When deciding which applicants to accept, colleges and universities typically look for the best of the best. But, that doesn’t always mean the “best” is the person with the highest grades in high school.
Yes, a student’s grade point average, or GPA, is a good metric for measuring just what and how successfully they completed their high school course, but how much does a student’s GPA really matter for college admission? It depends.
Keep reading to find out when it matters, when it doesn’t, and all the other factors college admissions take into account beyond a student’s GPA.
Weighted vs Unweighted GPA
Traditionally, high schools measure a student’s academic performance on an unweighted GPA scale, meaning the number only goes up to a 4.0 for an A in a class. This measurement method does not take into account the difficulty level of classes, so an honors English class will be measured in the same way as a non-honors class.
On the other hand, weighted GPAs do take into account the difficulty level of a student’s coursework. Most weighted GPA scales measure from a 0 to a 5.0. This means, an AP-level or honors level class could earn a student a 5.0, while a lower-level class will only reward A work with a 4.0.
A weighted scale can offer students a little more flexibility when it comes to their overall GPA. Say a student is taking four classes, one is an honors level course and the three others are typical classes. The student receives an A in the honors class, which accounts for a 5.0; an A in two other courses, denoting a 4.0 and a 4.0, and a B in the last, at a 3.0. Despite receiving a B in a course, that would still end up with a weighted 4.0 GPA.
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Do Colleges Look at Weighted vs. Unweighted?
For the sake of looking at all applicants equally, colleges generally look at unweighted GPAs. They will typically separately consider how rigorous the coursework was. So, for example, if you took all AP classes and have an unweighted 4.0 GPA, you would be seen as a stronger applicant than someone who took less challenging courses and also got an unweighted 4.0, even though your GPAs are the same.
Colleges also look at unweighted GPAs (as well as standardized test scores and other factors) for merit-based scholarships. The more successful students are more likely to receive tuition funding.
College admissions staff may also look into other things when it comes to a student’s GPA, including grade trends. If a student didn’t start out high school on the best note, but performed well during their junior and senior year with a strong GPA, admissions may see that as excellent growth and perseverance in a student’s academic career.
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A “Good” GPA
Again, it’s important to remember that your GPA isn’t everything and that college admissions staff will likely look at much more than just your grades. However, it’s also always nice to know where you stand amongst the pack.
The average high school GPA is around 3.0 (or a B), including students who do and don’t apply to college. However, the average GPA for students applying to college is closer to 3.5 to 4.0, and the average for students applying to Ivy League schools can be even higher – 4.00 or close to it.
The average weighted GPA is 4.15 at Harvard and MIT.
While GPA isn’t everything, it’s a good idea to keep it in mind when deciding which schools, or how many, to apply to.
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What Else Do Colleges Look At?
Yes, colleges will take into account a student’s GPA. However, colleges and universities also take into account a complete picture of who a student is. That means they look into trends in a student’s grades throughout their education and likely look at a student’s test scores on the SAT or ACT.
College admissions officers also look at a student’s involvement in extracurriculars, sports teams, their involvement in their community through organizations and volunteer work, and any relevant work experience.
Admissions staff will also likely weigh a student’s application using their recommendation letters, which speak to a student’s merit far beyond their grades. Admissions will also read a student’s complete application and read any required essays.
Again, a lot goes into the admissions process, and grades aren’t the end all be all. This all means when you are preparing for college, even in your early high school years, you may want to prepare by diversifying your interests and pursuits to ensure they can tell a larger story in their application.
Colleges That Don’t Take GPA Into Account
There are schools out there with low or no minimum GPA requirements for applicants. These include many for-profit schools, as well as community colleges. In fact, if your GPA is on the lower end, you might consider attending a community college for a year or two and then transferring to a four-year university or college.
For example, California Community Colleges do not have a minimum GPA or testing requirements for incoming students. Attending a community college could be a great way for students to learn and grow personally and academically, and to increase their academic performance before transferring.
No Matter a Student’s GPA, It’s Good to Have a Plan
Being financially prepared for college can help take some of the stress away from worrying about how your GPA will affect your chances of admission.
While filling out applications, you may want to also look into all your financial options as well. This begins with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see if you are eligible for federal student aid, which include grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal loans.
If you still have gaps to fill, you may also want to consider a private student loan via a bank, credit union, or private lender. Unlike federal student loans, this involves a credit check. Students who have strong finances (or have a cosigner who does) stand to get lower interest rates and more favorable loan terms. Keep in mind that private student loans don’t come with government protections such as forbearance and forgiveness programs.
💡 Quick Tip: It’s a good idea to understand the pros and cons of private student loans and federal student loans before committing to them.
GPA is one factor in the college admissions process. How heavily GPA is weighted as a factor in admissions decisions will vary from school to school. Many schools will list the average GPA of admitted students, which can help give you an idea of how your GPA stacks up to students at that school. Other factors for admission might include a student’s transcript, letters of recommendation, and personal essay.
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