Many students get very hung up on GPA in high school - is it high enough? Will it pass muster in college admissions? What does your GPA even mean?
In this article, I’ll go through what GPA is, what GPA means, and how it can help or hurt you in the college admissions process.
What Is GPA?
Let’s start with the basics! Your GPA is just a way of converting your grades into a numerical scale. The grades that you receive in your high school classes are all averaged together to arrive at one cumulative grade, which is then converted into your GPA. The traditional GPA scale ranges from 0.0 to 4.0.
Here’s a conversion chart that shows all the possible GPAs and their corresponding letter grades and percentiles:
This 4.0 scale is for unweighted GPAs. Some schools may get even more specific with GPAs if grades are given on a scale of 0-100 and not just as letters. For example, a student with a 90 average in all of her classes would have a 3.5 GPA and a student with a 92 average would have a 3.7 GPA.
At many schools, GPAs go up higher than 4.0 because they use a weighted scale. A weighted GPA takes into account the difficulty of a student’s coursework, not just their grades. For example, a student who gets all As in lower level classes will earn a 4.0, while a student who gets all As in the most challenging classes will earn a 5.0. Different high schools have different standards for what counts as a "challenging" course, but this usually means AP classes if your school offers them or Honors classes if not.
Colleges use GPA as a measure of your engagement in learning and willingness to work hard to meet academic standards and expand your knowledge. GPA is very important because it provides a comprehensive look at your academic strengths and weaknesses and ability to challenge yourself. GPA and standardized test scores are given relatively equal consideration in the application processes for most schools. At schools that don’t require standardized test scores, GPA takes on an even more critical role in your application.
How Much Can GPA Help or Hurt You?
High school GPA is one of the most important factors considered in the college admissions process. A high GPA (in the 3.5 to 4.0 or A range) can really help you, but it depends on the circumstances.
Your High GPA Will Be a Big Asset If:
You Earned It in High-Level Classes
Above all, colleges want to see that you're willing to challenge yourself intellectually. If you managed to earn a high GPA while taking difficult courses, this will show them that you’re both intelligent and driven. Even if you took easier classes at the beginning of high school and then went on to take more challenging ones later, your course record will demonstrate that you're engaged in learning and willing to push yourself.
Your Standardized Test Scores are Just OK
If you aren't a great test taker and didn’t get awesome scores on the SAT or ACT, your GPA will help you to rise above the crowd despite this. More and more schools are starting to see GPA is a more reliable metric than standardized tests for judging academic potential. A high GPA shows determination over time and is the most reliable indicator of a student’s ability to ultimately graduate college.
Your GPA Stands out from Other Students in Your Class
If very few other students at your school achieved a GPA similar to yours, this indicates that you were willing to go above and beyond to get high grades in difficult classes.
Your High GPA Won't Matter As Much If:
You Earned It in Easy Classes
You may have a 4.0, but if you took the easiest classes available to get it, colleges won’t look as favorably upon your application. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense - colleges are looking for students who are willing to apply themselves and make full use of the resources they're given. If you just go for the easy A, you won't make a good impression.
Your Standardized Test Scores Are Very Low
Even if you earn a very high GPA, if your standardized test scores are average or below average, you might have problems. This is still one of the most important factors colleges consider besides GPA, so you shouldn't take these tests lightly. If you study diligently, you should be able to boost your scores even if you don’t consider yourself a great test taker.
Many Other Students Have Similar GPAs
If your GPA doesn’t stand out from the pack, this points to grade inflation at your high school (high grades for work that might not fully deserve them). This is a problem at many schools, and is really frustrating for students who are high-achieving but can’t stand out because of low standards. This might not be as much as a problem as the other factors because admissions officers will know whether or not your school has this issue and will take it into account when looking at your record. It may mean an increased emphasis on standardized test scores, so you should work on improving your scores if you grade inflation is a concern.
"YOU get a 4.0 GPA! And YOU get a 4.0 GPA! You all get 4.0 GPAs!!!!"
