Veronica Wickline 6 min read Academics, Grades and GPA

What is the highest GPA possible? What is an average GPA?

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GPAs can be tricky to calculate and even harder to understand. Most students don’t know what to aim for, what impact different classes have on their GPA, or how the GPA will be used in the college admissions process.

 

Keep reading for information on GPAs as well as tips for how to improve your academic profile. Among other things, we’ll go over how GPA is calculated, trends in the research on high school grading, and advice on how to approach course selection.

 

Note: Since most American high schools use an average GPA scale of 4.0, this post uses that metric. If your school uses another scale, check out CollegeVine’s handy GPA conversion calculator to convert it before you continue reading. If you don’t know your GPA at all, you can use our GPA calculator to figure it out as well.

 

What is my GPA and how do I calculate it?

 

GPA stands for “grade point average.” It summarizes your overall academic performance into one number. GPAs make it easier for third parties to determine how well you did in school without having to do a lot of research.

 

Each class you take in high school will be allotted a number from 1–4 based on your grade, and all of these numbers are then averaged. This final average is a huge indicator of success on your college application, and it is also used to calculate your class rank.

 

While there are many exceptions, most American high schools use the following grading scale.

 

To earn this grade… Receive this overall percentage…
A+ ≥ 97.0%
A 93.0–96.9%
A- 90.0–92.9%
B+ 87.0–89.9%
B 83.0–86.9%
B- 80.0–82.9%
C+ 77.0–79.9%
C 73.0–76.9%
C- 70.0–72.9%
D+ 67.0–69.9%
D 65.0–66.9%
F < 65.0%

 

For each class, you are awarded a certain number of grade points depending on the letter grade you earned.

 

In a regular class, if I earn… My grade point(s) for the class is…
A 4.0
B 3.0
D 2.0
D 1.0
F 0.0

 

Some schools increase or decrease the point value of classes based on whether you received a plus or minus in conjunction with your letter grade. It’s standard to add .3 for a plus, and subtract .3 for a minus, with a 4.0 being the highest possible value (so an A+ will have the same value as an A).

 

On a 4.0 scale, the average GPA calculations are pretty simple. If you want to figure out what your GPA is right now, you can either ask to see it at your counselor’s office or you can calculate it by hand. CollegeVine has compiled a helpful guide to help you calculate your high school GPA.

 

What is the highest GPA Possible?

 

If you are measuring your GPA on a 4.0 scale, you may have assumed that the highest GPA you can achieve is a 4.0. This implies that you have gotten all A’s in all of your classes throughout high school.

 

However, as we discussed, AP courses make it possible for students to receive above a 4.0 on the traditional GPA scale. Some schools add one grade point for all AP courses.

 

In an AP class, if I earn… My grade point for the class is…
A 5.0
B 4.0
D 3.0
D 2.0
F 0.0–1.0

 

Adding a point to AP courses when calculating GPA is called “weighting.” By contrast, those who use unweighted GPAs do not factor course difficulty into their calculations.

 

The highest GPA possible depends on whether you’re using a weighted or unweighted scale. For college applications, you should calculate both GPAs and report whichever is requested. If none is specified, you can opt for the higher weighted GPA.

 

What is an Average GPA?

 

According to a 2009 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average GPA is roughly 3.0, which is the grade equivalent of a B. A more recent study conducted at the University of Georgia indicates that the average GPA may be even higher, at 3.38, although this number has not been as widely accepted.

 

Average GPA fluctuates wildly depending on student demographics. To give one example, girls tend to have higher GPAs than boys.

 

Gender GPA
Girls 3.10
Boys 2.90
Difference 0.20

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

 

Additionally, students from certain racial backgrounds had average GPAs with statistically significant differences. Asian/Pacific Islander students were among the top scoring demographic, with average GPAs that were 0.57 points higher than those of Black students.

 

Race GPA
Asian/Pacific Islander 3.26
White 3.09
Hispanic 2.84
Black 2.69

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

 

These differences in average GPA by gender and race reflect larger issues with the cultural, socioeconomic, and geographic factors of the American education system.

 

Typically, students scored less well on core subjects but made up grade points in other academic courses, like Fine Arts, and non-academic subjects, like Health.

