There are countless ways to measure high school accomplishments—good grades, SAT scores, leadership positions, athletic championships, activity involvement, volunteer hours, and more.
While colleges and universities increasingly prefer to see a balance of these skills, a good GPA demonstrates high school academic success and is a good indicator of potential academic success in college.
That one number, though, is not always a black and white representation of your high school experience. Here, we break down what’s behind that 4-point scale, why colleges care, how you can improve your GPA, and more.
What is a GPA?
GPA, which is an acronym for Grade Point Average, is a measurement of academic success in the United States. A GPA is a cumulative numerical scale calculated from your high school grades.
Your overall GPA is an average measurement of your grades over your high school career.
This scale ranges from a 0.0 (the lowest) to 4.0 GPA (the highest) and corresponds to letter grades. Here is how the GPA scale typically breaks down:
Although your GPA is not the only measurement of success in high school, it does play a major role by illustrating how engaged you were in academics.
- GPAs in some classes can hold more weight than others.
- Your GPA also is considered differently by colleges and universities depending on what other achievements you bring to the table.
It’s important to understand why your GPA is important and how it balances or enhances your other high school accomplishments.
What’s the difference between weighted and unweighted GPA?
The chart above is the typical GPA breakdown, however there are variations of that scale. At many high schools, GPAs are calculated differently to account for the difficulty of a class.
An unweighted GPA follows the 4.0-scale above, with an A grade represented by a 4.0 GPA. This traditional GPA scale does not give one class more weight over another, so a basic math class will receive the same GPA as an advanced or honors math class.
A weighted GPA, however, better illustrates the difficulty of each class. While a lower level or regular class will be measured by the 4.0 GPA scale, an honors or AP course will be calculated on a 5.0 scale, with a 5.0 representing an A. Other high schools might fall in the middle of that weighted scale, offering mid-level courses on a 4.5 scale.
Typically, a weighted high school AP class will receive an extra point for earning an A, which, when averaging all your course points together, will give you a higher overall GPA.
Honors classes on a weighted scale typically give an additional half-point, so an A grade would be a 4.5 GPA. Here is a breakdown of a typical weighted GPA scale:
A weighted GPA offers a better overall picture of your academic accomplishments because it accounts for the level of difficulty in each course.
It’s important to note, though, that some high schools do not weight GPAs, while other high schools might choose a different weighted scale than the typical ones listed above.
How is an unweighted GPA calculated?
In most situations, calculating your GPA is simply taking the average of your courses to illustrate your overall class score.
Here is how that works. Your freshman year, you receive the following:
|TOTAL||17.6 (divide by 5 classes)|
|OVERALL GPA||3.5 (or a B+)|
This average of your classes is simple and straightforward because none of the classes are weighted. You convert your letter to a number on the GPA scale, add all of your class GPAs together, divide by the number of classes you took, and receive your average GPA.
Now, let’s break down how weighted classes impact your average.
How is a weighted GPA calculated?
Just like the unweighted GPA, the overall GPA will be an average of your individual class grades. However, each class grade that is an AP course receives an extra point, and each class grade that is an honors course receives an extra half point.
Given the same scores as above, but with advanced courses, your GPA will look like this:
|AP English (+1.0)||A||4.0 + 1.0 = 5.0|
|Honors Math (+0.5)||B||3.0 + 0.5 = 3.5|
|Honors Science (+0.5)||B+||3.3 + 0.5 = 3.8|
|AP History (+1.0)||A||4.0 + 1.0 = 5.0|
|Economics (regular)||B+||3.3 (no additional)|
|TOTAL||20.6 (divide by 5 classes)|
|OVERALL GPA||4.12 (or an A+)|
In this situation, you received the same letter grades in the same subjects. However, you took two AP and two honors classes, which weighted, or added on, to your GPA.
That takes into account the fact that these classes are more challenging and it’s more likely harder to earn an A in those classes.
The biggest takeaway is that weighted classes provide a clearer understanding to colleges of an individual’s academic abilities.
What makes a GPA important?
Although your GPA is certainly not the only consideration by colleges and universities, it is a big factor in determining college preparedness.
Your GPA, in combination with your SAT/ACT scores, provides colleges and universities with a baseline of how well you will do as a freshman in college.
It is one of the main ways to determine how well you will fit at a certain college or university.
Looking carefully at a GPA shows:
- If you have maintained solid grades
- If you improved your grades over time
- Your academic strengths and weaknesses
- The types of classes you took in high school
- The difficulty of your classes
Among other things, GPAs are used for college acceptance and scholarship applications.
Upon college acceptance, a GPA also might determine whether you are invited to an honors program or asked to participate in an early learning program.
Other considerations in addition to your GPA include:
- Extracurricular activities
- Leadership positions
- Community services
In combination, these provide a great overview of your high school accomplishments and experiences.
Why do admissions officers care about GPA?
Colleges and universities operate on a 4.0 GPA system, so it makes sense that they want to evaluate high school transcripts on the same scale.
And, although many high school achievements are considered, admissions officers need a baseline to determine how students might fit at their campus.
