As you monitor your child’s academic progress, you know that the future applicant’s grades must be high, preferably a 4.0, a GPA that grows more elusive as classes get more difficult, and the students’ commitments and social opportunities increase. You might also know that it is not just the GPA that matters, but also the difficulty of the classes in a student’s schedule. These expectations can result in some agonizing decisions: should my child take an AP class, even at the risk of an imperfect grade? Is it better to get an A in AP Psych or a B in AP Calculus BC? Should my son take the more rigorous IB track if he might fall short in a class or two? Should my daughter throw her efforts into building that composting system at school she’s excited about, if her grades might be affected?
In addition to these grade-based dilemmas, there are questions: do colleges look at my weighted or unweighted GPA? How is a weighted GPA calculated? Are all colleges holistic, taking other aspects of the student into consideration, or do some judge a student strictly by the GPA?
Grades matter a lot, but…
There is an element of holistic grading at most schools. Grades are an important factor, but not the only factor admissions offices look at when they use a holistic approach - your activities, service to others, learning and projects initiated by the applicant outside of school, honors and rewards, letters of recommendation, and other factors (like writing a great essay), are all considered in creating a picture of the applicant. Colleges don’t believe that an incoming class composed exclusively of grinds who have devoted their lives to perfect GPAs will necessarily result in the kind of creative, socially adjusted, entrepreneurial, and civic-minded students the college wants.
College admissions officers are looking for students who will be able to handle college-level work, so they look favorably upon students who take IB and AP courses that are designed to be college-level. More importantly, they are looking for students who love to learn; students who love to learn look for courses that teach more material, and more complex material. So, it’s important to take those advanced, accelerated, honors, AP and IB courses. What about the issue that a student might put a dent in the GPA by taking on these challenges? That’s where weighted and unweighted GPAs come in.
Weighted and Unweighted
In order to more accurately reflect student achievement, so that the student who struggled mightily to get a B in AP Physics is not on an equal footing with the student who breezed through a regular class and received an A, many high schools have devised a weighted GPA, which gives more demanding courses more weight. Different school systems devise different calculations, but here’s an example which explains how this works:
Say a weighted system calculates the grades in advanced classes on a 1 - 5 scale, while it calculates regular classes on a 1 - 4 scale.
Two weighted GPAs
US History A 4
Algebra 2 A 4
Physiology A 4
Am Lit A 4
AP USH A 5
AP Calculus B 4
AP Econ B 4
AP English A 5
Despite getting a mix of As and Bs, Ramon ends up with a higher Weighted GPA than Andrea. Do colleges look at weighted GPAs? They really don’t have to, as they can quickly assess an applicant’s transcript and figure out that Ramon is a more desirable candidate than Andrea (unless, say, Andrea had to keep her schedule light because she is a champion-level cage fighter). That said, if it is a state school with a massive number of applicants, they will have some kind of cut-off or formula. Georgia Tech won’t consider anyone with less than a 3.3 GPA, for example. Above the cutoff, more holistic factors help to determine who gets accepted.
UC SYSTEM GPA Calculation
The UC system offers extra points for honors and other advanced courses, and it only considers grades from tenth grade through the summer after 11th grade, so if a student bombed 9th grade, the UC system is one they should consider.
Holistic Evaluation Encourages Risk-taking
Ultimately, competitive colleges want to create a class with a wide variety of backgrounds, skills, experiences, and interests. If your GPA suffered because you were so deeply involved in getting a congressman elected or teaching a computer to give relationship advice, an admissions officer might like that - to a point. No matter what other avenues you explore, you want to end up with a weighted grade point average no lower than 3.5.