What Students Should Know About the GPA Scale

For high school students, grade point average is often a major focal point — a barometer of their academic success.

GPA is a factor in class rank, college admissions, scholarship eligibility and more; it represents a student’s body of academic work throughout high school beginning in their freshman year. While GPA is only part of a high school transcript, experts consider it a strong indicator of success.

“I’ve been told by colleges that GPA is much more predictive than (standardized) test scores,” says Janet Rosier, a certified educational planner and president of Janet Rosier’s Educational Resources in Connecticut.

[See: 12 A-Plus National Universities for B Students.]

GPA can be calculated in many different ways.

“GPA is unique to each school district, county, state, etc. Within a county, even, GPAs differ between public and private schools. The typically common GPA includes a standard 0.0 through 4.0, with letter grades matching those amounts,” Julie M. Vivian, college adviser and student services department chair at Terra Environmental Research Institute in Miami, wrote in an email.

For the 4.0 scale, that means an A equals 4.0 and an F is 0. Grading scales can also be weighted, adding additional points for Advanced Placement or honors courses. With a weighted GPA, a student can earn higher than a 4.0 by performing well in AP or honors classes. A student’s GPA is calculated by dividing grades earned across the total number of courses taken.

The table below shows how a 4.0 GPA scale corresponds to numeric and letter grades.

Numeric grade Letter grade Grade point average
90-100 A 4.0
80-89 B 3.0
70-79 C 2.0
60-69 D 1.0
Below 60 F 0.0

A 4.0 scale may be fairly common, though education experts say it’s hardly universal.

“I think I have seen every possible combination of GPA scales,” Rosier says.

Jill Madenberg, principal at Madenberg College Consulting in New York and co-author of “Love the Journey to College,” says some schools have a 5.0 or 12.0 scale, or other nontraditional models.

A GPA can send messages to both colleges and students alike. For colleges, it signals a student’s academic achievement and potential to succeed at the next level. For students, it’s an opportunity to see where they rank and how they compare with their peers, Madenberg says.

Students should keep in mind that when their GPA lands on a college admissions official’s desk, it is often recalculated. This is a regular practice at institutions such as the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, Oberlin College in Ohio and others, as noted on school websites.

“It’s clear that in order for colleges to normalize applicants, they reconfigure GPAs to their individual preferences, meaning that our students know the GPA on record with (their high school) is not the same GPA that will be used by a college,” Vivian says. She adds that colleges often add points for honors or AP courses and may focus only on core classes such as English, math, science, social studies and foreign language, ignoring electives.

[Read: Learn How to Explain a Low GPA in College Applications.]

Some colleges don’t count plus or minus letter grades when calculating a student’s GPA, notes Judi Robinovitz, a certified educational planner and founder and co-owner of Score At The Top Learning Centers & Schools in Florida. Weights for honors and AP courses also may vary by college, she says, with differing formulas for how points are added.

With these calculations in play, experts say admissions officers are more focused on the whole college application, rather than just the grade point average, paying particular attention to the academic transcript.

“In my office, we’re not beholden to a GPA; we’re far more interested in analyzing the transcript,” says Jeannine Lalonde, associate dean of admission for the University of Virginia.

Lalonde says colleges drill down into the transcript to get a better sense of who the applicant is.

“I hope that students are more concerned with selecting classes that stretch and challenge them and performing well, than just with hitting a certain number for a GPA,” Lalonde says. “It’s not about achieving a number — it’s about preparing oneself academically for the next step.”

Beyond grade point average, experts say that students should focus on being well-rounded.

[Read: Learn How to Get Accepted Into College With a Low GPA.]

According to a 2018 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the top five factors considered during the application process are grades in all courses, grades in college prep courses, admissions test scores (ACT, SAT), strength of curriculum at the applicant’s high school and the submitted essay or writing sample.

“There are two categories for any student’s application: data and voice,” Robinovitz says. Data includes GPA and standardized test scores, whereas voice is comprised of letters of recommendation from teachers, college essays, interviews with admissions officials and more.

Vivian says she encourages students in her school to strike a balance across their applications.

“I really try to balance all aspects, stressing the importance of each factor together, not separately. GPAs need to show dedication, course schedules need to show reasonable rigor, test scores need to be competitive with the desired school, service and activities need to be few but strong, demonstrating a passion or commitment to the area and not just to pad a resume,” Vivian says.

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