Weighted vs Unweighted GPAs: What Do Admissions Officers Want to See

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

male student in library posing for the camera

Your grade point average (GPA) is the cumulative average of grades you receive in your high school classes. Colleges are interested in this information as it provides admissions officers with an objective, comparable, and reliable indicator of their academic performance. Of course, there are some important factors to consider such as the difficulty of the classes you took along with the extracurricular responsibilities you were handling simultaneously. But there are two different types of GPAs known as weighted and unweighted. This leads many people to wonder: what GPA do colleges look at?

a student taking a test

After all, you don’t want to end up focusing on one aspect of your grade point average only to realize that colleges were more focused on the other. Although your overall goal should be to perform as highly as possible in all of your courses, it’s still helpful to understand exactly what colleges are considering when reviewing applications.

With thousands of different applicants to choose from, there are certainly some important characteristics that stick out more than others. You can rest assured that your GPA – either weighted or unweighted – will receive a lot of attention. But the question still remains, which one?

Here we’ll take a deep dive into the differences between these two GPAs, which colleges care about more, along with some tips to help you optimize your score.

What’s a GPA?

Okay, let’s start with the basics. GPA – as you most likely know already – stands for grade point average and is calculated by combining all of the grades you have received from your courses. Most high schools around the country give their grades in letter form (i.e. A+/-, B+/-, etc.) or in percentage form (i.e. 100%, 95%, 80%, etc.).

Regardless of what grade format your school uses, it ends up getting converted into numbers on a sliding 1.0 to 4.0 scale that determines the average. That’s where you get the GPA scale.

How to calculate your GPA

If you don’t like the idea of waiting until your report card arrives to know what GPA you’ve been averaging, you can always do the math on your own. The equation is quite simple. Your GPA is

To win the International Math Olympiad, the US team trained with its rivals

the total of your course grades for any given period of time (i.e. freshman year or your entire high school time) divided by the sum of credits for the corresponding courses. Here’s a simple GPA scale to help you make easier calculations:

A+ 4.0 97–100
A 4.0 94–96
A- 3.7 90–93
B+ 3.3 87–89
B 3.0 84–86
B- 2.7 80–83
C+ 2.3 77–79
C 2.0 74–76
C- 1.7 70–73
D+ 1.3 67–69
D 1.0 64–66
D- 0.7 60–63
F 0.0 0–59

Why do colleges care about high school GPAs?

Whether you have a pristine GPA or you feel like it could still be improved, it’s natural to wonder why it’s so important for colleges to have. Well, the answer is quite easy. It’s the most effective and simple method for determining how an applicant performed academically.

The only thing colleges have to go off of when trying to determine how you’d fare in a collegiate environment is how you’ve performed on your high school courses. And instead of having to inspect your results in each course you’ve taken throughout high school, admissions officers simply take a look at your GPA.

In terms of an equation, it’s the average of your performance. In a larger sense, it’s a reflection of your determination, initiative, intelligence, and ability to improve. If you place yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer for a minute, it’s much easier to understand the importance of these averages.

Imagine you have to sift through thousands – and in some cases tens of thousands – of applicants. Seeing a single number representative of an applicant’s entire high school performance on an academic level is time-saving.

On the flip-side, it doesn’t give students much room for error as a poor performance in one class can bring down your overall GPA even if all of your other courses were perfect. Another important reason colleges care about high school GPAs so much is that they’re an objective measurement.

This makes it possible to compare academic performance accurately among each and every applicant since standards are roughly the same for high schools across the country.

Weighted GPA vs Unweighted GPA: What’s the Difference?

Now that you have a better understanding of what a GPA is, why it’s important, and why college admissions officers love it so much, let’s take a deep look into the difference between weighted GPAs and unweighted GPAsand what GPA do colleges look at? That way, you’ll know which you should focus on when preparing your applications for college.

Unweighted GPA

Conventional GPAs are considered unweighted. This is means that they are measured on a special scale ranging from 0 to 4.0. As you can probably guess, a 4.0 required straight A’s. A 3.0 is an average of a B while a C average will get you a 2.0 unweighted GPA. The last passing grade you can get is a 10 or a D average. Anything that falls below this point is recognized as a failing grade.

Unweighted GPAs are pretty straightforward and easy to compute. They don’t take the difficulty of the classes into consideration. For example, an A that you receive in an honors or Ap course will be translated into a 4.0 on the unweighted GPA scale. The same is true of an A you receive in say physical education.

An unweighted GPA doesn’t change with respect to the type of course you’re taking. Essentially, an unweighted GPA isn’t going to change based on the kinds of classes that you take. It simply acts as a representation of your grades in isolated form.

Weighted GPAs

While unweighted GPAs are pretty straightforward, their weighted counterparts require a bit more math and consideration to be calculated. Despite this, many high schools have started to opt for the weighted GPA instead of the standard GPA. In short, a weighted GPA is measured on a scale that exceeds 4.0. This extra room is designed to account for the greater difficulty in some classes. For many high schools, this scale goes to 5.0 while, in others, it can even reach 6.0.

In the lower-level courses, grades stand for the identical numbers they would on the unweighted GPA scale. However, it’s different for the harder courses such as AP and honors classes. Since difficulty is taken into account, a 4.0 will actually only require a B average while a C average will get you a 3.0, and so on. Mid-level courses will average somewhere in between, although the specifics vary between each university.

