How do schools calculate GPA? How can I get a top GPA for college?

Calculating GPA seems like an easy question, but the answer is more complicated. How does your high school calculate GPA? How will colleges calculate your high school GPA? (Yes, most colleges look at your transcript and make their own determination.) And how important is GPA anyway?

What Is GPA and Why Does It Matter?

GPA stands for grade point average and is a single number summary of a student’s grades. GPA simplifies all the grades on a student’s transcript and allows for comparison.

One common use for high school GPA is to calculate class rank (compare all the students in your school for a particular graduating class.) The valedictorian is the student with the highest GPA. Next we can look at the top 5%, 10%, 25%, etc. GPA allows for a quick and easy comparison.

How is GPA Calculated?

For a more complete discussion, please read this article I wrote in 2020: Most Colleges Recalculate GPA: What You Need to Know

The problem is there is not one single way to calculate GPA. Some schools calculate on a 100-point scale; others use a 4.0 scale. Some weight advanced courses; others don’t. Some schools count B+ and B- the same as a B; others add more points for a “plus” and fewer for a “minus.”

The best way to find out how your school calculates GPA is to consult your school handbook or course catalog. These documents explain all the details and if you have any questions, you can consult your school counselor.

How Do Colleges Use GPA?

Colleges are looking for ways to compare students from different high schools. GPA is one way to make a comparison, but it is not the only thing admissions offices will use. GPAs from different schools may not compare well. (If you haven’t already, go read the article I liked to earlier for examples and a discussion of how colleges often recalculate GPA. [Here])

You may find colleges using GPA for scholarships or admission to more selective programs. Often the numerical GPA is a guideline and final decisions will look at multiple factors including the applicant’s full transcript, test scores, application essays, resume, etc.

Other Issues

Typically, when someone asks me about calculating GPA, they are really asking something else. I’ll try to outline and answer some of these issues below.

I’ll start with a guiding principal that might answer most questions: do not make decisions based on how it affects your GPA. Select classes that are right for you. Work hard and put effort into making good grades. There is more to life (and college admission) than GPA.

We are considering dropping AP history for regular, but AP classes have a weighted GPA. What should we do?

Why are you thinking of changing? If it is because you are drowning in AP history and quality of life at your house has declined, dropping might be the solution. If you want to drop because you just don’t feel like doing the work or because your friends are in another class, I’d tell you to stay.

“But he has a B in AP history and he could have a high A in the regular class.”

True. But colleges don’t just look at numerical GPA. They take time to examine transcripts which show grades with the classes in which they were earned.

Additionally, you need to consider which class will appropriately prepare your son to succeed in college. If he can do the work in AP history, he might develop better reading, analysis, writing, thinking, time management, and other skills that he wouldn’t develop in the class that was so easy he could breeze through it. Getting a high GPA to get into college won’t help if he doesn’t have the skills to get himself through college.

We’ve heard that students admitted to top colleges have lots of honors / AP classes on their transcript, so we are going to register for all advanced classes. Is this a good plan? Won’t this help with a top GPA?

It depends. Some students can manage a full load of advanced classes, make good grades, and still have time for extracurriculars and family. Others can’t. Take advanced courses when they are the appropriate fit, but keep in mind there are many other factors to consider.

Advanced classes won’t help when students:

  • Are overloaded and can’t keep up with all the work
  • Begin to experience lasting anxiety, stress, or depression (this is more than stress over one exam)
  • Earn lower grades because they are stretched too thin

Don’t let the promise of a weighted GPA lure you into an unrealistic class schedule.

Won’t these dual credit and AP classes help my son’s GPA and class rank?

They can— if he makes good grades.

Weighted classes don’t help your GPA; high grades in weighted classes do.  I’ve seen too many students register for advanced classes solely on the expectation that the classes would help their GPAs. Earning a C in an advanced class actually hurts your GPA if you would’ve made an A in the regular class.

Don’t make the mistake of confusing weighted GPA with actual grades. Yes, a weighted B might be calculated the same as an A, but it is not an A. Your transcript will show a B. Colleges see a B. Just because the GPA calculation is weighted, doesn’t make your B anything other than a B.

My daughter has a 4.0 GPA will she get into … (fill in any college.)

It depends.

Is that 4.0 weighted or unweighted? Does she have all A’s? Has she taken advanced classes when available and where appropriate? What else— How are her test scores? What about activities? What does her application say about her?

Then we need to consider the actual college. What is their admitted student profile? (Google this for schools on your list. It provides details about successful applicants.) How selective is admission to that school? Is this a school where GPA / class rank plays a significant role in admissions or will it just be one of many factors considered?

A 4.0 may not be enough to earn admission to some schools, especially if that 4.0 is really a 3.2 unweighted GPA or you are applying to highly selective colleges.

Conclusion

GPA can be complicated, but calculating your unweighted GPA on a 4-point scale is simple. My advice is to take the classes that are right for you and will help prepare you for success beyond high school. Do not make decisions based on GPA alone because most colleges are looking for more than your GPA / rank. Work hard and put effort into making good grades, but don’t risk your physical or mental health. Make sure you take time to explore personal interests. GPA is part of the process, but it is not the most important part.

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