Let’s talk about grade point averages! Why? Because there is so much confusion around them when it comes to college admission. GPAs are complicated, and context is important. At One-Stop College Counseling, we work with students from all over the world, and we review a variety of transcripts and educational systems. Even in the US, we’ve seen schools with GPAs out of 16 points, 12 points, and some with 4.0, 5.0, and even 6.0 as their top marks. Other schools use numerical grades out of 100, and there are even a few that just write descriptions of how a student is progressing without assigning a grade. So how does all this play into getting into college?
How colleges really use GPA in admission
Because there’s so much variability, about half of the colleges in this country don’t even use your student’s high school GPA as it is—they recalculate it to place everyone on the same playing field. Some recalculate it to include only core classes, and others include core and electives but eliminate physical education. Some colleges measure weighted GPA, while others add another category to evaluate the rigor instead.
Colleges that do lift the GPA right from high school transcripts usually spend time reviewing each individual School Profile, which is a document high schools send to colleges to explain how they grade courses and what options they offer. Some high schools will weigh honors and AP/IB courses equally, perhaps adding a point above a non-honors class. And there are also many high schools that weigh honors classes slightly higher than non-honors, then provide an even bigger bump to AP, IB, or dual-enrollment courses.
COVID-related GPA complications
What about the high schools where everyone received A’s in spring 2020 due to COVID-19? Or schools where quizzes and tests became group events where students ask friends for help? The fact of the matter is those students have an advantage compared to students at schools that didn’t adjust their grading during the pandemic. It’s confusing, but admission officers are acutely aware of the non-universal grading systems, varying curriculum offerings, and inconsistent COVID-related adjustments, and they’ll factor these into their analyses. That’s why colleges read “in context” when making admission decisions.
A GPA Q&A for inquiring parents
Here are some of the most common questions we’ve heard from parents about GPA that you may be asking about your student’s college admission process as well.
Q: My student has a 4.0 GPA. Are they a strong candidate for an Ivy League university?
A: It depends. Is their GPA weighted or unweighted? What’s the highest possible GPA at their school? What was their course schedule? How rigorous are the classes they chose? What percent of the class has the same (or higher) GPA? You need to ask additional related questions to really get an understanding of your student’s standing for Ivy League admission.
Q: My teen isn’t taking honors English or honors history in high school because they’re focused on STEM. If they get an “A” in the college prep (non-honors) English and history classes, they’ll be eligible for the most selective colleges, right?
A: No, they won’t. The most selective colleges want to see students challenging themselves across all the core subjects, regardless of their intended major. Their weighted GPA will be lower due to the non-honors classes, and while their unweighted GPA may be identical to a student with a more difficult class load, their rigor won’t be considered as robust.
Q: Isn’t college admission random? I’ve seen a senior at one high school get accepted into Northeastern with a 4.8 GPA, while another student at a different high school get outright denied with a 5.4 GPA.
A: Admission isn’t random, and it’s not always based on GPA. When considering GPA, admission officers consider the courses the student took—were they AP, IB, or honors? And how many of these were accelerated courses? Was there an upward or downward grade trend from ninth grade to 11th grade? What major was the student applying for? It’s impossible to compare GPAs from different high schools when so many other factors play into admission.
Our overall advice: Students should challenge themselves with rigorous classes and try to earn the best grades they can. They just shouldn’t overwhelm themselves and know what their limits are in terms of course load. We always tell our students, “You can’t do better than your best. Give it your all, and that will be good enough!”
Want to read more from this author? Laurie Kopp Weingarten has a lot more admission advice where that came from for you and your student!