So you’re getting ready to apply to colleges, and you’ve been keeping your grades up — but how big a role do grades really play in college applications? Should you take more AP or IB classes to boost your GPA? And if a single grade should slip, what will happen? Do colleges look at weighted or unweighted GPAs more?
Here we’re going to explain how colleges look at GPA, weighted and unweighted, and how this factors in to the overall acceptance decision.
First Things First: What’s an Unweighted GPA? How is it Calculated?
Your GPA is calculated by your grades. Generally speaking, you get a 4 for an A, a 3 for a B, a 2 for a C, a 1 for a D, and a 0 for an F. To calculate your cumulative GPA, assign these numbers to each grade you have earned since freshman year, then take the average. A student who gets half B’s and half A’s will have an unweighted GPA of 3.5; a student who gets all A’s will have a 4.0.
That’s unweighted: the same amount of points, or weight, is applied to each class, regardless of whether that class is an AP, IB, honors, or ordinary class.
What’s a Weighted GPA? How is it Calculated?
My editors are probably going to edit this out, but a weighted GPA is kind of important and also kind of bullshit. Let’s explain:
The general method for weighting a GPA is to give more points to more difficult or advanced classes. For example, a regular class would earn 4 points for an A; in an AP class, you’d get 5 points, and then 4 for a B, 3 for a C, and so on. This way your GPA is ‘weighted,’ as in it will be higher if you take more AP classes.
Sounds fair, right? You take a class where it’s harder to get an A, so you get more points when you earn that A.
That’s the idea of weighted GPAs. It’s supposed to let the students who work the hardest stand out.
But there’s a catch — weighted GPAs are completely unstandardized. Some high schools require students to take AP classes for the majority of their coursework, while others don’t even offer AP classes. Furthermore, some AP classes are extremely difficult — but others are lax, to the point where a challenging non-AP math class is likely to be harder than a humanities AP.
The AP tests themselves are standardized: everyone takes the same test, and everyone is graded on the same scale. It’s actually a curve, so you’re competing against your own cohort. AP classes, however, vary greatly in difficulty from school to school.
Looking at it this way, students who go to schools where taking three APs per semester is the norm are going to have much higher GPAs than those whose schools only offer a small number of AP courses. Plus, the actual challenge of those AP classes is much lower when AP classes are more common — when students must opt in to them, the coursework is generally harder.
Because of the variation between schools, your weighted GPA, as well as your unweighted GPA, is more of a litmus test than a pH scale in terms of indicating how hard you’ve worked (or how smart you are): if you’re failing, schools will see, but the distinction between a 3.75 and a 3.80 isn’t all that important. Schools know the limits of GPA weighting, and they have work-arounds. Let’s look at those.
Do Colleges Look at Weighted or Unweighted GPAs More?
Most colleges still look at both, although some beg the question, why do colleges look at cumulative GPAs at all? Some students take easy-A classes, looking to pad their GPAs; how is it fair to judge students purely by GPA? What is a good weighted GPA, anyway?
Colleges are aware of this.
Here’s how the application process works: you fill out your entire application, including test scores, essays, and, yes, GPA. This is read by a regional admissions counselor. Regional admissions counselors oversee a particular county (in California and New York), state, or group of states, depending on the size and location of your school, as well as the size of the college you are applying to. This admissions counselor is familiar with the schools in their area, so if you are getting mostly B’s at a very rigorous high school, they’ll take that in to account.
If your application looks good to the regional admissions counselor, they’ll pass it on to other admissions staff. Usually 2-3 people read your application, and there’s a chance it will go to committee, in which multiple admissions counselors decide whether or not to offer you admittance.
Regional admissions counselors allow colleges to take your GPA in context, and ultimately, to judge you based on your hard work and how much you have challenged yourself — which, colleges claim nowadays, is more important than intellect.
What is a Good Weighted GPA?
Due to the nebulous nature of the weighted GPA, it’s difficult to say what a ‘good’ one is (did you know that some schools weight on a 7-point scale?). It is way more important to keep your grades up, regardless of whether you are taking AP classes, and to challenge yourself academically — whether that means adding another AP course next year, or taking the next math up, or taking an honors class when you could have taken a regular one.
What GPA Do You Need to Get Into Harvard or Other Top Schools?
As previously stated, GPA is nebulous — but there are some trends. Here we’ve shown the average GPA of students admitted in to Ivy Leagues this past year. Note that they’re weighted, as many are above 4.0.
As you can see, the average weighted GPA for the Ivy League is quite high — but note the word average. For every admitted student who got over a 4.05 (for Brown), there’s one who got under a 4.05.
|Ivy League School||Average GPA of Admitted Students|
|University of Pennsylvania||4.04|
So yes, the average weighted GPA for Harvard is quite high — although not as high as Cornell’s, and Cornell is easier to get in to than Harvard. GPA isn’t everything. If you’re wondering what is the easiest Ivy League to get into, make sure to check out our article on that.
To look at other schools, head over to niche.com, where you can see a range of GPAs, test scores, and other data from current students.
Another hint about GPA and applications: it’s easy to see the high standards and think “I’ll never get in. I might as well not apply.” Remember that even if you aren’t quite the average, a full 50% of the admitted students are below average. The admissions process is flawed and complicated, vague and scary, but if you don’t brave admissions, there’s no chance at all that you’ll get in.
Also, GPA is only one of the standards admissions officers look at. There’s also your test scores — which have their own pitfalls and inequities — and your essay. So if your GPA isn’t quite what you’d like it to be, you can work to raise it — admissions officers like to see improvement — and you can also give it your all to write a damn good essay
What Do Admissions Offices Say About the Importance of GPA for College Applications?
As discussed, admissions offices know that GPA is not a strict measuring scale, and that it is by no means standardized. For this reason, admissions officers are more likely to look at the classes you have taken, in the context of which classes are offered.
For example: If your school requires that you take three APs, but you only do the bare minimum, that isn’t going to look as good as a student whose school only offers three APs, and that student has managed to take them all. Admissions officers want to see that you are striving to be the best you can be within your environment, which is more important and more complicated than a number on a scale.
Admissions offices also care more about growth than your overall GPA. So if you had a hard time freshman year, but since then you’ve got straight A’s, admissions officers will notice that in your favor. Don’t think that past mistakes will damn you — just make sure your grades aren’t falling right before you apply.
Furthermore, don’t bend over backward for your GPA — or any other small data point. It’s great to work hard, to take challenging courses, extracurriculars, and to study for standardized testing — but don’t throw yourself in to it only to get into college. This is your time to grow and learn and live, before you’re caught in a day job. Take advantage of it! Do what you love, take the classes you care about, and let colleges see your passion for what you do care about, rather than your desire to get good grades.
Wrapping Things Up: Do Colleges Look at Weighted or Unweighted GPAs?
In summary, colleges will look at both weighted and unweighted GPAs, in the context of how your school weights GPA and what courses are offered. Colleges also like to see that your GPA has either stayed the same or improved — a past failing grade is okay, but work hard to make your junior year and first semester senior year grades as good as they can be (and then don’t slack off too much in the second semester — even if your college probably won’t rescind admission).
Beyond grades, know that colleges look at your test scores and essays, where you can demonstrate your merits and make up for whatever failings your application may have. Your grades can definitely have an impact on your admittance, but they aren’t the only factor.
Ultimately, colleges are looking to see that you’ve challenged yourself and done the best you can — which matters more to the application process, and to life.
If you found this post helpful, take a look at some of the other college study tips here.