Getting good grades in high school is an effective method of showing admissions committees that you’re a diligent student, someone who is dedicated to his or her education and will be a great addition to the classroom in college. That said, not every student attends the same high school; therefore, grades from different high schools can mean different things. Just as some classes within your school can be more or less challenging than others, some high schools are more demanding overall than others.

Grade inflation occurs when students receive higher grades on work that would probably receive lower grades in a more standardized setting lower grades. This can make it so that a majority of students have particularly high grades at a given school, causing higher grades to mean less in the larger scheme of college admissions.

You may be wondering whether or not colleges take grade inflation or deflation into account when evaluating your application. If you attend a high school that is known for grade inflation or deflation, you may be particularly concerned. Read on to understand how colleges evaluate grades in context.

Schools consider you in the context of your peers

The first thing to understand in terms of grades and college applications is that colleges almost always evaluate students in comparison to the fellow students at their own high schools. Since no two high schools are alike, it is impossible to hold students to the same standards when they’re coming from different circumstances. Furthermore, some high schools don’t offer AP or IB programs. If this is the case for you, college aren’t going to expect that you will have taken several AP classes. Rather, they want to see that you’re taking the most challenging level of courses available.

Top colleges want applicants who perform well next to their peers, so if you have a higher class rank or GPA relative to other students at your school, you will stand out as an exemplary student.  

Class rank is important

Many high schools have a class ranking system—a way of quantifying students’ performance in relation to their peers. The student who ranks first is the student with the highest GPA in a given high school class, the student who ranks second has the second highest GPA, and so on. Having a high class rank can speak to your academic ability even if your GPA might be skewed by grade inflation or deflation. GPAs can also be weighted based on what courses you take. Many high schools set up this system so that honors or AP classes are worth a possible 5.0 points on a 4.0 scale rather than 4.0 points, making it possible for students to have a GPA that is higher than a 4.0. In these cases, you will usually have a version of your GPA that is unweighted—that is, what your GPA would look like if every class you had taken was worth could be assigned a maximum of 4.0 points, regardless of it being an AP/honors course or not.

There are, of course, some high schools that don’t have a class rank system. If this is the case for you, there’s no need to worry—we’ll go over ways to stand out academically aside from ranking at the top of your class. Also, colleges understand that not all schools rank, and have other ways of measuring your performance next to that of your peers. .

For example, let’s say your GPA is a 3.2 out of a possible 4.0 points. If the student with a class rank of #1 has a GPA of 3.3, then relative to the rest of the class, your GPA would be considered very high. On the other hand, if your GPA is a 3.9 out of 4.0, but over 50% of your class has a 4.0 as a result of grade inflation, a 3.9 GPA would appear low in comparison to the rest of your class.

You can check on the admissions websites of the schools to which you’re applying to see what the class rank for the middle 50% is. The middle 50% will tell you the average high school class rank for accepted applicants of the incoming class for a given college or university. If a school has a middle 50% of 5-10% for class rank, this means that 50% of the students that were accepted to that school were in the top 5-10% of their high school class. Keep in mind that this also means 25% of accepted students had a class rank above the top 5%, and 25% of accepted students had a class rank below the top 10%.

What if my school has a record of inflated/deflated grades?

If your high school is particularly difficult or particularly easy when it comes to grading, there is no need to worry. Schools will consider this in context.

Don’t be too concerned that your GPA and class rank don’t reflect your abilities as a result of grade inflation or deflation. You might consider explaining on your college applications that your high school has a proven track record of grade inflation or deflation.

Be careful if you choose to explain this on your application, however. You want to avoid sounding like you are simply making excuses for low grades. Again, since admissions committees view you in the context of your entire class, if your class rank is low relative to the rest of the students in your class, they will realize that grade deflation is not the sole culprit for a poor GPA.

That said, remember that honesty on your college applications can go a long way. If you’ve taken a hit to your GPA as a result of extenuating circumstances, you don’t have to blame it on grade inflation—you can actually explain what happened on your application. It is important to understand that everyone occasionally has difficulties in their academic and professional lives at some point. If you had a particularly difficult experience in high school because of factors beyond your control, be sure to explain this to admissions officers. Demonstrating improvement after struggling can also reflect well on your applications.

Other measures of academic ability

If you’re still worried that your GPA doesn’t reflect your best abilities as a student, remember that there are other measures of academic ability that can strengthen your application.

Standardized tests are called standardized for a reason: they all cover the same material measured against the same rubric. A homeschooled student in Ohio takes the same test as a boarding school student in Mississippi, as does an international student in France or a student who attends a private school student in Pennsylvania—although students from different backgrounds may be exposed to different material. Regardless, it makes sense why most colleges require standardized test scores on your application. These scores are a good way of measuring ability across the board!

If your GPA is low as a result of grade deflation, but you received a high score on the SAT or ACT, colleges might recognize that you’ve demonstrated strength in academics. This can be tricky, though, because having high SAT scores might not alway make up for a low GPA relative to other students in your high school—this might suggest that you are not a hard worker. On the other hand, if you have a 4.0 GPA as a result of grade inflation, and your SAT/ACT scores are low, this might not reflect so well on you.

There are other tests you can take to show colleges your across-the-board ability, some of which are required and some that are not. SAT II scores can be a good way to show your expertise in a specific subject or area of study. AP/IB test scores can be a good way to do this as well. (And in the case of AP scores, some colleges will even accept exemplary scores as college credit. Be sure to check the websites of the schools you’re applying to to see if this is the case.)

The Bottom Line

So, do college admissions committees take grade inflation and deflation into account when deciding whether or not to accept an applicant? The short answer is yes. Colleges look at applicants in relation to the rest of their high school class.

That said, if you’re applying to particularly selective schools, you want your GPA and class rank to demonstrate that you are near the top of your class in terms of academic achievement. If grade deflation or inflation have influenced your performance, however, there are other measures to help show colleges that you’re a diligent and hardworking student. The SAT and ACT can help show this, along with SAT II and AP/IB test scores.

If you’re still worried that your GPA reflects poorly on your application, you can explain to admissions committees that your school has a track record of particularly difficult or easy grading. Just be sure to be honest—colleges want to see the real you! If you truly believe that grade inflation has lowered your GPA or class rank more than is deserved, make sure you have lots of solid evidence to back up your argument.

Also remember that the holistic admissions process might work to your advantage. In addition, there are services available to help you. CollegeVine offers free consulting sessions as well as tutoring services and application consulting services.

Though the college process can be intimidating, there’s no need to stress! Nobody is expecting you to be perfect; admissions officers want to see applicants with unique abilities, goals, and aspirations.

To better understand GPAs and how college applications are evaluated, check out these articles:

Does a Declining GPA Look Bad on my College Applications?

Is GPA or Class Rank More Important?

Will a Perfect Score on the SAT/ACT Get Me Into a Good College?

Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

Devin Barricklow

Devin Barricklow

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).
Devin Barricklow