Applying to any one of the nation’s top schools can feel intimidating. With their insanely low acceptance rates and no shortage of stereotypes about their students—that they’re brilliant, or overachievers, or both—the Ivy Leagues and their selective peer institutions must require its student applicants to at least meet a threshold GPA in order to be considered and granted entry. Right?

Not necessarily. If you’ve ever imagined that the answer to this question is a resounding “Yes,” we’re here to dispel your fears. While top schools certainly hold their applicants to a high standard and expect them to have achieved in high school, the Admissions Committee isn’t docking students based on GPA alone without reading the rest of their application materials as well. Considering applying to a selective school? Read on for an in-depth analysis of how your GPA may look to admissions officers.

 

Comparing High Schools: Like Comparing Apples to Oranges

Perhaps the most important thing to remind yourself at every step in the college application process is that adcoms will definitely do their due diligence when looking at your application, researching your school, your district, and your region in order to ensure that they are comparing you to students who were graded on a scale similar to yours. If your school weights your GPA, calculates it out of something other than the standard 4.0, or doesn’t give you letter grades at all, you need not fear. Rest assured that your achievements would never be unfairly diminished.
In other words, if you come from a high school that is known for grade deflation, colleges and universities will know this and take this into consideration. Remember that students apply to any top university from a wide range of schools all over the world, and each of these schools varies significantly in their size, access to resources, and ability to give students individual attention. Thus, you need not worry that your GPA will be compared to that of a student that has been learning in an entirely different environment than yours.

 

And Yet…

The flip side to all of this, however, is that any top school’s adcom is committed to doing due diligence when researching its applicants, and this makes it easy for the adcoms to parse out which students’ GPAs reflect serious work and which ones don’t. If your school is known for handing out 4.0s, an adcom will look to other aspects of your application to determine if your coursework was rigorous enough to prepare you for its education.

Any competitive, highly sought after university looks to accept students who excelled in high school, whether that means that your weighted GPA surpassed 4.0, or you had a perfect 4.0, or that you were simply ranked towards the top of your graduating class.

In general, the Ivy League and other top universities tend to admit students with GPAs above 3.5 (out of 4.0), and if you’re planning to apply to one of these schools, your safest bet is to aim to fall in the middle 50% range of admitted students. That is, unless you are citing extenuating circumstances or exceptional extracurricular activities to explain your lower grades.

 

Confused about what that means? Let’s dive into a bit more discussion of both of those possibilities.

 

Extenuating Circumstances

Some students may find that their GPA at the time that they are applying to colleges is too low to reflect their capabilities or commitment to learning. Often, students who are dealing with debilitating mental illness, trouble at home, or a death in the family find that their grades have dropped due to factors that are out of their control. If you have found yourself in one of these situations, know that schools are certainly not looking to penalize you.

That said, if it is true that your GPA has dropped or your grades are hurting due to an exceptional personal problem like one of the situations above, you will need to be as communicative as possible about the matter. It is completely feasible that a student with significant extenuating circumstances may be able to gain admission to a top school with a 3.75 GPA as opposed to a 4.0, but you need to alert the appropriate adcoms to the details of your specific scenario if that is the case.

 

Exceptional ECs

Some students will apply to the Ivy League or another top school with exceptional extracurriculars, and these students may be held to a lower GPA standard if their extracurricular commitments were significant. Extremely competitive athletes whose training schedules are time-intensive or students who have contributed significantly to scientific research (and spent the attendant amount of time in research labs) may be considered even if their GPAs fall on the lower range of the spectrum.

If you think you are one such student, it would certainly help to submit test scores on the higher end of the spectrum. If you can balance your lower schools in school with higher standardized test scores, you can prove that you still have the academic capacity to succeed at a competitive university.

However, you’ll want to avoid relying on high test scores to balance out a low GPA. Having poor grades and high test scores won’t make colleges think you’re a secret genius; they’re more likely to assume that while you’re smart, you don’t want to put in the effort into earning good grades (unless you’ve faced exceptional circumstances as discussed above).

 

A few final caveats

As with every part of the application process, your GPA is only one in a litany of factors that adcoms will consider when deciding whether or not to admit you. If you simply feel that your GPA is imperfect because your classes were hard, you certainly should not allow that to keep you from applying to any other top university. No application is perfect, and many students may be able to make up for a lower GPA if some other aspect of their application is extremely strong.

That said, you should obviously try to aim for as high a GPA as possible if you are looking to put your best foot forward in every application you submit. Adcoms consider GPAs because they are good indicators of a student’s ability to achieve in school.

 

Need help applying to Harvard and any other colleges on your list? Contact us to learn more about our College Application Guidance Program today!

 

Lily Calcagnini

Lily Calcagnini

Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.
Lily Calcagnini