Pieces of your college application: Unpacking GPA and what it really means

GPA. Grade Point Average. It is the number on your transcript. The culmination of your grades and semester by semester. I bet if you’re a student, that number feels a bit heavier to you. Like it means your fate in admissions. Or that a college will put you in a different pile when reviewing your application depending on what that number is.

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I am going to unpack that number. How it’s looked at in an application. And what really matters.

There are different types of GPAs. Weighted and unweighted. Academic and overall. Depending on your school your GPA may be calculated differently.

On a 4.0 grading scale an A is worth 4 points, B worth 3, C worth 2, D worth 1 and F worth 0. On an unweighted scale if you received all As, you would have a 4.0 GPA.

On a weighted GPA scale, if you take an honors or AP class, you’ll get an extra point. For example, an A is now worth 5. That is how you see GPAs beyond a 4.0.

How does a college calculate your GPA? It actually depends on which college. Some colleges will recalculate your GPA and take all of your academic classes (excluding courses like Physical Education or non academic classes like a work experience) and take that new GPA. Some colleges may unweight your GPA.

So what actually matters?

Your GPA is one number. It doesn’t really tell me or an admissions officer anything unless we look into your transcript. Which, guess what, they will! An admissions officer is not just looking at the number. They will peel back the curtain and look at your grade trends overall throughout high school and the number of advanced/honors coursework you took that was available to you and how you did.

You may have a high weighted GPA because you took on challenging classes. But if you consistently did OKAY in those classes, it won’t look as impressive.

You may have had a challenging semester academically because of a family situation, or a situation out of your control that has affected your grades (ahem, learning at home, COVID-19, needing to hep take care of your family, etc.)

It is important to remind yourself that your GPA does not define you. What will define you are the classes you choose to take and what grades you earn in them.

This is where you want to get crafty. Take the sweet spot, the right amount of challenging classes in areas of your interest and strength while also being able to do fairly well in them.

We don’t rank students at our high school. We do not have a number 1 in the class for the highest GPA. And that doesn’t affect our students in admissions. Why? Because the GPA doesn’t tell the whole story and it can also breed unnecessary competition. Plus the colleges will be able to see how well you’ve done within the context of your high school curriculum compared to your peers and those who have applied in the past, by looking at your transcript and other factors.

Take a look at your transcript as a whole.

Ask yourself, how well you managed your course load last semester. Should you add more honors/advanced coursework? Do you need to pull back in an area to allow more opportunity to succeed?

If there is a dip in your grades due to a personal circumstance, it is incredibly important that you share that story and provide context to your grades in your application. This may be in a supplemental essay, or an additional comments section.

Admission officers will also not hold it against you if your school doesn’t offer a ton of advanced classes. But this is also where you can get creative if you are wanting to showcase academic strengths beyond what is offered to you. Take a community college class, ask for extra assignments or a larger research project from a teacher, take a class online, etc.

Remember, GPA is just a number. Your application will be read thoroughly. So think about your day to day, semester by semester work and how you are showcasing strengths and setting up a schedule that works for you.

Because ultimately, you’ll get into college, you’ll graduate, grab that job you want and it will be rare if someone walks by you and asks…What was your GPA?

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