How College Admissions Committees Actually Evaluate GPAs

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"Age is just a number."

You hear this quote when people defend their choice of dating a significantly older romantic partner (or when the older partner is defending themselves) and also when people defy expectations for someone their age.

On the other hand, you never hear "GPA is just a number."

Technically, grade point average (GPA) is just a number, but higher numbers are not necessarily better or preferable to lower numbers. Rather, GPA represents so much more than the average of your grades for a single semester, academic year, or all of high school. 

GPA can be a major focus and source of anxiety for you and your child. After all, a low GPA can dramatically reduce your child's admissions chances. Therefore, students regularly study late at night to achieve good grades to the simultaneous joy and concern of their parents.

If we all understand the importance of GPA in college admissions, why am I even bothering to write about it?

Because no two GPAs are created equally. I'll provide two reasons to explain why.

1. What Went Into Producing that GPA?

Consider the following two 4.0 (unweighted) GPA examples:

1) Mark, a high school senior, has achieved perfect grades throughout high school. He has only enrolled in regular classes so that he could set the curve on most tests and reduce the amount of homework and study time.

2) Isabela, also a high school senior, has achieved all A's, but has taken most Honors and AP courses offered by her high school. 

I won't ask which student's 4.0 GPA is more impressive, as it's clear that Isabela put in more effort, likely against tougher competition to achieve such high grades. Even if Isabela had a 3.8 (or 3.7, etc.) GPA, an admissions committee member would give her the nod over Mark in the GPA category given her more rigorous curriculum.

Of course, this is an oversimplified example. Students and parents often ask questions like:

Lesson: The most important thing to remember is that your child's grades should represent a strong effort in challenging courses offered by their school. In other words, your child should strive to do their best with the opportunities provided and consider GPA and coursework one piece of a much larger college admissions puzzle.

2. Spot the Trend

In addition to achieving high grades in tough courses, remember that GPA is simply an average of your child's grades.

Let's take a look at two examples of rising seniors who achieved a 3.6 GPA in similarly rigorous coursework:

  • Susan has achieved A's and B's throughout high school and has maintained around a 3.6 GPA every semester.

  • Javier achieved mostly B's in 9th grade, but committed to doing better in 10th and 11th grade, when he earned almost all A's, resulting in a 3.6 overall GPA.

Which of these two students would be considered more impressive? Susan, who consistently achieved above average grades, or Javier, who demonstrated an upward trend?

Lesson: Typically, admissions committees will reward students like Javier because he has been performing at a higher level as college approaches. Therefore, all is not lost if your child struggles somewhat at the beginning of high school. To the contrary, exhibiting improvement in grades can work to your child's advantage! That said, your child shouldn't purposefully put in less effort during 9th and 10th grade just to achieve an upward trend; consistently high grades are best.

Final Thoughts

Here we have two reasons why GPA is not just a number: coursework and grade trajectory greatly influence admissions committees' perceptions of your child's academic achievements and promise.

The take home message: Your child should aim to do their best with the opportunities offered at their high school, without losing hope if they experience minor (especially early) setbacks!