SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, GPA— high school and college studies are filled with acronyms and it’s enough to make anyone’s mind spin. GPA stands for grade point average and it’s yet another metric you’ll need to keep track of in high school, college, and beyond. Students often get confused on all things GPA – how to calculate and improve GPA; different types of GPA, weighted vs. non-weighted, cumulative vs. semester GPA etc., and there aren’t any good resource available online that can help students with all their questions. We’ve stepped in to help you out with a GPA guide.
Who is this guide for?
Any high school or college student with a grade letter or 4-point scale based grade reporting system. Some educational systems place more weight and significance on the GPA calculations than others, but it is an important piece of academic criteria in American schools in particular.
What is GPA?
Why GPA is so important?
How is GPA calculated?
What is a good college GPA?
Does GPA really matter?
How much can GPA help or hurt you?
Can GPA be improved?
What is GPA?
I keep hearing about GPA and how some students have a GPA of 3 or 4, etc. What do these numbers mean and how should I calculate my GPA?
Grade Point Average (GPA) is a summary statistic that represents a student’s average performance in their studies over a stated period of time, such as one semester, an academic year, or an entire academic performance at an institution. Being numerical, GPAs are often calculated to two decimals. They are used as indicators of whether levels of student performance meet some fixed criterion, and for sorting groups of students into rank order.
While GPA scores are universally understood, grading scales differ considerably across institutions and countries. Conversion tables are usually available for comparing grades and GPAs within countries and internationally.
When an entire study program is organized as a collection of “units”, each period of time gives rise to its own GPA. The most common study period for a course is one semester, usually 12-15 weeks of class. If a full-time student enrolls in four courses in a particular semester, the GPA is calculated as the average performance over those four courses.
Why is GPA so important?
Colleges use this number to measure your overall performance in school and compare you to other students.
Your GPA is important for your future because:
- Even before college, your GPA can determine whether or not you’re eligible to take Advanced Placement (AP)or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses during your junior and senior years of high school.
- For admission, the higher your GPA, the better your chances are of getting into the college of your choice.
- Your GPA is a major consideration for both academic and athletic college scholarships, as well as financial aid.
- Maintaining a high GPA can qualify students for academic excellence awards, the Dean’s list, and admission to student organizations dedicated to academic performance.
- Falling below a certain GPA score may put you at risk for academic probation, expulsion, or inability to graduate.
- Your GPA upon college graduation will, again, become a point of reference for post-graduate academic programs like law school, medical school, Master’s programs, etc.
GPA is one of the major things that schools, undergraduate and post-graduate, look at when reviewing applications for admission. According to a National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC) 2011 Survey, grades in college prep courses were the most important factor weighing in to the admissions decision. Grades in all courses ranked as the fourth most important factor, behind strength of curriculum and ACT/SAT scores.
The more selective the school, the more the GPA will matter and the higher it will need to be. The general consensus for highly selective schools seems to be that a GPA of 3.5 or above is considered acceptable. A student with a GPA below 3.5 will have a harder time convincing a very selective school that he or she should be admitted.
How is a cumulative GPA calculated?
A cumulative GPA is the grade point average of a group of classes. The classes could be grouped by semester, academic year, complete academic history at an institution, major or department, etc. Perhaps your major requires that you maintain a certain GPA in their classes to be a part of their program, or maybe your curious how last semesters GPA affected your overall academic GPA. Either way, the first step is to identify the courses that make up the cumulative GPA you’re hoping to analyze and list the corresponding final grades. Next, we’ll simply convert them from a letter grade to a 4.0 scale, do some simple arithmetic, and *poof* cumulative GPA! Pull out your grades and follow along with the simple steps below.
- Convert the grades from all your classes to points using the following scale:
The points for each class are multiplied by the number of credits or hours for that class, added together, and divided by the total number of credits or hours.
Simple, right? If you are nerd or think C programming is cooler than J Cole, then here’s your complete guide on how to calculate GPA.
Find out how your high school calculates your GPA.
High schools can calculate GPAs based on your letter grades in different ways.
Following a standard 4.0 scale for example,
A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, F=0.
However, some high schools count pluses and minuses differently. For example,
B+=3.3, B=3.0, B-=2.7.
Each class grade is multiplied by the credit for each class and added together to determine an unweighted GPA.
Alternatively, some schools will calculate weighted GPAs, which give more importance to honors, accelerated, AP and IB classes. In this scenario, a 5.0 would be a perfect score instead of a 4.0. For example,
AP biology A=5,B=4,C=3,D=2,F=0
Understand how colleges may recalculate your GPA.
