When students enter high school, they’re often told about the importance of achieving a high grade point average. In general, GPA serves as the most comprehensive indicator of a student’s overall performance in the classroom during high school — more so than test scores and other metrics, experts say.
A student’s GPA helps determine their admission to college and qualification for various scholarships, among other things like class ranking and merit-based awards. And yet experts say the context of a student’s GPA matters as well. Colleges look closely at the rigor of students’ course loads and the particulars of the high schools they attended. Often, admissions officers prioritize rigor over grades.
“When I do see someone with a higher GPA, to me it’s a better indication of long-term sustained work rather than cramming,” says Colleen Paparella, founder of DC College Counseling, an independent company that provides guidance to students navigating the admissions process. “On the flip side of that, I will say that it really depends on where they go to high school and the reputation of that high school.”
Different schools calculate GPAs differently, so it’s not always an apples-to-apples comparison, says Christian Lanser, an admissions counselor for IvyWise, an educational consulting company. Lanser previously served as the associate dean of admissions at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and he estimates that he saw around 35 different variations of GPA structures in that role.
What Is Grade Point Average and Why Is It Important?
The most common GPA structure is the 4.0 scale, in which an A equals 4.0 and an F equals 0.0. Some schools use a variation of that but amend it with a weighted scale that includes added credit 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|
A 4.0 scale is common, but education experts say it’s hardly universal.
Some schools use a 5.0 scale or even a 12.0 scale. Paparella says she’s seen some schools use a 100-point scale, much like a standard classroom grading scale in which a 90-100 would be an A.
“In a perfect world, we tell students it doesn’t matter what scale your particular school uses because colleges and universities will receive your whole profile along with the transcript,” she says. “On either one of those documents, if not both, there will be some type of GPA scale provided to see that your three As and two Bs resulted in ‘X GPA’ and compare that to ‘Y GPA’ from the private school down the street, and so forth. In practice, it doesn’t always work out this way.”
When applying to colleges, students and guidance counselors should provide some context for the type of GPA used, says Lanser. Some schools don’t include certain elective classes in their GPA calculations, and a program at one school might be especially rigorous compared to another school.
“That’s what we want people to know about our students — that this GPA reflects this school and, probably to some extent then, the degree to which they value those things that they’re factoring into the GPA,” Lanser says.
Students should also be aware that when their GPA lands on a college admissions officer’s desk, it’s often recalculated. Some colleges put each student’s GPA on the same scale to see how they stack up relative to the entire applicant pool.
GPA vs. Course Rigor
High school students and parents sometimes have to decide between enrolling in less rigorous courses that might pave a path to higher grades, or enrolling in AP or dual-enrollment courses that could result in a lower GPA.
The common feedback from admissions offices is that colleges would much rather see students take the more challenging course versus settling for an easier class just to obtain a higher GPA, says Sue Rolley, a guidance counselor at Francis Joseph Reitz High School in Evansville, Indiana.
“That’s been a slow message to get across to students and parents,” Rolley says. “They still are really caught up in the GPA.”
If schools offer AP or dual-enrollment courses, Rolley says she recommends students take those classes, particularly the ones aligned with the major they plan to study in college.
Students should take advantage of the opportunities they have access to at their school, says Mary Wagner, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of South Carolina. If AP or other challenging courses are available, students should seek them out — as long as they’re reasonably sure they’ll do well, she says.
At schools with a weighted GPA scale, succeeding in AP courses can provide an extra boost to your GPA. But students need to determine the right mix of courses for themselves.
“Colleges of course want to know that you’re going to be intellectually inquisitive, that you have a desire for learning, that you’re not afraid of taking on challenges and stretching yourself,” Wagner says. “But we also don’t want you to use bad judgment and just take those classes for the sake of gaming the GPA, and we do see some of that happening, too.”
The rigor of classes a student takes and how they perform in those classes is a “far better” indicator of how a student is going to perform when they get to college than GPA, Lanser says, since AP and dual-enrollment courses are structured like college courses.
That’s especially true for students who might not test well, he says. In general, a student who tests poorly but is enrolled in AP or dual-enrollment courses will still have a more appealing resume than one whose course load is less rigorous, even if their GPA might appear lower on their transcript. Lanser reiterated that the context of those grades is key.
GPAs and the College Application Process
According to a 2019 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.
— The strength of curriculum at the applicant’s high school.
— Admissions test scores (ACT, SAT).
— The submitted essay or writing sample.
“I think a college would have more faith in a student with a rigorous program and excellent marks and subpar test scores,” Lanser says. “They would have more confidence in that student than one from an average program and, let’s say, a B+ average and really great testing.”
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