When applying for admission to a selective college, it has long been an unchallenged assumption that you need perfect grades to even be considered as a competitive candidate. For many years, this was largely true.
Most incoming freshman profiles to top colleges still boast 4.0+ average GPAs. However, due to recent shifts in admissions best practices, the idea of a high GPA as the be-all-end-all to gain admission to a top school doesn’t have the power it once did.
Your grades, and what they mean to an admissions committee, is an incredibly nuanced and complex topic that goes far beyond simple As, Bs, and Cs. So let’s first spend some time understanding the meaning behind the different terms used by admissions committee members to discuss high school grades.
What is a GPA Scale?
“GPA” stands for “Grade Point Average,” and it is calculated as an average of student’s grades from all classes taken across all four years of high school. The most common grading scale, and the one used by most colleges is a 4.0 scale.
How is a 4.0 grade scale calculated?
Most simply, a numeric total corresponds to a letter grade received in a class:
- A = 4.0
- B = 3.0
- C = 2.0
- D = 1.0
- F = 0.0
Therefore, the coveted “4.0” grade average would indicate a student has achieved all A’s in their coursework. Sometimes +/- grades are also factored in, such that a B+ would be worth 3.333 points and an A- 3.666 points. Under this formulation, the maximum GPA would be 4.333 for straight A+ grades.
The picture gets slightly more complicated when comparing a “weighted” or “unweighted” GPA.
Weighted GPA vs. Unweighted GPA
An unweighted GPA is the calculation described above. It is a straightforward average of the letter grades received in each class, all considered, or “weighted,” equally.
So, how is a “weighted” GPA different, and why does it matter?
When reviewing a student’s application, the admissions committee wants to see evidence that the student challenged themselves academically. Therefore, the logic goes, an “A” grade in an AP or Honors Chemistry course should “weigh” more than an “A” received in the standard Chemistry course since the AP class would require a higher degree of effort to achieve the same grade.
In theory, this also helps admissions committees compare the rigor of courses between the thousands of high schools its applicants have attended. To refer back to our last example, it’s entirely possible that a course with the name “Chemistry” could be just as challenging as a course listed as “AP Chemistry” at a neighboring school. The weighted GPA may seek to account for the wide variations in school curricula.
Calculating a weighted GPA
The calculation of a weighted GPA therefore slightly complicates the straightforward “4.0” scale. To take the difficulty level of a particular course into account, the scale stretches to 5.0. Therefore, it would not be uncommon for an applicant with a high “weighted” GPA to surpass the standard 4.0 benchmark, if their transcript was largely comprised of heavily weighted, or difficult, honors and AP courses.
GPA Requirements to Get Into College
The widely accepted baseline GPA needed to be seriously considered at many 4-year colleges in the US is a 3.0. However, with applicant pools become more competitive each year, and many college-bound students will strive to maintain GPAs well above a 3.0, especially when seeking admission to competitive programs.
Above all, admissions committees want to see evidence that the applicant challenged themselves academically while in high school. A question often asked of admissions committees is: “Would you rather see a student achieve a B in an accelerated class, or an A in the regular track class?” It probably goes without saying, given the talented applicant pools for top colleges, that many transcripts will show As even in the accelerated courses. While it is tempting to say that the best GPA to be considered for a top school is a 4.0 (or higher), this is too reductive an approach that can get students in trouble if they are seen to be “playing it safe” in their course selection.
The key idea driving these considerations is an admissions strategy known as “holistic admissions.”
Holistic admissions is a prominent trend in the college admissions process, adopted by many top colleges. According to a report from The College Board (the organization that administers the SAT) in 2018, holistic admissions is comprised of three components:
- “Mission alignment, which is focused on advancing the institution’s core educational goals through the admissions process.”
- “The [applicant’s] likely ability to succeed and thrive at a given institution and attention to their ability to enhance the educational experiences of their peers in and out of the classroom”
- “Consideration of multiple, often intersecting, factors—academic, nonacademic, and contextual—that, in combination, uniquely define and reflect accomplishments and potential contributions of each applicant in light of his or her background and circumstances.”
The buzzwords aside, the main takeaway is that quantitative results gained in high school, such as GPAs and test scores, are only part of the picture, and therefore college admissions committees are moving away from the idea of a “threshold” GPA entirely. A good example is this from Stanford’s website:
“There is no minimum GPA or test score; nor is there any specific number of AP or honors courses you must have on your transcript in order to be admitted to Stanford.”
Factors the admissions committee will consider are:
- Grade trajectory – While ideally, students want to maintain high grades throughout high school, it is also considered a strong indicator if the student’s grades perhaps started lower, but showed a marked improvement. Declining grade trajectories would be a cause for concern.
- The caliber of the high school program – Admissions committees will factor in their personal knowledge of how challenging the course work is at a school, to more accurately gauge the level to which the student challenged themselves while enrolled.
- The difficulty of classes and availability of AP/IB/Honors courses – Of the available classes, admissions committees want to see that the student availed themselves of the more challenging ones.
A Note on Grade Inflation
“Grade inflation” is the practice of teachers and schools consciously or unconsciously giving their students higher average grades in order to help them better compete with students from other classrooms. This is a thorny issue in the U.S., that is widely debated across all levels of education. Grade inflation is evident when comparing the grades received in certain subjects against the test scores of national standardized tests, which are meant to gauge the student’s baseline proficiency. Recent studies have indicated a widespread trend towards higher GPAs, despite lower performance on standardized tests, indicating grade inflation.
A student cannot be personally responsible for receiving inflated grades, as this would be a result of policies and choices at the faculty and/or administrative level of their school. In utilizing a holistic admissions process, admissions committees can take into consideration whether a high school program has demonstrated a tendency towards grade inflation, thereby not overlooking talented applicants based on the grading policies of their school. The push toward holistic admissions policies and away from strict GPA thresholds is meant to alleviate both the effects of grade inflation, and the pressure that leads teachers to “fight for their kids” in this way.
GPAs, University Rankings, and Acceptance Rates
It’s not just students that have to worry about their GPA: GPAs are also taken into consideration when deciding the rankings of top schools at major publications such as the US World and News Report. These rankings are basically adcoms’ “report cards,” and admissions staff try to keep the average GPA of admitted students high in order to preserve its ranking. However, in light of the trend towards holistic admissions, The College Board is encouraging schools to limit the value placed on rankings by adcoms:
“Even for highly selective institutions, weighing these measures with an overreliance on the effect on national rankings can undermine other mission-critical goals.“
How serious colleges are about moving beyond university rankings remains to be seen.
What is a Good GPA in College?
While it can be tempting to think the importance of maintaining a high GPA stops upon gaining admittance to one’s college of choice, this is far from true. Depending on long-term career goals, a high college GPA becomes, in some cases, even more important than it was in high school.
At most colleges, a student must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA to stay in good academic standing. This is a threshold to be taken seriously, as falling below this puts a student at risk of academic probation, which, if not corrected, could ultimately lead to dismissal from the school.
Many scholarships require the recipient to maintain a particular GPA to continue receiving aid. This will often be above 3.5, however, it varies widely depending on the scholarship.
Beyond good standing, it is arguably just as important as in high school to keep one’s GPA as high as possible, as many competitive career paths demand a certain GPA threshold for consideration.
Admissions to graduate programs such as medical school, law school have a more stringent threshold for GPAs, some as high as 3.7. This is a key difference in how graduate programs differ from undergraduate programs, in that they do not practice holistic admissions, but will instead initially screen applicants based on certain GPA and test score thresholds.
In addition to graduate programs, certain employers will screen applicants based on GPA, some requiring at least a 3.5. While undergraduate admissions committees seek to understand an applicant’s academic interests, organizational skills and ability to challenge themselves, many of the same components still apply when searching for a job. A GPA can easily indicate to employers that the applicant has excellent quantitative and analytical skills, and managed to self-direct their continued academic success, which bodes well for their value as an employee.
The Final Word on GPA
In many ways, the landscape of admissions remains relatively familiar to recent decades: Top colleges seek excellent candidates, who demonstrate this excellence through achieving top-notch grades, impressive test scores, and glowing recommendations.
However, as applicant pools continue to grow and colleges critically reassess how to gauge a candidate’s fit and ability to succeed, the GPA as the beginning and end of an application’s competitiveness has begun to slide slightly. This is a promising trend that encourages applicants with widely different profiles to aim for the top schools, using all elements of their application – their essays, their co-curricular activities, their interviews – as a more complete representation of who they are.
Now, read up and get smart:
- College Parent FAQs
- Supplemental Essay Analyses 2019-20
- Admissionado College Case Studies
- Admissionado’s Guide to Senior Year
- Admissionado’s Guide to Junior Year
- Essay Brainstorming Guide
- Admissionado’s Guide to Elite College Admissions
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