Illustrated by Sidney Loftman
A student’s Grade Point Average (GPA) is the average of their grades in high school. We typically expect colleges to look at the same GPA we do. Unfortunately, the number you send could be very different from the number that some colleges actually review.
Most colleges use one of four general ways to interpret your GPA: flat grade system GPA, four point grading system, converting GPA into a “factor,” and excluding certain classes/grades from your cumulative GPA.
Flat Grade System
The first group of colleges will see the same GPA as what is on your transcript. They follow the same flat-grading system as M-A. This means that, in GPA calculation, an A- is equivalent to an A, and a B+ is equivalent to a B. California Polytechnic University and Cornell University are some colleges that use this scale when sifting through applicants’ GPA scores. To demonstrate the differences between these calculation systems, I will use the sample M-A transcript below, which already has the flat grade system, to apply the recalculation methods.
Four Point Grade System
The second group of colleges adjust your GPA to a four point grading scale. The four point scale assigns different points for an A-, A, and B+, so that a B+ (like an 89%) is not the same as a B (like an 81%). This is not particularly different from M-A’s GPA calculation. In fact, other high schools in the Bay Area, such as Lowell High School, use this system. Popular higher-education institutions such as Arizona State University and New York University use this method as well, and they recalculate GPA for students from schools that don’t use it. If we were to apply the four point system to our transcript, the cumulative GPA would be 3.78 (a slight decrease from 3.80) and the unweighted cumulative GPA would be 4.11 (a slight decrease from 4.20). The difference would be much more significant for students who have lots of minuses in their grades, and benefit students who have grades with lots of pluses.
GPA as a “factor”
The third group of colleges does not recalculate students’ GPA. However, they have their own system of rankings. Intellectual vitality, extracurriculars, academic scores, and all other factors have their own scale. GPA is part of the academic scores (i.e. 1-10), with the scale depending on the college. Undergraduate Admissions Coordinator for Sacramento State University Caroline Peretti said, “We assign a certain number for each factor—ours is 1-10, and look at the overall number—ours is out of 50—for each student.” The University of California schools all follow this general system to rank applicants.
The fourth group only contains a few colleges. These schools have a very specific set of guidelines when they recalculate GPA, which varies from institution to institution. Although many elite schools such as Duke University, Princeton University, and Harvard University allegedly have their own specific ways of recalculating GPA, they do not make their system public. Admissions representatives declined to comment and often gave links to generic admissions info pages instead. However, Stanford’s GPA recalculation process is more accessible. Director of Admissions Mike Devlin said, “Stanford views 9th grade as a transition year and we start considering grades in 10th.” This emphasizes sophomore and junior year grades, which alone can impact a student’s GPA. Devlin said, “All academic core courses are considered.” This excludes some elective courses. Although this is advantageous for students who do not excel in courses such as guitar or choir, it can cause a steep drop in a student’s GPA if they have a lower grade in an academic course. However, it’s important to remember that this is only the recalculation process for one institution, and many keep their weighting formulas private. For the aforementioned transcript, this method would mean the cumulative GPA would go down to 3.70 (which is a decrease from 3.80) and the unweighted GPA would be 4.03 (a significant difference from 4.20).
Not all colleges fall into these four categories. Peter Osgood, the Harvey Mudd College Director of Admission, said, “Our college uses whatever the school indicates as the GPA.” This makes sense for the process of admissions—with a 10% acceptance rate, Harvey Mudd College has many applications to review. However, it means that GPA from high schools with different processes for calculating GPA, such as ones who have flat grade and four point systems are viewed the same, despite the discrepancies. Additionally, many international applicants have dissimilar grading systems to those in the U.S. Therefore, colleges may convert their grades, which can inflate or deflate their grades, and in turn affect the accuracy of transcript comparisons.
Many decide what colleges to apply to as target schools and base their decisions off of their grades and GPA. It’s important to be aware of how this GPA is perceived and used by colleges and universities, and how that may vary from school to school.