Going from A+ to Strong Sat: A thesis student’s guide to navigating (and making the best of) narrative evaluations

First-years will receive their first evaluations in the coming weeks, and although they may have experienced New College’s unique grading system by seeing little paragraphs stapled to exams rather than a letter or number at the top of the page, the evaluation system not only takes some getting used to, but provides an extra dose of academic anxiety to new students.

As a school of high-achievers and intellectuals, New College is prone to seeing academic challenges and stress. For some, the feeling or fear that we’re just not good enough to be here isn’t easy to shake.

This fear is infinitely multiplied by the transition not only away from our homes, families, siblings, friends, and nearly everything familiar, but away from the academic style and expectations that followed us from elementary to high school.

When I realized that for so many reasons both logical and illogical, mental and physical, I could not write the 15 single-spaced pages I would need for my Oceanography final in my second semester at New College, I could not look up my grade point average, estimate the weight of the final paper and write just enough to pass the class (like I did in high school at times when the stress was too much to handle). Instead I did nothing, not even the bare minimum. I “unsatted” the class and therefore my contract.

After failing a contract in only my second semester of college ever, I thought I was done for. Although I had number of medical, mental, personal problems I could have blamed, I could not help but come back to my intellectuality. Something I’d always fallen back on in high school had crumbled away in college. At a school where many of us probably feel a particular fondness for our intelligence or our ambitions, the feeling that accompanies academic struggle and criticism is exceptionally affecting.

While my first unsatisfactory evaluation was a shake to my intellectual confidence, it was first and foremost a result of my mental illness, exacerbated by all the struggles that accompany moving to college.

However, the experience made me completely reevaluate how I participate and interact in academic environments where I was being asked questions I had been conditioned out of knowing how to answer.

High school teachers in every discipline were always impressing on me that there was one right answer. Tests and quizzes came in two varieties: multiple choice and short answer. And yeah, sometimes there was some matching thrown in the mix. Essay and short answer questions were always implying that there was a correct way to write them. I even had a biology teacher who graded essays based on whether or not we had used a list of words she deemed necessary (regardless of how incorrectly we may have used them).

As a social sciences student at New College, I was suddenly being asked to give my opinion, to consider and calculate, to research and analyze, rather than fill in the blank. My professors were no longer asking me for the correct answer (well, sometimes they were), but asking me how an argument holds up, how different perspectives and experiences may factor in. Not that my high school teachers never asked my opinion (and sometimes I made it known either way), but at New College, there is a whole new meaning to class participation.

While the transition was challenging, scary and often discouraging, it has made me into a critical thinker, a hypothetical considerer, a rhetorical questioner. Although I still don’t speak up in class as much as my professors might like, still second-guess myself before making an assertive statement in a paper, and still feel like my whole thesis might just be plain wrong, New College has taught me a new way to think about the things I learn and how I can contribute to the discussion, not just absorb information.

I remember that each year as my courses and assignments become more challenging, I become more and more capable to do what is asked of me. And thanks to the initially terrifying narrative evaluations I received from my professors, I am able to recognize where I have succeeded and where I can improve.

I remember the feeling of hopelessness, of anxiety, imposter syndrome and not-being-smart-enough that comes with being immersed in a new academic environment. But despite seeing the words “weak sat,” “room for improvement” or “unsatisfactory,” we are smart enough and good enough to be here.

While I was not prepared for the expectations that accompany values of liberal arts education, both success and failure has allowed me to feel all the better about it as a nostalgic, sentimental, now-almost-second-semester thesis student.

Leave a Reply