Many colleges want to evaluate your GPA using their own methods. Often, they’ll disregard “easy A’s” you earned in gym or art class and focus on the fundamentals of your education, calculating your GPA from the grades you earned in core curriculum classes like science, English, social studies and math. It can also be taken into account the level of your classes, if your high school designates on. For example, some high schools have basic, intermediate, and advanced levels of all classes (not including AP or honors classes), and this can play a factor in how colleges weight those grades on your transcript. So even if you’re acing several classes, it’s most important to do well in the core academic classes. Some colleges also look at both your unweighted and weighted GPA’s, which means you can’t rely on your AP, IB and honors courses to raise your GPA.
What is a good college GPA?
Believe it or not, this depends largely on your plans after college. According to Pat Criscito in “How to Write Better Resumes and Cover Letters,” employers consider a good GPA to be over a 3.5. A GPA between 3.0 and 3.5 will neither impress an employer nor create an unfavorable impression. Job applicants should omit college GPAs lower than a 3.0 from their resumes.
Students interested in attending law or medical school should investigate the average GPA of students admitted to their prospective schools. The Internet Legal Research Group reports that the average GPA of students admitted to the top fifty law schools in the United States in 2009 ranged from 3.31 to 3.77. Pre-med students should be aware that the average GPA of students admitted to medical school is higher; according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), students accepted to medical school have GPAs ranging from 3.46 to 3.91.
Students intending to apply to graduate school have more flexibility. What is considered a good GPA varies from school to school and field to field. Check the graduate school’s minimum requirements for GPA for admission; programs within that graduate school might have further requirements. In general, students with a GPA lower than a 3.0 may find it difficult to be accepted to a master’s or doctoral program.
- Having a high GPA but a transcript filled with easy or lower-level classes may be less impressive to graduate, medical, and law schools than a slightly lower GPA but a history of tackling difficult coursework.
- Do not be discouraged if you have a rough freshman year in terms of grades. You can highlight your improvement either on your application or in an interview.
- Pay attention to your major GPA as well as your cumulative GPA. Many graduate and medical programs will look at both in considering your application.
How much can GPA help or hurt you?
Judged alongside your SAT/ACT scores, letters of recommendation, personal statement, and extracurricular activities, your high school GPA is by far one of the most important factors that is considered in the college admissions process. While they are generally judged together, as a collective portrayal of your performance as a student, having a high GPA (in the 3.5 to 4.0 or A range) can really help you, but it also depends on the circumstances.
Your high GPA will be a big asset if:
1. You earned it in high level classes or classes that were increasingly more difficult
Above all, colleges want to see that you are willing to challenge yourself intellectually. They want to know you’re ready to study in the “big leagues” and that, if accepted to their university, the rigorous college curriculum won’t make you bat an eye. If you managed to earn a high GPA while taking difficult courses, this will show them that you’re both intelligent and driven. Even if you took easier classes at the beginning of high school and then went on to take more challenging ones later, this demonstrates that you are engaged in your learning and are willing to push yourself. Showing your dedication to learning and advancing is just as important as showing your evolution as a student.
2. Your standardized test scores are good, but not amazing
If you aren’t a great test taker and didn’t end up getting awesome scores on the SAT or ACT, your GPA will help you to rise above the crowd despite this. Again, your GPA and test scores are considered as part of a collective portrayal of your academic success, but if your test scores are drawing negative attention to your application, fret not—your GPA is here to save you. More and more, schools are starting to see GPA is a more reliable metric than standardized tests for judging academic potential. A high GPA shows determination over time and in the classroom and is the most reliable indicator of a student’s ability to follow through and actually graduate college—much more so than a test score that reflects how well you penciled in bubbles on a test form for 2 hours on a Saturday morning during your junior year.
3. Your GPA stands out from other students in your class
If very few other students at your school achieved a GPA similar to yours, this indicates that you were willing to go above and beyond to get high grades in difficult classes. You don’t have to be the valedictorian or graduate first in your class, although that definitely wouldn’t hurt, but a GPA that places you amongst an elite group of serious academic performers in an otherwise average-performing student body is exactly the kind of attention you want to bring to your college application.
Your high GPA may not matter much if:
1. You earned it in less demanding classes
You may have a 4.0, but if you took the easiest classes available to get there, colleges won’t look as favorably upon your application. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense – colleges are looking for students who are willing to apply themselves and make full use of the resources they are given. If you took all the basic level courses and performed well with an A average, good for you, but Suzy Q took all the advanced level courses, stumbled a bit, but managed a B+ average and that looks even better. If you don’t demonstrate intellectual engagement in high school and instead just go for the easy A, it doesn’t make a good impression.
