ask their professors to provide letter grades for the remainder of the semester. Degree candidates who do so receive both letter grades and narrative evaluations after they complete coursework for those classes.

Students who do not make these requests cannot retroactively ask for letter grades. Similarly, learners only get letter grades for applied classes. Any students who wants to attend graduate school should request letter grades for each course at the start of each semester. Learners at Bennington may give potential employers and graduate schools letter grades or narrative transcripts.


Yale University Law School

Haven, CT

As one of the most prestigious law schools in the nation, Yale Law is proof that alternative grading does not decrease education quality. For the first term of law school, learners receive narrative evaluations instead of letter grades. Students take courses in constitutional law, torts, procedure, and contracts. Since most law students around the country study these areas, Yale Law treats them as foundational to the rest of the degree. Each student must take at least one of these first-term classes in a small, 18-person class.

Yale Law facilitates cooperation in the first term of each student's experience. Teamwork helps students learn to work towards common goals in law firms. After degree candidates complete their core courses, they can customize their degrees. With the exception of a few requirements, learners can choose from all of the electives that Yale Law offers.


Antioch College

Yellow Springs, OH

This Ohio campus embraces the benefits of narrative evaluation without entirely eschewing the traditional grading system. At the end of each term, students receive both letter grades and detailed reports of their academic progress. Unlike other schools on this list, learners do not have to request the official grades from the college. Instead, grades are automatically part of the official transcript, alongside the narrative evaluation.

Letter grades at Antioch College include plus and minus distinctions. For example, an "A" counts as a 4.0 GPA and an "A-" scores as a 3.7 GPA. This system helps the GPA more accurately reflect each student's performance. Anything below a "C" does not count as passing.

Antioch College also rewards college credit for work and co-op courses. For these credits, students must complete at least ten weeks towards the area of study. In some cases, they may need to produce portfolios as well.


Columbia University

New York, NY

Individual programs within Columbia choose their own type of grading system. The human nutrition, graduate arts, public health, nursing, physical therapy, and social work schools all use traditional grading structures with letter grades. Several colleges in the prestigious university have alternative grading methods.

For example, the business school uses a numeric system that is a one-to-ten scale with decimal points. While this does not give as much detail as a narrative evaluation, it leaves more room for nuances than a traditional letter grade. The medical school has a completely different method. Professors meet every two months to discuss each student's progress. Learners move up in the program when they pass the proper exams, and professors believe they are academically ready.

Six other schools at Columbia have their own grading methods as well. When students take university classes outside of their program, they receive letter grades.


For this list, information was compiled from university websites. Each school's individual evaluation methods were examined. Then, each school was ranked according to the unique grading system and general approaches to education. For example, while many of the following schools use narrative transcripts, preference was given to those with additional uncommon features. These programs include regular meetings with professors, optional grades, teacher teams, and the chance for students to design their own degrees. Below are the top 15 institutions that use alternative evaluation systems.