The Ins and Outs of Weighted Grades (and Why You Should Consider More Than Weight When Choosing Courses)
Introduction to GPA weighting
You’re probably familiar with the system of grade weighting, in which more academically advanced classes, such as honors and AP (Advanced Placement) courses, are worth more than regular-level courses in calculating your grade point average (GPA). Individual high schools sometimes have different systems and measures for GPAs, but a typical standard is a 4.0 scale, with a 4.0 equal to an A average. However, in order to account for the increased rigor of more difficult classes, some high schools assign an extra point (or partial point) for advanced classes, so if you earn an A in, say, AP Calculus, it will go into your average as a 5.0 rather than a 4.0. Therefore, your weighted GPA could be higher than 4.0, even with 4.0 as the supposed maximum on the scale.
Weighted GPA and choosing your classes in high school
If you’re trying to optimize your GPA and class rank, you may be tempted to load up on rigorous classes so you rack up points, since you will be able to earn more with more difficult courses. However, it’s important to keep in mind that every high school makes decisions about weighting courses—and how much to weight them—differently. Some may not even assign more weight to honors or AP classes at all. Much like class rank, weighted GPAs can be fairly subjective from school to school.
Additionally, you may be faced with some difficult decisions if the subjects you want to study aren’t available at a higher-weighted level. For example, say you’re interested in taking psychology, but the only available course at your school on the topic is a regular-level class. Meanwhile, you could take an AP European History course instead, and that would be a weighted course; however, you would really prefer to take psychology. You may be tempted to take AP European History, but that is not always the best idea for your profile as a whole.
Colleges want to see you challenge yourself by taking a demanding and rigorous course load, but they also want to see you specialize—that is, pursue your talents and interests. (To learn more about specializing, read Well-Rounded or Specialized?.) So instead of taking demanding classes just for the sake of adding points to your GPA, think about what you actually want to take as well—what subjects and material interest you.
But isn’t a high GPA important for my college applications?
Of course GPA and class rank are important, but they are by no means the only important factor in your college applications, especially at competitive colleges where most of the applicant pool has excellent grades.
In addition to having strong grades, you should strive to stand out by showing your passion in particular areas. Doing so will positively affect your application much more than the minor change in your GPA taking that one extra AP class will bring, especially if the course in question doesn’t complement the rest of your profile.
As we discussed previously, specialization is especially important to top college admissions—you’ll need to show depth as well as breadth. It is also important to remember that colleges also have access to your transcript and school report, so they will have plenty of information on how you chose your courses. If your school doesn’t have an AP option in your area of interest, they’ll be able to tell, and you won’t be penalized for it.
Tips for building your best academic resume
- Always keep in mind the importance of balance. Taking advanced courses and receiving top grades is important, but pursuing your passions is also important.
- Be aware of your high school’s graduation requirements, as well as the prerequisites for the colleges to which you plan on applying.
- If your academic choices are particularly unusual, you might consider discussing them in your application essay or elsewhere on your applications, or asking your recommenders to address them.
- If higher-level courses in your area of interest are not available at your high school, look into options outside of school, such as self-studying APs (check out our Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams for tips), taking classes at your local community college, or doing an independent study.
- Seek out enrichment opportunities that allow you to demonstrate your high level of knowledge and skills, such as competitive extracurriculars, summer programs, independent projects, and so on.
- Think about the narrative of your academic record—what does it say about your development and who you are as a student?
For more information
To learn more about GPAs, class rank, and specialization, check out these posts:
Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!
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