Now let's look at the other side of things. With a low GPA (anywhere below the national average of a 3.0), you might think you’re out of luck, but that’s not necessarily true. Though it may be difficult to get into very selective schools, colleges will consider other factors in their admissions decisions as well.
Your Low GPA Might Not Be a Huge Problem If:
It’s Above a 2.0
As long as your GPA is higher than a 2.0, there will be some colleges where you have a good chance of acceptance. If it's below a 2.0 it will be very hard to get into most schools.
You Did Well on Standardized Tests
As I mentioned earlier, standardized tests are the most important thing colleges will consider apart from your GPA. If you do extremely well, they will be more likely to give you a chance despite your low GPA. Studying for standardized tests and improving your scores is much easier than improving your GPA, so if your GPA isn’t where you want it to be, try to focus on score improvement to get the most bang for your buck in the college admissions process.
You Challenged Yourself
If your GPA is on the lower side, but you earned it in difficult classes or challenged yourself more and more over the course of high school, colleges will take this into account. Your GPA itself is less important than the road you took to get there.
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Can GPA Be Improved?
It's difficult to improve your GPA because it's the average of all your grades over the course of high school. If you end up with a C average your freshman year, for example, you could technically bring it up to a B+ average by the end of your junior year if you earned A averages during your sophomore and junior years. If you have a C average for both your freshman and sophomore years, the best you'll be able to do is a B- because the Cs from the first two years of high school will bring down your average so much.
That's not to mention that going from a C average to an A average in all classes is not something that most people can manage since it requires such a drastic change in study habits and motivation. That being said, if you’re only in the first half of high school, you still have a fair amount of time to make some changes and show colleges a trend towards better grades.
You Can Improve Your GPA By:
Asking for Extra Help
This is always a smart choice if you feel yourself falling behind in a class. As soon as you start to struggle, ask for clarification so you don’t end up getting totally lost. You might just need things to be explained a different way!
Reassessing Your Study Habits
Your problems may also be related to procrastination of lack of studying. These bad habits are difficult to change, but it’s really important to step back and fix fundamental problems like this that are holding you back before they get out of hand.
Challenging Yourself More
This may seem paradoxical, and I would only advocate it if you have a very good GPA in low level classes. Your GPA will look better to colleges if you work harder for it, so you should be proactive about pursuing more challenging coursework. Even if your grades end up slightly lower, moving up a level shows that you were willing to push yourself outside your comfort zone for a more productive learning experience. On the flip side of this, if you're in a situation where a class is extremely difficult for you and your grades are unsalvageable, you should consider dropping it so that you don't end up with an F on your transcript.
If it’s already your junior year and you don’t have much time left to make improvements, you should focus more on standardized testing. With a few months of dedicated studying, you can significantly raise your scores and increase your chances of college admission. The main thing for GPA is to start out strong and finish up stronger; with the way averages work, it’s hard to make significant changes later on.
Earning a good GPA is like running a cross country race. It's pretty painful and you have to maintain a strong pace throughout, but in the end it's worth it because of the sense of accomplishment. Yes, I used to run cross country, and yes, it was the worst.
A regular unweighted GPA is measured on a scale of 0 to 4.0. Your GPA may be weighted, which means it goes up higher (usually up to a 5.0 but some schools have an even bigger scale). Weighted GPAs take course difficulty into account apart from grades so that students in high level classes earn GPAs that reflect the difficulty of the courses they take. College admissions officers will use your GPA to judge whether you are prepared for college coursework and are truly engaged in learning.
Your GPA can help you a lot in college admissions if it’s in the A range, or above a 3.5, but that often depends on the difficulty of your coursework, your class rank, and the quality of your standardized test scores. If your GPA is especially low, focus on improving your standardized test scores and make an effort to bring up your grades by asking for help and fixing any bad habits you’ve fallen into. Your GPA is one of the most crucial aspects of your college application, so if you feel like things aren’t going well in your classes, speak up!
Your GPA is one of the most important components of your college application, but there are also a lot of other things you should consider if you're aiming for the best schools in the country. Find out how you can increase your chances of acceptance at very selective schools.
If you're starting to look at colleges, check out this guide on how to choose schools that are right for you!
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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.