1. Your GPA Doesn’t Compare to That of Students at Other Schools
Every high school uses a different grading system, so while your high school and the high school in another county may both use a 4.0 scale, your 3.89 means something different than another student’s to admissions officers.
This is due to the fact that some schools don’t offer AP courses and only offer Honors Courses, while some offer no APs, Honors, or Dual Enrollment classes at all. To make things more complicated, one school might give more weight to an AP class than to an Honors class, or vice versa. The math gets increasingly complex, but in the end, it’s important to understand that the 90 you earned in an AP class this semester probably means something different than the 90 your neighbor earned at their school.
Colleges look at your transcript to see how you challenged yourself throughout high school. They do this by evaluating the rigor of the courses you selected based on your school’s profile—taking into consideration the highest course levels offered at your school—as well as the availability of honors and AP classes. Every school offers different courses and curricula, so be ready to answer: did you take the more difficult classes offered at your school? How many AP and Honors courses did you take? Were those courses in academic fields you plan to pursue in college?
Finally, another factor to consider in your GPA are pass or fail grades. With the pandemic and online learning, schools have been increasingly offering pass/fail options. For the Class of 2025, Harvard stated that students “who are only able to present pass/fail grades or other similar marks on their transcripts” won’t be disadvantaged.
All of these things considered, your GPA will be compared to that of your peers who attend your high school, so it’s still very important that you work hard to earn and maintain the highest possible GPA while also enrolling in challenging courses at your high school.
2. Your GPA Is Probably Higher Now Than It Would Have Been Two Years Ago
In addition to different weighting systems, ACT has released a report detailing the recent rise in high school grade inflation. Derek Newton of Forbes describes grade inflation as “better grades for the same or even less rigorous work.” The authors of the ACT report released in May found that “the rate of grade inflation increas[ed] substantially” in 2020 and 2021.
This trend in grade inflation began prior to the pandemic; as summarized by Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed, “the average high school grade point average increased significantly from 2010 to 2021.”
So if grades are calculated differently at every high school AND grades seem to be misrepresenting students’ academic performance, can’t colleges use a national measure to compare students academically, like standardized tests?
In theory, yes!
Given that all students take the exact same test and that that test is then graded in the exact same way, the ACT and the SAT should offer a standardized point of comparison.
In fact, the aforementioned ACT researchers believe that grade inflation is “a persistent, systemic problem” and that since grading standards vary across the country, GPA is an “unstandardized measure of achievement,” while the ACT, on the other hand, is a standardized measure due to the nature of the test.
But in practice, no!
There are many reasons why standardized testing scores are not a fair or accurate measure of student performance, even if they offer a more standardized data point than GPAs. Because students are offered different courses with different rigors and have drastically different socioeconomic backgrounds across the country, they’re not equally prepared to sit for the tests in the first place. To add to the mix, the lack of access to schooling, tutoring, and testing sites during the pandemic exacerbated the inequitable nature of standardized testing.
Jaschik writes that during this same time period of grades rising, ACT found that “composite ACT scores fell from 21.0 to 20.3.” So, though overall grades are rising, this trend is not even reflected in standardized test score trends!
Evidently, neither GPAs nor standardized testing scores offer particularly dependable data points.
The researchers end their ACT report with the recommendation that a “holistic admissions evaluation, including both HSGPA [high school GPA] and a nonsubjective metric, be used in conjunction when making decisions about college admissions as well as scholarship applications.”
There is no doubt that the role of the high school GPA has shifted in the college application process, particularly since a large number of schools have moved toward test-optional or test-blind policies. Proving academic eligibility now largely depends on HSGPA, a seemingly arbitrary measure as grade inflation continues to rise across the nation. Nonetheless, do not doubt the importance of either as a part of your application.
So, how do colleges know how my GPA compares to my neighbor’s?
3. Colleges will recalculate your GPA
University of Georgia’s Undergraduate Admissions tells their applicants to “look at the GPA(s) on your transcript, and then completely ignore it. Scratch it out, mark it out with a Sharpie, rip that section off the transcript, but do whatever you need to do to get it out of your mind.” For UGA, all high school GPAs are weighted and recalculated to their own grading scale, adding weight for every AP or IB grade; honors courses are not given any additional weight. Although the exact scale might differ across institutions, this is a common practice employed by schools to even the playing field.
As a result of the current complications caused by the pandemic and optional standardized testing policies, your best bet as an applicant is to earn a high GPA and a high standardized testing score and, to the best of your abilities, take the most rigorous courses that your school offers.