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The high school GPA is the most important factor for admissions at virtually every college in the U.S.

However, many students don’t understand exactly how colleges evaluate high school transcripts. This lack of information often causes students to make decisions that ultimately jeopardize rather than boost their chances of admissions success.

In this post, I’ll share some insights, gleaned from looking at thousands of high school transcripts, into how private and public schools “read” this important document and evaluate the information provided in it.

Calculating GPA

At the most basic level, GPA is just the mathematical average of all grades obtained in high school. The simplicity of this definition is, however, deeply deceptive.

In actual practice, a student’s GPA is not a fixed number! In fact, the number on display on the high school transcript may well be different from the number that actually gets reviewed by colleges.

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First of all, different colleges consider different subsections of the transcript as part of their evaluation process. Some schools, including the UCs, consider coursework only from sophomore year on. Most other schools consider coursework from 9th through 11th grade—but also request senior-year, fall-term grades, or a midterm grade report.

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Second of all, different colleges follow different weighting rubrics. In fact, many high schools have different weighting policies, too. The “weighted” GPA is a calculation of GPA that adds extra value to grades achieved in classes characterized as honors, accelerated, AP or IB.

For example, some high schools might tack on a half-letter to grades attained in AP classes. According to this weighting principle, getting a B in an AP course would be roughly equivalent to getting an A– in a non-honors course. However, some high schools don’t weight grades at all. In order to equalize the playing field, each college uses its own weighting system to recalculate students’ GPA.

The UCs, like some other state systems but unlike private schools, have a well-publicized minimum GPA requirement and weighting formula.

  • In order to get admitted, California residents must have a minimum 3.0 weighted high school GPA (out-of-state students need a GPA of 3.4 or above).

GPA is calculated using only grades received in “a-g” courses—a list of fifteen year-long mandatory courses taken in 10th and 11th grade—with extra points given for up to eight semesters of honors-level coursework.

Though the UCs are open about their admission standards, private colleges are generally not. In fact, the weighting formulae and the “cut-off GPAs” of private colleges remain highly privileged information.

So how can students know whether they’re doing what they have to do to get into these private colleges? And what can they do to make themselves more attractive?

What students should do

Although students don’t have access to specific numerical standards and secret GPA-calculating algorithms, they still know all they need to know.

All colleges, whatever their specific weighting system, are looking for something called “strength of curriculum.” They want to reward students who take—and succeed in—the most challenging courses available to them. Stanford University, for example, clearly announces its philosophy on this matter. On its admissions page, it says,

“We recommend you pursue a reasonably challenging curriculum, choosing courses from among the most demanding available at your school.”

To put it simply, the students who succeed at competitive colleges are the students who succeeded in the most challenging courses available to them in their high schools.

However, the high school transcript speaks to more than just academic performance. It also tells a surprisingly detailed story about a student’s intellectual character and development.

  • Attractive candidates demonstrate intellectual fearlessness by taking the most rigorous courses on offer. They don’t back off after a first B but rather renew their determination to succeed. Students who shy away from such challenges appear to lack the motivation, ability or courage necessary to flourish in a highly competitive intellectual environment. 

But what about students who don’t have access to a whole bunch of advanced courses?

Let’s look again at what Stanford says. Its admissions officers are looking for students who have taken challenging courses “available at your school.”

Students can only take advantage of opportunities that are available to them. Therefore, students attending schools that do not offer the full range of AP classes or, say, the IB diploma option shouldn’t worry: they will not be penalized for this in the admissions process.

However, universities are impressed by students who go above and beyond the norm and create opportunities for themselves. If a course isn’t being offered in a student’s high school, he or she can consider taking an equivalent class at a nearby accredited college or university. 

This is also a worthwhile endeavor if a student would like to explore a subject matter in greater depth or at a more advanced level. Seeking out advanced studies is a great way to show initiative, develop specific intellectual passions, and demonstrate a genuine love of learning. Dartmouth College emphasizes this point on its admissions website:

“We look for academic rigor; you should be taking the most demanding courses available to you, particularly in the subject areas which you find most interesting.”

So students applying to study international relations, for example, might want to take a second foreign language at their local community college. Or students intending to be engineering majors might want to take some college-level science courses.

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On a side note, students might be able to gain college credit for college-level coursework completed in high school.

Every school has its own policy, however. Rice University, for example, has an unusually easygoing approach: it gives credit for coursework undertaken on a college campus so long as the course is part of the normal college curriculum and is not part of the high school transcript or graduation requirements. Not all colleges will be as accepting about transfer credits.

To summarize, students should remember that the high school transcript—grades, weighted by the strength of the curriculum taken—is the single most important factor in college admissions.

No SAT or ACT score and no extracurricular activity can compensate for a poor GPA or a weak academic course load. And there are no shortcuts! Some students inevitably try to “game” the system and raise their GPA the easy way. The next post should serve as due warning to any such students reading this.

Faking it”: What not to do

Some students try to take “easy” courses, figuring that the “easy A” they receive in a class like ceramics will boost their overall GPA. However, classes are not created equal!

Colleges place the greatest emphasis on grades received in core academic subjects: math, English, social studies, science, and foreign language. So the A earned in ceramics is definitely not equivalent to the A received in AP U.S. History! Many schools don’t even factor such grades in when they calculate GPA.

Other students decide to take a “regular” class instead of an AP class, again trying to take the easy way out. However, an A received in regular U.S. History is not equivalent to an A—or even a B—earned in AP U.S. History.

  • Remember: colleges factor grades against the difficulty of the coursework to assess how much of an achievement the grade really is.

Some students get even craftier. They take classes that they’re worried about over the summer at a community college. Or they choose to take Chinese as their foreign language when they’re native Chinese speakers.

Students have been warned: these tricks are transparent. Admissions officers have seen them all before, and they’re not going to fall for them.

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