The Importance of the GPA in College Admissions

Everything teens do academically in high school affects their GPA (grade point average).

Colleges admittedly pay attention to a student's GPA when considering an admissions offer; however to what extent is often the question — and often different per school.

It is safe to say that if a student starts out strong academically and stays consistent through all four years of high school, his or her GPA could mean offers of admission from multiple colleges.

But how do colleges truly view the GPA? How much weight does it actually carry in the overall decision to offer admission?

Weighted vs. Unweighted GPAs

There are two ways to calculate a GPA. The traditional way to calculate a GPA is to give 4.0 points for an A, 3.0 points for a B, 2.0 points for a C, and 1.0 point for a D. Because this system doesn’t allow for distinctions between grades, schools soon developed GPAs for + and – grades. An A- became a 3.67, a B+ a 3.30, a B- a 2.67, and so on. This is considered an unweighted GPA. Under this system, if you receive all A's, you’ll have a 4.0 GPA.

With the introduction of the AP system, some high schools wanted to reward students taking these more challenging classes. So, high schools started to give higher points for AP classes. Commonly, an A in an AP class would now be worth 5.0 points rather than the traditional 4.0. Some high schools also started to use the same scale for honors classes. These are weighted GPAs. The weighting refers to the additional points, or weight, given for AP and honors courses.

This often poses a problem in the admissions process. For example, when a college gets a weighted GPA from a student at a particular high school, they then must compare it to the weighted or unweighted GPA from a different student at another high school. And with no uniformity in how the weighting is done, it is sometimes hard to tell if an applicant is a great student or a simply average student.

To solve this problem, many colleges have devised a method to standardize all of the GPAs they receive from students of different high schools. According to NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling), about two-thirds of high schools weight their GPAs for students who take college preparatory courses. To account for different grading scales among high schools, more than half of colleges recalculate applicants’ GPAs to standardize them.

What Value Do Colleges Place on GPAs?

Parents and high school students are fascinated by the grade point average. They brag about them to other parents — the higher the better, affording more bragging rights. But the truth is that a number of colleges and universities are looking at more than the GPA.

USA Today recently interviewed some college admissions officers about GPAs and gathered some interesting responses. "It's meaningless," says Greg Roberts, admissions dean at the University of Virginia. The GPA is so unimportant to Swarthmore College that they don't bother calculating it for guidebook publishers.

Research consistently shows that a student's high school grades are the best predictor of their likelihood of success in college. Annual surveys by NACAC show that most admissions officials put a high priority on grades — particularly grades in college-prep courses. The GPA ranked fourth among important factors considered for admission.

You should rest assured that a student's GPA does not paint the entire picture of an applicant. College admission officers are looking for students who will make a positive impact on their campus, both inside and outside of the classroom.

The Bottom Line

The GPA is still a very useful piece of information used to measure success in the classroom but it is certainly not the only piece of information admission officers will look at while considering a student for admission.

Schools want to see students who have both challenged themselves in the classroom by taking a college prep curriculum, and made significant impacts in their communities through service opportunities, athletics, or leadership positions. Check out TeenLife for more specific extracurricular involvement ideas.