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What Your GPA Says About You

From the Ivy League to the nation’s top public universities to small liberal arts colleges in far-flung corners of the country, the story you’ll hear from admissions officers is the same: your grades are the most important part of the process.

But not every high school is created equally. Some schools have AP classes while others stay away from them on principle. Some high schools grade on a 100-point scale, others a 4-point scale, and still others use narratives instead of numbers to assess students. The variations in grading policies, course offerings, and opportunities are almost endless.

So how do admissions officers make sense of your grades and make an informed decision about your application? Read on to learn more about how experts interpret your GPA.

The School Profile

Your high school college counselor will send a document called the school profile along with his or her letter of recommendation to each college to which you apply. This document acts like a roadmap to understanding the particularities of your school.

The school profile will shed light on all of the following:

  • how your school calculates GPA, including any weighting given to advanced classes
  • how many, if any, AP classes are offered
  • the progression of courses within each subject
  • any school-specific scheduling or class obligations (for example, having to take theology courses at a religious school or having a hard cap on the number of APs a student can sign up for)
  • which colleges and universities students have been accepted to recently
  • the percentage of students who attend two and four-year colleges from that high school

Even an admissions officer who hasn’t visited your high school will be able to put your GPA in proper context. You don’t have to worry about whether or not they’ll understand what was available to you. Focus on taking full advantage of those resources instead and trust that your efforts will be appreciated.

Weighted vs. Unweighted GPA

Academically competitive students will no doubt pay attention to how their GPA ranks among their peers. But often lost in this agenda is the story behind the numbers. The way you arrive at your GPA is far more important than the actual number itself.

Admissions officers will scrutinize the letter grades you earned in your classes as well as the strength of your overall schedule in determining how to evaluate your GPA. In many schools, it’s possible for a student to have mostly Bs on her transcript but still have a weighted GPA over 4.0. She wouldn’t necessarily be viewed more favorably than another student who is more judicious in selecting AP courses but earning higher overall letter grades, even if this second student’s weighted GPA were lower.

It may surprise students to learn that most colleges will recalculate your GPA based on their own priorities. Some will only consider how you’ve done in core subjects—math, science, foreign language, English, and history. The University of California system will only allow count eight of your honors or AP courses in determining your UC GPA.

Remember, strength of schedule is as important (if not more so) as your actual GPA. Did you challenge yourself appropriately? Did you stretch yourself in areas of interest? How did you perform relative to your peers?

A quick note to rising seniors: Your fall semester or trimester still counts! Continue to build on the strong habits you’ve cultivated and push hard toward the finish line. How you start this year off could be the difference between getting deferred or waitlisted versus accepted.

Trends in the Numbers

Equally important to an admissions officer are the trends in your grades. Perhaps your overall GPA isn’t as high as you would like it, but there’s clear evidence that you’ve made significant improvements each year in high school. Or perhaps there was a life circumstance that caused you to have a rocky semester but you’ve since recovered and regained form.

Not every 3.5 tells the same story. In evaluating your transcript, the admissions officer will want to see that you are peaking at the right time. The closer you are to attending college, the stronger your academic performance should be.

A quick note to straight A students: keep it up! But make sure that you’re adding as much rigor to your schedule as you can handle even as you maintain your excellent grades.

More than an Average

Avoid the trap of attaching your self-worth to a grade point average. You are more than your statistics!

Know that your GPA tells a major part of your academic story, but it doesn’t define your potential. It also doesn’t explain all the other elements of your life that factor into who you are as a high school student.

Having family responsibilities or a job, playing a sport or performing at a high level, facing unusual obstacles to learn, or any number of personal situations may all be reflected in your GPA. Successful applicants use the entirety of the college application—essays, interviews, rec letters, and so on—to make sure their whole story gets told.

The expert admissions consultants at Wise World Prep have helped hundreds of students maximize their potential of being admitted to their top choice colleges and universities. Over 20 years, we have successfully guided students through each stage of the application process – from choosing competitive high school courses to building an appropriate college list to drafting winning essays to writing persuasive update and appeals letters. We would be happy to answer your questions and partner with you to create a successful admissions roadmap.

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