However, the basic principle remains the same. A grade in one course corresponds with a particular point on the GPA scale. Your performance in these courses is then averaged together to get you your GPA.

What GPA do colleges look at?

Now you know the difference between a weighted and unweighted GPA. You even have the tools you need to calculate your own GPA throughout the school year so you don’t have to wait around for your report cards. Still, the central question remains: what GPA do colleges look at? In short, college admissions officers will look at both your weighted and unweighted GPAs.

college students taking an exam

Hmm, you might think. Then what is the point of having two separate averages? Well, colleges will consult your weighted GPA when determining the rigor of the courses you took and your class rank. When comparing your performance with other applicants, admissions officers will look at the unweighted GPA. Using the weighted GPA when comparing various applicants can lead to skewed results.

What GPA do you need to get into the Ivy League?

If you have your sights set on the Ivy League, you’re definitely wondering what GPA you’ll need to be competitive. Since these eight prestigious universities represent some of the best academic opportunities in the entire world, you can rest assured that your GPA will need to be equally as impressive.

In reality, Ivy League schools don’t provide a cut-off GPA for which applicants need to aim. The good news is that your application won’t automatically get rejected because your GPA is beneath a certain threshold. However, the bad news is that there’s no official mark for which to aim. However, we’ve still gathered some average GPAs for each Ivy Leauge school that you should aim to exceed:

Institution GPA (average of accepted applicants)
Brown University 4.05
Columbia University 4.14
Cornell University 4.05
Dartmouth College 4.07
Harvard University 4.18
University of Pennsylvania 3.85
Princeton University 3.91
Yale University 4.12

How to improve your high school GPA

Take harder courses

If you have any influence over the classes you take and your high school grades with a weighted GPA, then you should opt to take the more difficult courses. Honors and advanced placement (AP) courses are some of the most common higher-level courses available at high school.

Taking these will ensure your GPA is averaged higher. Although the classes are more difficult than their lower-level counterparts, lower grades will yield higher scores. Of course, you should only take these courses if you’re confident in your ability to perform well. There’s no point in taking a harder class if it’s only going to bring your GPA down.

Hire a tutor

Even if you have the best instructors in the world, you still might need some additional help on the side to bring up your academic performance in particular courses. This is especially true when dealing with higher-level classes.

It’s important to keep in mind that these are college-level or college-prep courses. That means you’re engaging with material that you will deal with at college. It’s understandable if some of the material is harder to grasp. Getting some help from a tutor either through your school or privately can work wonders for bringing up your GPA overall.

Attend summer school

Yes, all you want to do during the summer is tune out anything related to academics and simply relax, hang out with friends, and unwind. Still, if you’re struggling to maintain a good GPA and you have the ultimate goal of attending a prestigious university, you might want to start considering summer school.

Taking these additional courses can help increase your GPA while reengaging with the material you dealt with during the school year can ensure you have a better grasp on it. Speak with your high school counselor to see if this option is a good idea.

Study effectively.

Yes, that’s definitely easier said than done, but it’s important to not forget the impact studying can have on your overall GPA. If you study the material regularly, you’re bound to increase your knowledge, apprehension, and recall of the subject matter.

This can lead to improved scores on tests, quizzes, projects, and homework assignments. It’s critical to understand that consistency isn’t the only important part of studying. You should also take the time to implement effective studying techniques such as chunking that help to improve the chances of your brain actually remembering the material.

Speak with your teacher.

One of the biggest mistakes high schoolers make when struggling in a course is not speaking with their instructors. There’s a common misconception that teachers can’t do much to help a student with what GPA do colleges look at for college admission.

While it’s true these professionals can’t simply give you a better grade because you asked for one or automatically help you acquire more information, your instructors still represent a wealth of resources that you should take advantage of. Your teacher can spend time with you after class to help ensure you understand the material, recommend some helpful study resources, and offer explanations that might not have otherwise been offered in the class.

Retake classes during the school year

Most high schools will allow you to repeat classes in the next academic year. If you’ve ended up with a grade that you’re unhappy with, make room in your schedule to retake the course if you think a second chance will be beneficial to your academic success. The second time is often easier because you’ve had the extra time to grasp the material.

Before adding it to your schedule, talk to your counselor to make sure that taking it again will replace your lousy grade, or see if they may have other options to bring up the grade without completely retaking the class: Can you retake some major tests? Complete an extra project? Most schools want their students to succeed—so there’s nothing to lose by asking.

Improve your chances of getting into your first-choice college

Every high schooler has a list of colleges to which they’ll apply. Some people keep this list in their head and others write it down on paper (which is highly recommended), but all students have the list. And at the top of this list is the number one choice. The ideal school which students strive to get into.

When you work with AdmissionSight, you greatly increase your chances of realizing that goal. Who are we? We’re a leading admissions entrance consultant with over a decade of experience helping students just like you perfect their applications to secure a spot in the freshman class of their dream school.

How do we do it? Well, we’ve spent years mastering the art of the admissions process. We know exactly what admissions officers are looking for from applicants. We’ve designed a series of effective college admission services specifically designed to help students address all of the most important aspects of a college application.

Whether you need assistance planning your high school academics or extracurriculars, choosing an effective summer program, nailing your college essays, preparing for the admissions interview, or anything in between, we’ve got you covered! All of our services are custom-tailored to meet your unique needs.

If you’re ready to learn more about AdmissionSight’s services and how you can benefit from them, feel free to reach out to us for a free consultation.




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