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Here’s How Ivy League Schools Evaluate Student GPAs

May 13, 2024

A stellar GPA is one of the building blocks of a successful Ivy League application, and as the school year winds down, many students are anxiously seeking to give theirs a final boost. While most students and families understand the importance of a 4.0, few are aware of how top colleges evaluate student GPAs or what they look for when reviewing student transcripts. Though your GPA may seem to be a simple metric, nothing could be further from the case—colleges consider more than just the number, accounting for complexities such as diverse grading systems across schools, trends in grade inflation, and level of course rigor.

Here are three important facts to keep in mind about your GPA as you choose your courses:

1. Your GPA doesn’t directly compare to that of students at other schools.

One common misconception among college applicants is that they can compare their GPAs with those of students attending different schools. However, the GPA is not a universal metric but rather a reflection of an individual’s academic performance within their specific educational environment. As a result, comparing GPAs from different schools is like comparing apples and oranges. For instance, some schools offer a plethora of AP, IB, and honors courses, while others may have limited options or offer none at all. Additionally, the weight assigned to AP versus honors versus regular classes varies from school to school. So, your GPA may not hold the same weight as those of your peers at different schools, even if you all have 4.0s.

Admissions officers understand that schools vary in their rigor, curriculum, and grading policies. Therefore, they evaluate your GPA in the context of your high school, considering the courses offered and the academic challenges presented. Instead of fixating on how your GPA compares to your friends’ from other schools, focus on challenging yourself and taking advantage of all the opportunities available to you at your school.

2. GPAs across the country are inflated—and colleges know it.

The last few years have seen surges in high school student GPAs nationwide. While GPA inflation has been on the rise over the last decade, average ACT composite scores are steadily declining. “For the 1.4 million ACT test-takers in the high school class of 2023, the average composite score on the exam was 19.5 out of 36, the lowest score since 1991,” according to The New York Times. The parallel differences, coupled with academic differences across schools, suggest that GPA must be considered in tandem with multiple other factors. Simply put, an A no longer means what it used to on a transcript.

Ivy League and other top colleges are well aware of this trend and evaluate student GPAs alongside other metrics such as standardized test scores and AP exam scores in order to better understand a student’s academic skill sets. While some Ivy League and other top schools remain test-optional, they still place emphasis on course rigor and the context offered by your high school profile in order to understand the grades on your transcript.

3. Colleges will recalculate your GPA.

Given the abundance of variables in GPA calculations, colleges often recalculate the metric to create a standardized baseline for comparison between students across different schools. The recalibration may involve adjusting for variations in grading scales or the weighting of honors, International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP) courses. The University of California system, for example, calculates students’ UC GPAs by converting grades to grade points (an A is equivalent to 4 points, a B to three points, etc.) for classes taken between summer after 9th and summer after 11th grade, and adding one point for each honors class, and dividing by total classes taken to yield final GPA.*

Other colleges also take additional factors that impact academic performance into consideration, and envelop GPA into a broader, holistic consideration. For instance, the Harvard University lawsuit over affirmative action revealed that Harvard rates students on a scale of 1–6 (with one being the most desirable) in academic, extracurricular, athletic and personal categories. A student’s GPA and test scores are folded together into an academic score which “summarizes the applicant’s academic achievement and potential based on grades, testing results, letters of recommendation, academic prizes, and any submitted academic work.”

This process aims to provide a fair and equitable evaluation of students from different educational backgrounds. Keep in mind that Harvard considers not only your grades, test scores, and academic rigor in this score, but also “evidence of substantial scholarship” and “academic creativity,” which can make the difference between a 1 and a 2 in the scoring system. These systems underscore the importance of taking advantage of every opportunity, showcasing your unique personality and creativity, and seeking to maximize opportunities to improve your performance within the academic landscape of your institution.

By understanding the complex way by which colleges evaluate students’ GPAs, you are better equipped to present a comprehensive and competitive picture of your academic achievements on your transcript and stand out in the competitive Ivy League admissions landscape.

*Variations exist for in-state versus out-of-state students and by high school. Be sure to calculate your GPA following the UC issued guidelines.

Originally posted on Forbes.

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