When a parent first calls us, they invariably report to us their child’s most recent semester GPA – in weighted format. We usually have to break the bad news that the GPA for college admissions purposes is a student’s unweighted, academic, 9th grade through 11th grade GPA. And it’s almost always lower than you think it is.
The problem is that there’s no ‘standard’ way for high schools to report GPAs, and there’s no ‘standard’ way for colleges to require them. So that leaves us in the horrible gray area where high schools can calculate students’ GPAs however they want – and report whatever numbers they choose to parents and students. In some cases, high schools report multiple GPAs on a student’s transcript. In the worst instances, some high schools report ONLY the weighted overall GPA.
On top of the weighting issue, many high schools include EVERY class a student has taken in high school in their GPA, such as athletics and non-academic electives. We’ve seen students with GPAs that include their stellar grades in volleyball, cooking, woodshop and health. Colleges are interested in your performance in academic courses only! Your grades in math, English, foreign language, science and history/social studies are the only ones that factor into your GPA for college admissions purposes. Some electives that have an academic element, like journalism, engineering, creative writing, marine biology, etc. can be included as well.
So where does that leave us? There are parents and students out there thinking they have a very strong, very competitive 4.something GPA, which is, unbeknownst to them, a weighted, cumulative (all courses throughout high school) GPA, when what they really have is a 3.5. While this may sound like a horror story to you – “oh, that could never actually happen” – is actually something that happened to one of our clients a few years ago. Her private Catholic school reported ONLY her weighted GPA on her transcript. At the end of her junior year – the last semester that really counts before she would be submitting college applications – she thought she had a 4.1 GPA. She had a number of top-tier colleges on her list, and was specifically focused on Georgetown. In fact, she’d spent her entire junior year falling more in love with Georgetown, wearing the sweatshirt, and visualizing herself on that beautiful campus. But when we recalculated the actual GPA that Georgetown would see, we discovered that her actual GPA for college admissions was actually 3.5. This revelation caused tons of unnecessary stress in her college application process.
We recalculate our clients’ GPA not to give them bad news but to give them reality – to show them how competitive they really are in today’s hyper-competitive college admissions pool. Whenever a student says, “well, it’s a B, but it’s in an AP class, so it’s like an A,” we say, “no, actually it’s not like an A – because someone else really did get an A in that same class.” Bs aren’t bad! But they aren’t As, and they do not count like an A in your GPA for college admissions.
After we break the bad news about weighted vs. unweighted GPAs, we always get the question: “Then why am I taking honors and AP classes?!” It’s because rigor is the second-most important thing colleges care about. Are you challenging yourself and doing well in those challenging classes? This is what colleges want to see. So no, it’s not better to take the “regular” version of a class if you could take the honors or AP version and do well (that means A or B!). And your high school counselor will send your “school profile,” a document that tells colleges how many and which advanced classes your school offers, along with your transcript. More on school profiles here.
There’s always an exception to the rule: the UC and Cal State systems use a completely different process for calculating GPA. They count ONLY 10th and 11th grade courses, and they count not only the academic core courses, but also any visual and performing arts classes taken in 10th and 11th grades. They also use a semi-weighted GPA, which is to say that they give “extra credit” for up to 8 semesters (SEMESTERS, not YEARS) of honors and AP classes taken in 10th and 11th grades. And of course there are exceptions within the exception: UCLA and Berkeley do not limit the number of semesters of honors and AP courses. We call these the “capped weighted” (all of UC system except for UCLA and Berkeley, plus all of Cal State system) and “uncapped weighted” (UCLA and Berkeley) GPAs, and when we work with students interested in UC and Cal State schools, we also recalculate these two GPAs based on those formulas. (Yet another exception: for out-of-state students, the UC and Cal State systems only allow extra weight for AP courses, NOT honors courses.)
It seems strange that a high school GPA could be a controversial subject! This recent article in the publication Inside Higher Education chronicled one high school counselor’s research on how selective and highly selective colleges (those with admission rates below 50% and below 30% respectively) deal with how high schools report student GPAs. Her result agreed with ours: colleges are interested in students’ unweighted, academic, 9th grade through 11th grade GPA for college admissions purposes.