How Much Do Grades Matter?

UCPG 22017-08-02T22:14:43+00:00

In the previous chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, we began the discussion on the importance of grades and how there’s more to your student’s transcript than their GPA. We mentioned that while some schools have a stated “minimum GPA requirement,” the reality is that admissions committees have been looking at transcripts for years and value more than just grades themselves.

In this chapter we’ll take a closer look at how good grades need to be. We’ll cover how exactly GPA is viewed, how that should relate to the rigor of your student’s course load, and what high school students should be doing to make their transcript stand out.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this chapter:

How “good” is your GPA?

Parents and students often wonder how their GPA matches up with the average and whether it’s “good enough” to earn them a spot in their top choice college. It may seem daunting: counting on GPA to stand out is nearly impossible without a 4.0, seeing as the average GPA of graduating high school seniors is a 3.0. But since the importance of things like class rank are declining, your student can focus on making their transcript stand out in other ways.

So how can your student’s transcript stand out? Before we can answer that question, we need to understand how colleges view GPA.

How do you calculate GPA?

There are many variations of how high schools calculate GPA. A number of different factors could be considered when schools decide on a system including:

  • Are plus or minus letter grades (A+/-, B+/-, etc.) given?
  • Are non-academic, such as physical education, courses included in the GPA calculation?
  • Are advanced courses given more weight?

Most of these systems can be boiled down to three main categories:

  • Grade Point Average (weighted or unweighted). This ranges from the unweighted standard 4.0 grade point system, to weighted systems which give more weight to Honors, IB and AP classes.
  • Percent Grade. This is usually out on a scale of zero to 100.
  • Letter Grade. This ranges from A to F and may or may not include plus or minus grades.

Often, colleges don’t prefer one system over another but will convert any GPA to an unweighted system to allow for better comparisons.

To give you an idea of how your student’s GPA looks on an unweighted scale, we’ve put together a conversion chart, adapted from College Board.

Unweighted GPA Letter Grade Percent Grade Weighted GPA (4.3 scale) Weighted GPA (5.0 scale) Weighted GPA (6.0 scale)
4 A+ 97-100 4.3 5 6
4 A 94-100 4 5 6
3.7 A- 90-93 3.7 4.7 5.7
3.3 B+ 87-89 3.3 4.3 5.3
3 B 84-46 3 4 5
2.7 B- 80-83 2.7 3.7 4.7
2.3 C+ 77-79 2.3 3.3 4.3
2 C 74-76 2 3 4
1.7 C- 70-73 1.7 2.7 3.7
1.3 D+ 67-69 1.3 2.3 3.3
1 D 64-66 1 2 3
0.7 D- 60-63 0.7 1.7 2.7
0 F 0-59 0 0 0

So if colleges are just going to convert your student’s GPA anyway, does this mean you shouldn’t even bother reporting their weighted GPA? Not necessarily. Having a weighted GPA does show that your student took challenging classes and took advantage of the opportunities available to them.

As we mentioned in the previous chapter, admissions committees would much rather see students challenging themselves than taking easy classes.

So let’s answer the question we posed earlier: How can your student’s transcript stand out? With a rigorous course load.

What is a “rigorous” course load?

One of the questions that admissions officers are most commonly asked is “Which is better, a B in an honors course or an A in a regular course?” While the most accurate answer is “An A in an honors course,” in truth a B in an honors course is valued higher than an A in a regular course.

So what qualifies a course as rigorous? While the definition may vary for each school, the most important thing is that your student is taking advantage of the opportunities available to them.

Low Rigor Low-Medium Medium Rigor Medium-High High Rigor
“Fluff” courses Non-Core Electives Standard Core Classes Honors Level or “Easy” AP Classes AP/IB or College-Level Classes

Admissions counselors want to see that students are willing to challenge themselves, and that doesn’t just mean up until the moment their application is submitted! Admissions counselors are able to see what courses they’ve selected to take in senior year and will notice if they’ve chosen to slack off once their applications are submitted. Continuing to challenge themselves throughout senior year will make their application more competitive and help it stand out.

What should your transcript look like?

Does having a rigorous course load mean your student should only be taking the most advanced classes at the expense of exploring other interests? Not at all. In fact, schools prefer to see students keeping a balanced “well-rounded” schedule.

From liberal-arts focused schools like Yale, to technical universities like MIT, balance is valued as part of building a strong academic foundation. This means taking courses spanning the pre-requirements for application, including English, science, math, social science and foreign language, but also exploring challenging courses in other subjects.

Building electives into your student’s schedule gives colleges a peek into their non-academic interests and will show that they know their limits and don’t overwhelm themselves. College is going to be challenging, and college admissions officers want to admit students who will help themselves succeed and not burn out. Keeping a balanced schedule will mean they also have time for other commitments and extracurriculars, which demonstrate time-management skills.

How should you answer “is there anything else you want us to lnow?”

On most college applications, including the Common Application, there will be a question asking “Is there anything else you want us to know?” This is your student’s chance to address any potential concerns they may have with their transcript.

Freshman year is a difficult time for most students and college admissions officers understand that. Maybe your student slacked off in freshman year or chose classes that were much harder than they expected—and as a result received grades that were lower than they had hoped. While this will still have an affect on their GPA, this is their opportunity to address these low grades.

Admissions committees value improvement and like to see that a student has worked hard to recover from a rough first semester. By discussing how hard they’ve worked throughout the rest of their school career and how they’ve shown a “rising record,” students can show their work ethic and drive to improve.

Challenge yourself.

It doesn’t matter if your school offers all the most advanced AP courses or none at all. Admissions officers value students who take advantage of the opportunities available to them and find every opportunity to succeed. Design a course load that is both rigorous and balanced to show that your student is high-achieving but also values pursuing outside interests. And if they have a rough semester or two don’t worry—as long as your student is improving, that’s what matters.

In the next chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, we discuss standardized test and why they matter. We also go over the differences between taking the SAT and taking the ACT and which is more suited to your student’s learning style, and whether your student should include writing in the test. These tests might seem arbitrary—but we explain why they give colleges a baseline to evaluate candidates.