2. Your standardized test scores are abnormally low
Even if you earn a very high GPA, if your standardized test scores are average or below average, you might have problems. These days, standardized tests are seen a little bit more for what they are—a tool to measure the standard student, which you may or not be. Still, these tests are one of the most important factors colleges consider besides GPA, so you shouldn’t take them lightly. When it comes to test-taking, the information on the test is only half the battle. Invest plenty of time and energy into studying the material, but also in how to take tests—you wouldn’t believe how many brilliant minds have scored terribly on tests simply because they lack the test-taking skill, rather than the information on the exam. Whether it’s the science of multiple choice questions, eliminating possibilities, the art of BS, or literally studying raw academic material, if you make a point of studying for these tests, you should be able to boost your scores even if you don’t consider yourself a natural test-taker.
3. Many other students are at the same level
If your GPA doesn’t stand out from the pack, this points to grade inflation (high grades for work that might not fully deserve them). This is a problem at many schools, and is really frustrating for students who are high-achieving but can’t stand out because of low standards. This might not be as much as a problem as the other factors because admissions officers will know whether or not your school has this issue and will take it into account when looking at your record. It just means an increased emphasis on standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and anything else that individualizes you as a successful student, so you should work on preparing strong discretionary pieces of your application, like personal statement and letters of recommendation, if you know grade inflation is a concern at your school.
“YOU get a 4.0 GPA! And YOU get a 4.0 GPA! You all get 4.0 GPAs!!!!”
Now let’s look at the other side of things. With a low GPA (anywhere below the national average of a 3.0), you might think you’re out of luck, but that’s not necessarily true. Though it may be difficult to get into very selective universities, schools will consider other factors as well—again, remember your application is like a puzzle, and each metric is like a different piece.
Your low GPA might not be too much of a problem if:
1. It’s above a 2.0
As long as your GPA is higher than a 2.0, there will be some colleges where you have a good chance of acceptance. In this case, build a strong case for your extracurricular activities and your plans for success in college. If it’s below a 2.0 it will be nearly impossible to get into most schools.
2. You did well on standardized tests
As I mentioned earlier, standardized tests are the most important thing colleges will consider apart from your GPA. If you do extremely well, they will be more likely to give you a chance, despite your low GPA. Studying for standardized tests and improving your scores is much easier than improving your GPA, so if your GPA isn’t where you want it to be, try to focus on score improvement to get the most bang for your buck in the college admissions process. While it’s not advisable to take the SATs 15 times until you get a perfect score, bombing it on the first try isn’t a dead-end either. Consider taking the SATs or ACTs 2-3 times, if necessary, as your highest score is the one you will send out to universities for consideration.
3. You challenged yourself with difficult coursework
If your GPA is on the lower side, but you earned it in difficult classes or challenged yourself more and more over the course of high school, colleges will take this into account. Make sure to talk about this in your personal statement. Your GPA itself is less important than the road you took to get there.
4. You experienced challenging circumstances
Perhaps you have a learning or physical disability, missed a large period of time due to illness, lost a family member, started as a new student, or suffered any other considerable hardship. If you did and it negatively impacted your grades, a strong personal statement, proof, and supporting letters of recommendation can help explain a batch of low grades that dragged down your GPA and draw attention to your later success in the face of adversity.
Can GPA be improved?
It’s difficult, but doable. Sure, it’s hard to improve your GPA because it’s the average of all your grades over the course of college or high school. The more grades you add in to the mix, the less each of them is worth—don’t think that all As in your last semester will save the day if you got mostly Bs and Cs during the first 3 years. If you end up with a C average your freshman year of high school, for example, you could technically bring it up to a B+ average by the end of your junior year if you earned A averages during your sophomore and junior years. If you have a C average for both your freshman and sophomore years, the best you’ll be able to do is a B- because the Cs from the first two years of high school will bring down your average so much. That’s not to mention that going from a C average to an A average in all classes is not something that most people can manage since it requires such a drastic change in study habits and motivation. At the end of the day, it’s all about math and motivation.
However, there are ways you can improve your GPA by:
1. Asking for extra help
This is always a good idea if you feel yourself slipping in a class. As soon as you start to struggle, ask for clarification so you don’t end up getting totally lost and don’t feel shy about doing it. It’s your instructors job to teach the material and a part of teaching means making sure all the students understand. You may just need things explained a different way, and you may not be alone!
