When evaluating your application, colleges will look at many measures of your academic performance, including your GPA (grade point average), class rank, awards, individual grades, and course rigor, among others. In this post, we will focus on the importance of your GPA compared with that of your class rank. That does not mean that the other academic measures are not important; rather, these are two factors that are commonly confused and compared, and you may be wondering which is most important when you are applying to colleges.

What is a GPA?

Your GPA is an absolute figure determined solely by your performance in your courses over your entire high school career. While high schools use different measurements to calculate GPAs, most rely on a 4.0 scale, with a 4.0 equaling an A, a 3.0 equaling a B, a 2.0 equaling a C, and so on. Your average is determined by the averaging of all your grades. (Depending on the number of credits assigned to each of your courses, some may be worth more than others).

Some high schools provide colleges with your weighted GPA, giving you extra credit for honors, AP, and IB classes to compensate for their rigor. This means you could end up with a GPA higher than a 4.0 if you have taken numerous high-level courses and received high grades in them.

Because no two high schools are alike, your GPA is not an objective figure, and colleges will not see it as such. Therefore, having a 4.0 doesn’t automatically guarantee you your pick of top colleges and vice versa, since admissions committees will be contextualizing your performance against that of others in the same high school. For more information about how colleges consider your GPA, read CollegeVine’s post, “What Is a Good GPA for Top Schools?”

What is a Class Rank?

Class rank is dependent upon both the classes your peers take and how well they perform in some classes. As discussed above, colleges need a way of contextualizing your high school performance. This means they want to see how you performed against your peers. If they see that you have a 4.0, but your class rank is lower than expected, that may signal to them that your high school or course load is not particularly rigorous.

Class rank is not as widely used as GPAs, since not all high schools rank. This is for a variety of reasons; for instance, some high schools are too small to effectively rank. Some high schools use other measures to reward excellence, such as inducting top students into Cum Laude Society, another way to demonstrate to colleges that these students are at the top of their graduating classes.

Class rank is sometimes criticized for causing a culture of unhealthy competition, since it forces students to be judged against their peers, thus implying that they must “win” in order to succeed. Additionally, many students take a high number of AP or IB courses over electives that actually interest them, because they are trying to weight their GPAs with rigorous courses in order to rank as highly as possible.

Essentially, colleges consider rank because they are trying to determine how you performed against applicants with access to similar resources as the ones available to you. Colleges consider many factors in the admissions process—more thoroughly discussed here—and high performance in a rigorous course schedule is among the most important of these items. If you come from a high school with numerous AP classes available, and you took a high number of them and performed well, this is likely to reflect in your class rank. However, if you did not take advantage of the advanced courses available to you, colleges will see that you have not challenged yourself as much as your peers. On the other hand, if you attended a high school that does not offer many AP courses, but you challenged yourself as much as possible and attained a high GPA, admissions committees will understand this as well, and will see that you managed with the resources available to you.

Achieving Balance

As discussed in our post, “How to Effectively Balance Your Time in High School,” you can’t just focus on academics and competing against your peers. Not only does this create a lot of unnecessary stress, but it also detracts from other aspects of your high school career, some of which are also important for your college applications, such as extracurricular activities.

Additionally, colleges don’t necessarily want to see you loading up on AP courses that are not in line with the rest of your academic profile. Instead, they want to see a well-rounded but specialized profile that indicates particular rigor in the subjects that most complement your strengths and interests. That means that you don’t necessarily need to take AP Calculus if your strength is English; instead, take AP Literature and other challenging humanities courses. For more information and determining what AP, IB, or honors classes are best for you, read our post, “Can You Be an Engineer Without Taking AP Physics: How the Classes You Take Affect Your Chance at Admission.”

Other Factors to Consider

A high GPA and class rank matter are important for more than just the college admissions process. Many scholarships depend on one or both of these measures as well. Check out our posts “Helpful Scholarship Resources and Tips” and “What You Need to Know for a Successful Scholarship Season” for more information.

The Takeaway

Ultimately, if you take challenging courses and earn high grades, while allowing your schedule enough balance so that you are not overly taxed or stressed, both your GPA and class rank will reflect that, and neither is any more significant than the other.

Follow the links below more advice on how to maintain a high GPA with a rigorous course load, as well as how to best demonstrate your strengths on your college applications.

How to Effectively Balance Your Time in High School

What Is a Good GPA for Top Schools?

Can You Be an Engineer Without Taking AP Physics: How the Classes You Take Affect Your Chance at Admission

How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take

Tackling Holistic Admissions: A Breakdown of What Colleges Consider

How Much Does Senior Year Actually Matter for Admissions

A Guide to Freshman and Sophomore Years

What You Should Be Thinking About as a Junior

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine