If you’re starting to think about your plans for college, you might be wondering what is considered a good high school GPA or a bad high school GPA in the eyes of admissions officers. This is a complicated question, and it depends on a few intersecting factors that colleges will take into consideration.
In this article, I’ll give you some perspective on what a good GPA and a bad GPA are based on national statistics and your individual circumstances. I’ll also provide a bit of advice on the best ways to improve your GPA.
Your coursework and GPA are one of the most important pieces to your college application - some colleges consider it your MOST important factor - so make sure you plan ahead and know where you fit in.
What’s a Good GPA Compared to the National Average?
Nationally, the average unweighted high school GPA is about a 3.0, which is a B average. If your GPA is above a 3.0, you’re most likely doing pretty well, but it all depends on how your school calculates GPA and what your ultimate goals are. Keep in mind that this is the average for all students in the country, which includes the 34% of high school students who don't go on to college. The average high school GPA for college bound students is most likely higher than a 3.0.
Typically a 3.5-4.0 GPA, which means an A- or A average, is expected for admission to top colleges. However, you may be able to gain acceptance to a less selective school with a GPA that’s as low as a 2.0 or C- average. The concrete numbers are less important than your individual experience and the details of how you earned your GPA, which I’ll discuss in the next section.
What’s a Good GPA for YOU?
This is a much more important question to ask yourself because every high school is different, and so is every student. Remember that colleges will take into account all the information they have about your high school when assessing your GPA. They don’t look at it out of context in comparison to the national average. Admissions officers realize that two students from different high schools may have different GPAs but relatively equal academic potential.
Determining what a good GPA and a bad GPA mean for you mainly means considering three different factors:
#1: Your School Overall
Does your school give you a weighted or unweighted GPA? At some high schools, two students might both have 4.0s that each mean something different because one student is in high level classes and the other is in lower level classes. If they are unweighted GPAs, colleges will consider the student who takes higher level classes to be more qualified. Even though both students are earning As, one is earning them with more challenging material.
If these are weighted GPAs, it might mean the student in high level classes is earning Bs and the student in lower level classes is earning As. In this situation, colleges will still look more favorably on the student in high level classes who was willing to take on more intellectual challenges. The point is that a better GPA doesn’t necessarily mean a higher one; you should challenge yourself with your coursework first and foremost. Don't drop down a level in a course so you can get an A - this won't fool colleges into thinking you're a more qualified applicant.
If your GPA isn’t perfect but you’re at the top of your class, this might just mean that your school is tough, and it would be nearly impossible to get a flawless GPA (even if students at other less rigorous schools manage it). Once again, colleges will understand these circumstances and take them into account. A 3.7 GPA at your school could potentially look better to admissions officers than a 4.0 GPA at another school.
#2: Your Classes
So you have all As in your classes and a 4.0 GPA - you’re doing awesome, right? Maybe, maybe not. If you’re getting all As in the highest level classes your school offers, yes, your GPA is amazing, and colleges will be extremely impressed. However, if you’re taking easy classes just because you know you can get As, the 4.0 on your transcript will not blind admissions officers to the fact that you’re not really challenging yourself.
This isn’t to say that everyone should try and take the highest level classes in every subject. You don’t want to kill yourself with stress, and it’s good for most people to have one or two less rigorous classes. But if there's a subject you’re really interested in or think you might want to pursue as a course of study in college, try and push yourself to take high-level classes. Even if it brings down your GPA a bit, it will demonstrate that you're a driven student who is willing to take risks to gain a better understanding of the subject. Taking progressively more challenging classes throughout high school, even if it doesn’t raise your GPA, makes your GPA “better” in the eyes of admissions officers because it’s hard-earned.
Climb to the peak of your academic potential! Man, I should write copy for motivational posters.
#3: Your Goals for College
Do you have your heart set on an Ivy League? Are you planning on attending your state school for a lower tuition price tag? What’s important to you in a college? At Harvard, for example, almost 90% of incoming freshmen have a GPA that’s above a 3.75 (the average GPA is a 3.93), meaning a solid A average. Considering the standards of top schools, it’s likely that most of those GPAs were earned in the highest level classes in high school. When you have this level of selectivity, students' coursework will be scrutinized just as closely as the numerical values of their GPAs; schools like Harvard are only looking for the top performing students in the highest level classes.
To give a slightly less selective example, at the University of Oregon the average GPA was a 3.6, meaning most students earned around a B+/A- average in high school. It's likely that the courseload of these students was also less challenging, so they may have taken a fair amount of mid-level or lower level classes in the process of earning their GPAs. These are students that have solid grades but are not at the very tops of their classes.
You'll need to take a look at the average GPA for incoming freshmen at your colleges of choice to get a sense of where you need to be. Of course, this statistic isn’t the be-all and end-all. Some students with lower than average GPAs will be accepted, and some students with higher than average GPAs will be rejected. It’s important to make sure you’re also looking at the other factors in conjunction with these statistics to figure out what the best GPA range is for you. In the next section, I'll go over how to find and make sense of this information.
