The Ivy Coach Daily

June 21, 2024

Weighted vs. Unweighted GPAs on College Applications: Is There an Advantage?

A columned auditorium is featured from the outside at the University of Michigan.
The University of Michigan no longer recalculates GPAs of applicants.

Previously Published on October 28, 2009:

It’s like the wild west out there when it comes to high school GPA calculation. Despite what some websites would have you believe, there is no standardized way that high schools in America or around the world compute GPA. A 4.5 at one school could be the equivalent of a 3.8 at another — it’s all relative! That is why most highly selective colleges and universities use a “holistic” evaluation process that takes into account many other aspects of a student’s profile, including the strength of written material and recommendations, AP exam scores, extracurriculars, and, crucially, the rigor of the student’s coursework

So let’s examine the differences between weighted GPAs and unweighted GPAs, and address how America’s elite colleges view both types of GPAs within the context of the holistic admissions process.

Is It Better to Use Weighted or Unweighted GPAs When Applying for College?

Since each high school uses their own methods to calculate GPA, elite colleges have no preference for either weighted or unweighted GPAs. An applicant with a 4.23 does not necessarily have an advantage over an applicant with a 4.0, or vice versa. It all comes down to the rigor of coursework, the quality of the academic performance, and the context of the high school’s competitiveness.

Weighted GPA in High School

When a student takes rigorous coursework, such as honors, AP, or IB classes, some high schools will add bonus points to their GPA scale. For example, an A in a standard English class could contribute a 4.0, while an A in an AP English Language and Composition could contribute to a 4.2 at these schools. Some students end up applying to colleges with a robust GPA above 4.0 as a result of all of the advanced coursework they have taken, but it’s worth keeping in mind that admissions officers are aware of the lack of GPA standardization across schools. 

In other words, a 4.3 will not be evaluated in a vacuum (nor will that unweighted 3.9!). Some high schools only weigh core subjects (such as Math, English, History, Science, and Foreign Language study), while others might weigh a Health or Art class. Non-core subjects are largely considered as fluff to elite college admission officers, so a 4.2 in physical education is unfortunately rather meaningless, as is any weighted GPA that is not evaluated in the context of many other factors. 

Typical Weighted GPA Scale

Below is a weighted GPA scale. We hesitate to use the term standard weighted GPA scale because there is no standard weighted GPA scale. While weighted GPA scales can vary significantly — even more so than unweighted GPA scales — from high school to high school, it will offer you an understanding of how weighted GPAs are calculated. 

Letter GradeNumerical Grade Range in Advanced CourseGPA
FBelow 650

Simply having a perfect weighted GPA of 4.5 or higher is not enough to gain admission to an elite college or university. Schools like Harvard reject thousands of students each year with perfect weighted GPAs, as they do with students with perfect unweighted 4.0s. It all comes down to the holistic, contextual admissions process. Are you getting tired of hearing those admissions buzzwords? We can’t stress enough how important they are!

Unweighted GPA in High School

Some high schools — especially elite college prep schools — opt out of weighting GPA. An A in a regular Biology course counts towards a 4.0 to the same extent as an A in AP Biology. Prospective clients will often reach out to Ivy Coach touting their child’s 4.0. Until we understand the rigor of the child’s coursework and their high school’s academic profile (in other words, until we have a holistic understanding of the context of their 4.0), this brag amounts to a meaningless flourish. 

With that being said, anything less than a weighted 4.0 on a student’s transcript dramatically reduces their chances of admission to a top school. We’re not kidding: 74% of first-years in Harvard’s Class of 2027 had at least a 4.0 in high school. What’s more, the most competitive applicants uniformly take the hardest classes available to them. An A in a lesser course will count against a student if a more difficult course in the same subject is offered at their high school.

Typical Unweighted GPA Scale

The following is a standard unweighted GPA scale. While unweighted GPA scales can vary from high school to high school, it will give you a good sense of how unweighted GPAs are often calculated.

Letter GradeNumerical Grade RangeGPA
FBelow 650

The Real Academic Metric Used by Ivy League Schools: the Academic Index

The Academic Index (AI) is a score assigned to every Ivy League applicant. Calculated using a combination of the applicant’s class rank (when available), GPA (when available), and standardized test scores (when available), the AI typically must meet a certain threshold for Ivy League admissions officers to even read the rest of a student’s application! AI calculation is especially important for recruited athletes, who sometimes do not otherwise meet Ivy League admissions criteria but must maintain a bare minimum of academic performance as determined by AI in order for admission to be secured. 

We say GPA is factored into AI when available because not every school even calculates GPA! At these schools — which are often top boarding schools — college counselors encourage their students to leave the GPA field blank on The Common Application. But does this work to their determinant? Of course not! 

Students at these schools are at no disadvantage because admissions officers at America’s top colleges understand they’re following the instruction of the college counseling office. It’s a case in point that grades are always holistically evaluated within the context of the rigor of a student’s coursework and the quality of their high school.

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