2. Don’t wait to fall to ask for a hand
Many students can be categorized into two types: those who excel in math and sciences, and those who excel in writing and languages. If you’re a writing and languages kind of student gearing up for a semester of chemistry, don’t wait until the first lab report comes back with a low grade on it to look for help. Upon starting a course in an area that you generally struggle in, have a frank conversation with the instructor expressing your concerns and asking for suggestions in ways to stay on top. Perhaps they can pass along additional readings, exercises, tutor suggestions or study groups that can help you stay afloat before you start to sink. Not to mention, they’ll appreciate your honesty and enthusiasm in trying to do well in their class.
3. Reassessing your study habits
Your problem could also be that you procrastinate too much or don’t actually study the material enough to prepare for tests. These bad habits are difficult to change, but it’s really important to step back and fix fundamental problems like this that are holding you back before they get out of hand. If you’re not sure what your problem is or how to go about cracking it, make use of your advisor or guidance counselor—they’re there for more than just schedule planning! Advisors and counselors are trained professionals who want to see you do well and are an often forgotten about resource in academic success. Shoot out an email or give their office door a knock and see what kind of suggestions they may have up their sleeve to help you get your act together.
4. Challenging yourself more
This may seem paradoxical – I would only advocate this if you’re getting a very good GPA in low level classes. Your GPA will look better to colleges if you work harder for it, so you should be proactive about pursuing more challenging coursework. Even if your grades end up slightly lower, moving up a level shows that you were willing to push yourself outside your comfort zone for a more productive learning experience. On the flip side of this, if you’re in a situation where a class is extremely difficult for you and your grades may be unsalvageable, you should consider dropping it so that you don’t end up with a failing grade on your transcript.
If it’s already your junior year and you don’t have much time left to make improvements, you should focus more on standardized testing. With a few months of dedicated studying, you can significantly raise your scores and increase your chances of college admission.
Pro Tip: The main thing for GPA is to start out strong and finish up stronger; with the way averages work, it’s hard to make significant changes later on.
Earning a good GPA is like running a cross country race. It’s pretty painful and you have to maintain a strong pace throughout, but in the end it’s worth it because of the sense of accomplishment.
GPA: Final Verdict
- A regular unweighted GPA is measured on a scale of 0 to 4.0. Your GPA may be weighted, which means it goes up higher (usually up to a 5.0 but some schools have an even bigger scale). This can complicate things when it comes to being compared to other students, but in the long run, it’s still an accurate measurement of your academic work.
- Weighted GPAs take course difficulty into account apart from grades, so that students in high level classes earn GPAs that reflect the difficulty of the courses they take. This means a student earning in A in a basic level class will have a lower GPA than a student earning an A in an upper level class.
- College admissions officers will use your GPA to judge whether you are prepared for college coursework and are truly engaged in learning and prepared for the heavy course load that comes along with university studies.
- Your GPA can help you a lot in college admissions if it’s in the A range, or above a 3.5, but that often depends on thedifficulty of your coursework, your class rank, and the quality of your standardized test scores.
- If your GPA is especially low (2.5 or lower), focus on improving your standardized test scores and make an effort to bring up your grades by asking for help and fixing any bad habits you’ve fallen into. Your GPA is one of the most crucial aspects of your college application, so if you feel like things aren’t going well in your classes, speak up! Also discuss the situation with your guidance counselor or advisor. They may be able to help you adjust your course load to something more manageable or realistic, or even find out if you’re able to repeat a course to improve the grade.
- Start improving your GPA now. You can’t wait until your junior or senior year to start worrying about your cumulative GPA. Every single class you take during the four years spent in high school gets averaged in, so your freshman and sophomore year grades are just as important. If you bomb every class in the first year or two, it’ll be impossible to graduate with an above average GPA. That being said, low grades in your first year or two will not necessarily exclude you from an elite university. If you’re able to pull yourself up from your boot straps and perform extraordinarily from there on out, your application will read as a success story rather than a failure, although it is something that should be explained in your personal statement.
- Work hard in your freshman and sophomore years to increase your chance of admission into AP, IB, honors and accelerated courses—they’re your golden ticket to a higher GPA since they’re often given more weight on the GPA scale. In fact, the GPA on your college application may only reflect the first 3 or 3 ½ years of high school anyway, since you’ll need to apply before your first semester grades of senior year are calculated. Moreover, some universities will accept these advanced courses as college credit, demonstrating that not only are you prepared for college-level studies, but have already been taking and succeeding in higher level learning.
The most important thing to remember about GPAs are that they are not some magical, mathematical equation drawn out of thin air. Your GPA is merely a simplified numerical reflection of the success you have (or haven’t) had during a given period of time. If you study hard, commit yourself, and take education seriously, your GPA will reflect that and you won’t have much to worry about.
Good luck, and may the grades be ever in your favor.