Step by Step: Figuring Out a Good GPA for Your Situation
So how do you actually decide whether your GPA is good in the context of your plans for college? Follow these steps to get a more solid idea of where you are and where you need to be.
1. Make a list of colleges you think you're interested in. I would recommend Cappex for conducting a low stress college search and making a quick list of possibilities.
2. Research the average GPAs and admission rates for the colleges on your list. Make notes on these statistics so you can refer to them later. To find the admission rate and average GPA at any school, Google "college name" + "admission requirements" + "PrepScholar". We've compiled all the information in a database to make it simpler for you!
3. Compare your GPA to the average GPAs that you find at your schools. Are you above or below average? Most schools will give you unweighted GPA statistics, so if your GPA is weighted make sure to take this into consideration.
4. If you're above the average, that's great news! It most likely means that you have a good chance of admission. If you're below the average, you may still have a chance depending on how far off you are. This just means the school will probably be a reach for you.
5. As a last step, you should look at the admissions rates for your chosen colleges. Two schools may have very different admission rates but the same average GPAs. This means that the more selective school expects the same GPA but with more challenging coursework.
- If a school has an admissions rate of less than 20%, you can assume that you're expected to have a record of very challening coursework in addition to meeting the average GPA standards.
- If the admissions rate is between 20 and 40% the school will expect somewhat challenging coursework.
- If the admissions rate is between 40 and 60%, the school will expect mid-level coursework, and if it's higher than 60% you will probably be able to get away with taking a fair amount of lower level classes as long as your GPA is still relatively high.
What Can You Do to Improve Your GPA?
I won’t sugarcoat this: It’s not easy to improve your GPA, and it only gets more difficult as high school goes on. If you’re a freshman or sophomore, you still have time to make significant changes. If you’re a junior, you should probably focus more on improving your test scores. Relative to time spent studying, test scores are the easiest way to improve your chances at college admission. They will be given about as much weight in the admissions decision as your GPA for most schools. If you can manage really good scores, you will have a much better chance of getting in even if your GPA is below average for admitted students.
I would say there are three main things that you can do if you want to make your GPA better in the eyes of colleges:
#1: Take Increasingly Harder Classes
This may seem paradoxical. Won’t your GPA go down if you take harder classes? Well, yes, the numbers might go down, but your GPA will be more impressive to colleges if it was earned in challenging classes. Try to level up as you progress through high school to show that you're willing to work hard for your grades. You should only follow this advice if your GPA is already good by the numbers but you aren’t taking difficult classes. If you’re struggling with your current course load, don’t risk moving up and failing a class! It’s your job to understand and respect your limits in terms of stress and time spent on schoolwork.
#2: Ask for Extra Help
A mistake that many struggling students make is that they don’t ask for help from their teachers. I understand that asking for help isn’t always easy - I know that I myself avoided it for years, and it only hurt me. Asking for help is the SMART thing to do, and it’s going to allow you to get the individual attention you might need in order to understand concepts better. Your teachers will appreciate that you’re making an effort, and you will most likely come away feeling more optimistic about your ability to grasp the material. This is going to be the one of the best ways to see a significant positive effect on your grades.
#3: Stick to a Schedule and Stay Focused
Easier said than done, right? But if you’re serious about improving your grades, this is the bottom line. Procrastination and lack of studying may be hurting your grades more than your academic ability. If you always do everything the night before for "long-term" projects or just glance over your notes briefly before tests, you may need to reassess your habits. Casually reading over the stuff you need to know doesn’t count as legitimate studying unless you go back and verify that you've absorbed it. Think critically about your study habits, and see if there are any areas where you can improve. If you need to create a schedule for yourself in order to keep up with your goals, go for it.
What’s a good GPA? What’s a bad GPA? The real answer, as frustrating as this may be, is that it depends! Though the national average high school GPA is around a 3.0, that might actually be a very good GPA or a not so good GPA for you depending on your circumstances and goals. It’s important to consider how your school calculates GPA, the level of your coursework, and the selectivity of the schools you hope to attend in deciding whether your GPA is good.
Though GPA is very difficult to improve, you may be able to make significant changes if you’re a dedicated freshman or sophomore by challenging yourself with your coursework, asking for extra help, and revising your study habits. If it’s too late to significantly improve your GPA and you don’t feel that it’s quite as good as it should be, focus instead on improving your standardized test scores. This will give you a better return on investment for the hours you spend studying.
Remember that the actual number value of your GPA doesn’t matter nearly as much as the effort you put in to get there. Just keep working hard, and don’t get discouraged!
Another important aspect of your college application will be letters of recommendation from teachers. Read this guide on the best way to ask for recommendations.
If you're planning on applying to the top schools in the country, a great GPA isn't the only thing you should focus on. Learn more about how to get into the most selective colleges.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.