What is Actually a Good GPA for College Admissions?

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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 student’s 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 go over the role your GPA plays in 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 average GPA is 3.38 on a 4.0 scale. If you’re not sure what your GPA is on a 4.0 scale, use our GPA converter.  If you’re not sure what your GPA is at all, you can use this calculator to figure it out.

 

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 safety schools will probably be a stretch for your reach schools. In general, the more your GPA surpasses that of the average incoming student, the higher the chances you have of being accepted. Take a look at our posts on the average GPAs for specific colleges.

 

You can also use our chancing engine to assess whether your GPA is strong enough for the schools on your list. After entering your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and courses, you can see your chances of acceptance at specific schools, and get suggestions for improving your profile. If your GPA matches or exceeds the college’s average for accepted students, then the chancing engine marks your GPA as “good.” If it falls below the average, our chancing will let you know that your GPA “needs improvement.” From there, you can learn about the GPA distribution of other students applying to that school, and see how you stack up.

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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.

 

Students from a lower socioeconomic background or historically underrepresented minority group might also be able to get accepted with a lower GPA. This is especially true if their applications show that they’ve worked hard and made the most of the opportunities they did have.

 

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.

 

How to Find Your Goal GPA

 

Your goal GPA is one that will put you above the average GPA of accepted students at the colleges on your list. The more selective the college, the closer your GPA should be to perfect (if not a perfect unweighted 4.0), and the more advanced courses you should take. For instance, students admitted to Ivy League schools had very strong GPAs, with the majority of average GPAs above 4.0 on a weighted scale.

 

Research the schools on your list to see if they release GPA information, and be sure to verify whether the GPA is weighted or unweighted. If your GPA meets or is above the average of your schools, you could be an academic fit.

 

Be sure to take GPA with a grain of salt, however, as the ways schools grade their students varies wildly. A more standardized metric of academic fit are SAT/ACT scores. Beyond checking the average GPA of admitted students, also check the middle 50% range SAT/ACT scores. If your scores fall towards the upper end of that range (or even above it), then you’re more likely to be in good standing.

 

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 an upperclassman, there’s a lot you can still do to raise your GPA. Here are our best tips:

 

1. If you’re struggling in class, seek help.

 

To get the best possible grade in your current classes, be sure to participate actively and get the support you need. This might mean going to a teacher after class, seeking the help of academic tutors, or a forming a study group.

 

2. Take harder/easier classes, depending on your goal GPA

 

If you’re aiming for a higher weighted GPA, taking AP/IB classes and getting strong grades in them will help you increase your weighted GPA, as advanced classes typically have a GPA value that is one point higher than that of standard classes (i.e. an A in an AP class is usually a 5.0 instead of a 4.0).

 

If your GPA is low, however, and you want to bring it up, you may want to take a few classes that you’re sure you can succeed in. That way, your high grades in the easier classes can bring your GPA up. Of course, it’s still important to challenge yourself though. For the most part, colleges would rather see you get a B in an advanced class than an A in a regular class. It’s all about having a healthy balance of challenge though!

 

3. Increase your course load

 

If you really want to challenge yourself, you can increase your course load. Keep in mind though that taking more classes and getting good grades in them won’t necessarily increase your weighted GPA. If your weighted GPA is already about 4.0, taking more standard classes on the 4.0 scale (non AP/IB) will actually lower your weighted GPA. Weird, huh?

 

If your GPA is below 4.0 though (weighted or unweighted), and you think you can get an A in your extra classes, then increasing your course load will help you increase your GPA.

 

For more tips on increasing your GPA, see this blog post.

 

Want to know how your GPA impacts your chances of acceptance to your dream schools? Our free Chancing Engine will not only help you predict your odds, but also let you know how you stack up against other applicants, and which aspects of your profile to improve. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to gain access to our Chancing Engine and get a jumpstart on your college strategy!

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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.