Your GPA is one of the most important elements of a college application — one admissions officers review when making admissions decisions. However, the way grade point averages factor into college admissions decisions is not straightforward or uniform from school to school.
Since different high schools use different systems to grade and rank their students, most colleges take several things into account when assessing an applicant’s GPA. From there, every college has different standards in terms of GPA requirements.
In this article, we’ll break down how colleges calculate GPA, what admissions officers are looking for, and why your GPA is one of the most significant pieces of your applicant profile.
Translating your GPA scale
Every high school has a different method of calculating GPA, but most American universities subscribe to the 4.0 standard. This means that your letter grade in each class will translate to a scaled score that is then multiplied by the number of credits the class is worth; the resulting number is your cumulative GPA.
However, not every high school uses a 4.0 GPA system. Particularly in charter or independent schools, grading might be calculated on a scale of 0–100 or a grade letter system not attached to a numerical value.
In these cases, you can use the below table to translate your grades to the 4.0 system.
Some schools also use a 4.3 GPA system. In these instances, an A+ corresponds to a 4.3 instead of a 4.0, but the rest of the scale above will remain the same.
Grading systems aren’t just about scales, however. Some schools won’t include nonacademic classes like physical education (PE) when they calculate total GPA, while others might, and some schools don’t give out pluses or minuses as part of their grading system.
Weighted vs. unweighted GPA
If your school offers Advanced Placement (AP) classes, you’ll have two GPAs to keep track of: weighted and unweighted. Weighted GPAs are a school’s way of rewarding students for taking extra challenging courses, usually calculated on a 5.0 scale instead of 4.0, with a 5.0 corresponding to straight As in all AP classes.
In this way, a high weighted GPA demonstrates how well you performed in your classes and how difficult those courses were, to begin with.
You’ll have a place on your college application to list both GPAs, but keep in mind that most colleges refer to unweighted GPA when describing their average GPA statistics for admitted students.
Class ranking and GPA
Colleges recognize that every school is different, and a 4.0 at one school might mean something very different than a 4.0 at another school.
This is why they take into account other academic factors when considering your GPA. For instance, many colleges will look at your class standing or percentile (e.g., top 10% of your graduating class) to see how your academic record and GPA stack up against those of your peers.
This helps if your high school is notoriously academically rigorous. Colleges will look at your school’s national rankings, the types of classes they offer, and several other factors to better understand how your GPA stacks up in the bigger picture of all applicants.
What do colleges consider a good GPA?
For the most part, GPA requirements and averages will depend on the college. It’s common for schools to include the average GPA of admitted students or incoming freshmen when describing their admissions criteria.
The national average GPA hovers around 3.0. Still, many top universities will list an average admitted student GPA of 3.5–4 (for instance, Ivy League GPA requirements are typically closer to 3.9 or higher).
However, a GPA of 2.0–3.0 (a C to B average) could still position you favorably for admission to a less selective college. Instead of worrying whether you have a good GPA or a bad GPA, focus your efforts on aligning your GPA with the averages for your target colleges.
For instance, Stanford University lists an average GPA of 3.96, meaning most admitted students were at the top of their class and probably took several higher-level courses. The average GPA for the University of Arizona is 3.39, making the school a more moderately competitive option.
Keep in mind that these scores are averages, so many students are coming to Stanford with GPAs either higher or lower than 3.96. If your current GPA is lower than the listed average for your college of choice, you can still compensate with strong extracurriculars or high standardized test scores to boost your chances of admission.
Colleges also put things in context when they look at your GPA. A student with a weighted 3.5 who challenged themselves with a more demanding course load may be looked upon more favorably than a student with an unweighted 3.5.
It’s essential to take the classes that interest you and ones that will challenge you. Don’t avoid more challenging coursework or simply enroll in “easy courses” to improve your GPA. Colleges value motivation and intellectual curiosity, so a B in a higher-level course might look better than an A in a less demanding one.
Your GPA is only one of many factors that admissions committees take into consideration when they review your application. A good GPA can look very different from one school to another, and most college GPA “requirements” are more like guidelines.
That being said, it’s essential to aim high with your grades and challenge yourself to higher-level courses that interest you. Colleges want to see that you’re serious about your education, and maintaining a high GPA is a great way to do that.
Furthermore, a high GPA can help you unlock other college benefits beyond just admissions: an impressive academic record can also qualify you for fellowships, scholarships, and more.