What is Actually a Good GPA for College?


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The grade point average (GPA) is one of the first things students and parents start thinking about during the college applications process. And no wonder, it is without a doubt one of the most important factors in college applications. However, the “what is a good GPA?” question is also one of the hardest queries to answer. This is because of the multitude of factors that play into a students GPA, not to mention the factors that are involved in the way an admissions officer will “read” the GPA as a component of, and window into, the application as a whole.


In this article, we’ll locate the GPA tree in the grand forest of college applications, allowing us to better hone in on what makes a “good” GPA.


What is a Good GPA?


To get some perspective, we have some general numbers with which to start out.


The national GPA is 3.38. GPAs at many schools tend to rise over the years—mostly due to grade inflation—but this isn’t something you need to be too concerned about.


Unlike standardized tests, GPAs are not standardized, and are therefore prone to the subjectivities of your teachers, grading rubrics, and even the high school’s grading system. Taking higher-level classes like AP or IB classes will give some students a weighted GPA, yet another factor admissions officers need to take into account.


In general, the factors that affect how “good” your GPA is will come down to the factors listed below.


Your School


The quality of education across high schools in the U.S. is not equal, and neither are the grades. Some schools have reputations for grade inflation or deflation. Additionally, you will always be initially compared against the other students from your high school who are applying to the the same college. Standing out against your peers is the first step in having a higher chance at acceptance to competitive colleges.


Classes Offered in Relation to Classes Taken


Colleges like to see not only that you have done well in your classes, but that you have challenged yourself by choosing sufficiently difficult classes. A 4.0 GPA composed of the easiest classes at your school will show poorly; admissions officers are good at their job, and can tell whether or not you’ve shown initiative and curiosity in your course selection.


In contrast, a 3.5 GPA from challenging classes will not be as impressive on the page, but will demonstrate to the college that you are driven and willing to work hard.


Whether grades are weighted also play a large role. Certain classes are weighted because they are deemed to be more difficult. For example, an A grade in an AP physics class does not reflect the same level of achievement as an A grade in an Introduction to Business class, so the A for the AP class will be weighted to a 5.0.


Choose classes in which you will be sufficiently challenged, but don’t load up on so many difficult classes that you become overwhelmed and have no time for non-academic pursuits.


Your Target Colleges


Of course, GPAs can only be evaluated in the context of the colleges evaluating them. Havard’s incoming freshman class in 2017 had an unweighted GPA of 3.94 on a scale of 4.0. The University of Kentucky incoming freshman class in 2018 had an unweighted GPA of 3.46, also on a scale of 4.0. A GPA good enough for your safe schools will probably be a stretch for your reach schools. In general, the closer your GPA is to surpassing that of the average incoming student, the higher the chances you have of being accepted. Take a look at our posts on the GPA requirements for specific colleges.

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How Do Admissions Officers View GPA?


GPA, in addition to standardized test scores, is the easiest element in your application to judge, and also one of the most important.


While your GPA won’t help to form a picture of your creativity or passion for social work, a good way to think about GPA is as a qualifying number. That is, the badge that gets your foot in the door to be considered for admissions at a college. Simply put, for many colleges, if your GPA isn’t above a certain number, the rest of your application won’t hold much weight. You’ll have to be incredibly outstanding in other areas for them to consider you.


It is not rare for students who perform exceptionally in another part of the college application to get accepted with a GPA lower than the minimum expected GPA at a given college. Examples include competitive athletes and students who have significant accomplishments in extracurriculars. Even if you think you fall in this category, you should still do your best in your classes; unless you’ve spoken to a coach or a member of the college’s faculty who will send Admissions a note to support your application, it’s still a gamble.


Lastly, there are always extenuating circumstances in which the GPA of a student doesn’t reflect their ability or potential. This is common for students undergoing family problems or personal illness. In these cases, you should definitely communicate this to the college; they will take this into account.


Tips on Improving Your GPA


The GPA is given so much weight in college applications because, although it is far from a perfect measurement tool, it is among the best indicators of what kind of student you will be in college.  


If you’re not yet a senior, do your best to raise that GPA. Participate in class. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Get and stay organized. Surround yourself with people who motivate you. And of course, go to class.

It’s normal to need help in the long road to college applications. Collegevine can help you at any stage of high school. For underclassmen, Collevine’s Early Advising Program will guide you to build a strong academic and extracurricular profile, including how to improve your GPA and the best classes to take in your situation. Our College Strategy Program for juniors and College Applications Program for seniors will help you create a school list, adjust your profile to maximize your chances at your dream schools.

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Kimberly Liu
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kimberly graduated from Smith College with a degree in English Literature. This year, she has been based in Beijing, China, where she works in the education field and rescues dogs in her free time. She will be starting her masters at Columbia University in the fall.