Colleges are academically challenging places, especially the top schools. They want to admit students who are prepared for these rigors, and who will succeed when challenged. In order to see whether or not a student is equipped academically, colleges examine your grades and GPA.
We’ve written before about what colleges want to see in your high school grades, but your GPA is a subtly different measure. In this article, then, we’ll look into how GPA scales function, how colleges use your GPA in admissions, and how you can use this information to improve your chances for admissions.
The Styles of GPA
There are a lot of terms used when discussing GPA, so we’re going to start by defining these terms, and the various ways GPAs are calculated and conveyed. We should also note that not all high schools use GPA, or even assign grades; most do however, and even where schools don’t calculate GPA, colleges will.
Weighted vs Unweighted
A GPA can either be weighted or unweighted. An unweighted GPA treats all courses the same, and gives no bonus for taking harder classes. A weighted GPA gives a bonus to certain courses, allowing students who take more challenging courses to gain higher GPAs. Schools which offer a weighted GPA will also include a separate unweighted GPA on your transcript in some cases.
There are many possible scales for GPAs, but we’ll go through the most common:
4.0: This scale assigns the following scores to letter grades:
- A: 4
- A-: 3.6
- B+: 3.2
- B: 3
- B-: 2.6
- C: 2
Some schools which use a 4.0 scale can award values above 4 when using a weighted scale. A weighted GPA on a 4.0 scale gives an extra .5 or 1 point advantage for honors or other advanced classes. The exact values vary by school.
A 5.0 scale often results from a 4.0 scale which weights classes and offers a course load with mostly or entirely honors or advanced classes. Thus, students can earn a 5.0 GPA by taking all advanced courses and earning all As. Generally, a 4 point and 5 point scale assign the same numeric values to grades. Whether or not a school considers itself 4 point or 5 point is often arbitrary.
A 100 point scale assigns values to GPA based on your grade in a class out of 100; with a score between 90 and 100 equivalent to an A. These can also be weighted, assigning extra points or value to honors courses.
12 point scales are less common, but are still used by some schools. This assigns a score of 12 to an A+, and each decrease from their corresponds; so a B is an 8, and a C is a 5. This can also be weighted.
GPA and Class Rank
Your GPA is used to determine your class rank. Not all high schools and colleges track this, but it is quite important in some circumstances. UT Austin’s automatic acceptance is based on class rank, for instance. Class rank is also how a school’s valedictorian is determined.
Schools which weight their GPAs always use weighted GPAs when calculating class rank. This is due to the weighted classes being more difficult than standard classes, so an A in one of those classes is seen as representing more of an achievement.
How Colleges Use GPA
Due to the high variability in how high schools calculate GPA, many colleges and admissions officers will recalculate your GPA based on your transcript (even if your school ordinarily does not assign a GPA). Most colleges do this simply, without any weighting or partial points for +/- grades.
The reason for doing this is to give admissions officers an easy benchmark with which to compare students. Of course, this GPA does not tell the story on its own; after all strength of schedule is not represented here.
Here counselor letters and school reports are important. These provide universities with important context on how that particular high school calculates GPA, and its unique peculiarities. This context is then used to understand what the GPA assigned by your school means, and what any recalculated GPA means.
Thus, while your GPA is an important part of how colleges evaluate your academic potential, it does not exist in a vacuum. Your full transcript provides a much clearer picture of your academic preparation, while your GPA is more of a snapshot schools can use to quickly gain an impression of your academic stature.
What Colleges Want from GPA
What colleges want to see is twofold. First, they want to see that you have performed well in your classes, as represented by a high GPA. Second, they want to see that you have taken challenging classes. This can be shown through the use of weighting, or through the report your counselor sends out to colleges.
Both of these together demonstrate to a college that you are academically prepared for the rigors of a collegiate education. Your past performance is seen as the best indicator for your future potential.
Thus, while a high GPA is ideal, it is not enough on its own. In order to show off true academic potential, you need high grades in the hardest classes your school offers. Of course, this is not the right path for everyone. In the next section, we’ll cover how to make the most of your own academic preparation.
What This Means for You
So how should all this information impact your own college preparations? First, of course, you should try to perform as well as possible in your classes. Do not be ashamed to ask for help, either from your teachers or outside tutors. Not everyone learns at the same pace, but everyone is graded on the same scale.
Our best advice for this is to master the habits required for academic success early in high school, when grades and courses are more forgiving. Setting deadlines for yourself, learning the intricacies of studying, and establishing good time-management practices are all fundamental to good grades.
We work with many students on these exact problems in our academic coaching program. The goal is not to master material, but to build the habits needed to be able to succeed on your own.
One student we worked with was struggling with time management especially; somehow every time they sat down to do their homework, the hours would pass fruitlessly, and at the end of the night they were no closer to being done than when they started, despite studying for hours.
Our mentor worked with the student through frequent check-ins, and found that their phone, the eternal distraction of the modern era, was the culprit. A small break turned into an extended one, and studying fell away. Their mentor worked with the student to build a healthier relationship with studying, and shared techniques to improve their focus. This was not an overnight process, but over the course of a semester the student saw their grades rise by a full letter across all subjects.
When focusing on your own grades, begin by building good studying habits, and setting strong foundations on which to begin mastering material. While some students can coast through high school with minimum effort, everyone hits a wall sooner or later when that will no longer sustain them. It is better to build your skills early, rather than need them and not have them.
While there are many factors considered in a college application, your academic performance, including your GPA is by far the most important. All else pales if you are unable to perform at the academic level the college requires. We hope this article has given you a better understanding of GPAs, and why they matter to colleges.
If you are struggling with your academic performance, or worry that your grades aren’t at the level they need to be, schedule a free consultation to learn how we can help you. Our Academic Coaching and Tutoring services both have proven track records of helping students achieve the level of success they are truly capable of, and we’re always happy to help.