 

Course Type GPA
Overall 3.03
Core Academic (English, Math, Social Studies) 2.82
Other Academic (Fine Arts, Foreign Language, Computer Science, etc.) 3.18
Non-Academic (Health, Physical Education, etc.) 3.43

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

 

To put that in more familiar terms, the average American student might receive the following report card:

 

Subject Grade
English B-
American History C+
Algebra II C
Photography B
Spanish B+
Physical Education A

 

Is Grade Inflation Real, and Does It Affect Me?

 

Grade inflation has been a hot topic since the early 2000s, when journalists noticed that college students were graduating with progressively higher average GPAs. As the data amassed, it became clear that not only colleges but also high schools were guilty of assigning higher grades for the same quality of work.

 

In American high schools since 1990, the average GPA has increased by nearly 0.5 points.

 

Year Overall GPA
1990 2.68
2000 2.94
2009 3.03

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

 

This trend is reflected across all subjects. Here are just a few examples from core academic courses.

 

Subject Average GPA by Year
1990 2000 2009
Social Studies 2.56 2.83 2.89
English 2.52 2.77 2.85
Science 2.39 2.67 2.70
Mathematics 2.34 2.60 2.65

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

 

It is often speculated that high schools have begun awarding higher grades for the same quality of work because it helps students stand out when they apply to college. Once one school begins the practice, others must follow suit or risk jeopardizing their own students’ chances at gaining admission to selective schools.

 

What Should I Do if My GPA is Average or Below Average?

 

If your GPA is average or below average, we’ll be honest: that will certainly impact your chances of acceptance. If you’re still a freshman or sophomore, you have time to improve your GPA. If you’re struggling in class, be sure to seek help, whether from a teacher, classmate, or tutor. To raise your GPA, take a few classes that you’re sure you can succeed in. Taking AP/IB classes will increase your weighted GPA, but if you’re not sure you can get a B or above, stick to the regular version.

If you’re already a junior or senior, there’s little you can do to bring up your GPA, as a couple semesters is unlikely to change the culmination of your grades up until this point. In this case, focus on doing your best in class, but also focus on bringing up your standardized test scores. Your GPA and test scores factor into what’s called the Academic Index (AI), which is basically a numerical representation of the strength of your academics. Some selective schools use AI as a screening tool, meaning those below a certain threshold are automatically rejected. If you can’t do much to bring up your GPA, the best way to bring up your AI is to increase your test scores. This will help you get past the minimum AI thresholds.

 

How Important is My GPA? Should I Take Easier Classes to Raise my GPA?

 

GPA is a very important factor in your college applications, but never sacrifice academic rigor to boost your GPA. Colleges care whether you pushed yourself in high school, so aim for harder courses even if it means risking the occasional B on your transcript. Like we said, if you don’t think you can earn at least a B in a particular AP, though, consider taking a different class.

 

To boost your GPA, instead of taking easier classes, focus on collecting easy points. For example, if you have a teacher who awards points for students who turn in assignments on time, make sure you are not submitting homework late. If your P.E. grade depends on whether you remember to bring your gym clothes, keep them close at hand.

 

A lot of intelligent students push hard in AP courses only to miss out on these points, which are easier to collect. Apply the “Work Smarter, Not Harder” principle to boosting your GPA.

 

What Admissions Chances Do I Have with My Current GPA?

 

Colleges know that course difficulty can vary from school to school, so most admissions committees don’t compare actual numbers between students. Instead, they consider GPAs in the context of your school. They may sometimes even use their own system to relativize GPAs, taking school and class difficulty into account. Rather than aim for a certain GPA, you should strive to be one of the top students relative to others in your high school.

 

As a general rule, the more competitive the school, the higher the GPA you need. Once you enter the realm of the Top 10 schools and the Ivy League, you can safely assume most applicants have a near-perfect 4.0 unweighted GPA (you can see actual GPA averages of the Ivy League in this post). If these selective colleges are on your college list, you should aim for the highest grades in the most challenging classes.

 

Want to know more about your GPA and how it impacts your chances of acceptance? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account to see how your GPA stacks up against that of other applicants to your dream school.

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Veronica Wickline
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Veronica is an alumna of Harvard College, where she earned her A.B. in History and Classics. After graduating, she joined CollegeVine serving as the Curriculum Development Manager. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA and is writing her debut novel.