A GPA gives admissions counselors a solid starting point and a way to evaluate your grades in core courses. It also allows counselors to compare student records as they decide who to admit.
Your GPA tells an important story about you as a student: how you perform, what your academic interests are, the challenges you accept and overcome, and more.
How do admissions officers compare GPAs from different school districts?
Like many things in the college admissions process, it depends!
- As previously stated, not all high schools calculate GPAs in the same way. Some weight classes, some do not. Some don’t use a 4.0 scale.
Similarly, colleges and universities weight and sort GPAs differently depending on what they want to compare or emphasize. Admissions counselors might unweight and then reweight grades according to their own scale to more accurately compare students’ academic accomplishments.
They understand that in one school district, an A might be a 93% and above, and in another, it might be a 90% and above.
Another way admissions officers compare students from different school districts is by class rank, which can be a better illustration of where a student falls on the academic scale.
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Should I focus on my SAT/ACT or GPA?
There is more than one way to think about this.
Clearly, there are many variables in calculating GPAs from high school to high school. This can make it challenging to compare student GPAs in the admissions process, as mentioned above, but admissions counselors have determined ways to level the playing field.
SAT/ACT scores are another important factor when considering college admissions. While some competitive colleges or Ivy League universities put more weight on SAT/ACT scores, it is a small snapshot of what you can accomplish during a 4-hour test versus the accumulation of your high school career.
The best answer is both are important! They are both good indicators of how you will perform in a college setting. Typically, though, colleges and universities put more consideration on your GPA because it is a better, long-term indication of your high school performance.
What is an uptrend GPA?
It’s one that goes up from freshman year to sophomore to junior to senior year.
Simply put, an uptrend GPA is one that increases from your freshman to senior year. This shows that your grades have consistently improved over time.
- So, maybe you have a 2.5 GPA as a freshman, but a 3.0 as a sophomore, a 3.5 as a junior, and a 3.8 as a senior.
Yes, the average of your grades will be lower than someone who maintained a 3.5 all four years.
But, admissions counselors will see your journey and improvement. That speaks plenty to your character and could explain things like overcoming adversity or developing better study habits
How do I know which colleges to apply to once I know my GPA?
Most colleges and universities use a 3.0 GPA, or generally a B grade, as the baseline for admissions. Of course, this depends on the type of school. More competitive schools are more selective and require a higher GPA for admissions, often starting at a 3.5 GPA.
If you have a particular college or university in mind, check its website for admission requirements, or contact a college admissions counselor for that school.
There also are plenty of online search engines and GPA calculators. By plugging in your GPA and some other basic information, such as searching colleges by state, you get an idea of where your GPA stands in the admissions process and how likely you are to be accepted based on that GPA.
How do I improve my GPA?
There are plenty of ways to improve your GPA. The earlier you start on these tips, the sooner you’ll see results and develop an uptrend GPA!
- Participate in class—If you are regularly attending and participating in class, your teachers will recognize your effort. You will understand the material better because you will be more engaged in the class. It will help you to build confidence with your abilities and classwork and build stronger relationships with your teachers.
- Stay organized—Come up with a strategy that helps you keep your notes organized. What is the best way for you to file papers? Rewrite notes from lectures? Create study guides? Determine a system that works for you, and stick to it.
- Refine your study skills—This goes in hand with good organization. Some students do best reviewing their work right after school while it’s fresh in their minds, while others prefer to take a break and work later. Some students keep their notes and classwork organized by producing study guides, while others learn more from reading notes aloud. By staying organized and determining the best method to study, you will retain more of your classwork.
- Set goals—From small goals to big, setting goals provides you with something to work toward. When you reach that goal, be sure to celebrate.
- Start an academic support system—Whether this is friends, parents, teachers, or coaches, work with the people in your life who will help you and want to see you succeed. If you have a friend who is great in math, and you do better in English, work with each other to improve your grades. Ask your teachers when they are available for help. Rely on coaches and parents to help explain concepts, to quiz you, or to help you with time management.
What’s a good GPA for an Ivy League school?
Ivy League schools have high expectations, and that’s reflected, in part, by their GPA requirements. The average GPA at many Ivy League universities ranges between a 3.7 to 4.0 GPA, or higher, showing that they take into account weighted classes.
Here are the average grades, and rate of acceptance, for Ivy League Schools:
|Ivy League School||Average GPA|
|University of Pennsylvania||3.52|
What’s a good GPA for other top colleges?
Just as with the Ivy League schools, top colleges will set a higher threshold for high school GPAs. And, again, this is flexible based on many other academic factors. Generally speaking, though, top schools will look for unweighted high school GPAs starting at 3.5, or weighted GPAs closer to or exceeding 4.0.
If your goal is to attend a top school, aim for a GPA that falls in the middle of the range for accepted students.
Conclusion: What Is a Good GPA?
GPA is an important factor in college admissions, but it is only one factor. And when comparing GPAs, there are many variables.
Set clear goals in high school to maintain good, consistent grades and work hard to develop strong study skills. If you stay focused now, consider college admissions, and maintain a good support system, you will set yourself up for success.