Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Just How Important Is That GPA?

How many times does "GPA" (grade point average) come up in conversations you have with either your students or their families?  If you're like me, you hear it on a daily basis.  Is my GPA high-enough to get into college?  Will a C+ in this AP class ruin my GPA?  Shouldn't I take a standard-level class and get an A versus an honors level class and get a B since it will make my GPA higher?  It can leave you wondering if the GPA is the be-all, end-all for students and college admissions.

A recent article in USA Today looked into this issue, and finds what college admissions offices have been telling us for years--that for many schools, the GPA in-and-of itself is not a key factor.  Rather, it is the grades students receive in their classes and the rigor and challenge of the classes themselves about which colleges are really concerned.  Below is the list of factors in rank order from the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC):


GPA is not listed.  When I share this with parents and students, they often go into shock.  Why is this?  Every school and/or school system computes GPA's in different ways.  When I was in high-school, in my district everything was factored in except for PE classes, and certain courses deemed more rigorous were given weights.  Other school systems weight nothing, regardless of the level of the class, while others will assign a +.5 weight to an honors class when someone else assigns the same level of class a +1.0 weight and another a +2.0 weight.  Some use 5.0 versus a 4.0 scale.  There is no real consistency from one school system to the next, and as college admissions offices receive applications from all over the United States and the world, trying to compare applicants by their GPAs is like comparing apples to oranges.  Thus, many colleges will recompute GPA's according to their own formulas to level the playing field for the students in their applicant pool, like the University of Florida in the USA Today article.  Some will take out all weights.  Some will only factor in "core" classes to include math, science, English, social-studies, and world language.  Others will not do any computations at all, but rather evaluate the transcript holistically, looking at the level of classes a student took and the grades they received in those classes.  Check out this video from the Office of Admissions at Virginia Polytechnic University (Virginia Tech):

If this is the case, why deal with GPA's at all?  They can be great tools in-house.  We use Naviance in our school system, and one benefit is that it allows students to compare their GPA's with the GPA's of past-students (no identifying information is given) who applied to a specific college or university.  Because the data is restricted to one school, this is a like-to-like comparison using the same GPA computation.  Thus, it can give a student a realistic idea of how they might stack up based on past year's admission data for their school.  However, even this needs a word of caution, as the rigor of the classes may not always be reflected within this one data point.  Thus, a student can have a really high GPA but not necessarily be competitive depending on their class choices, or a student from your school can have a slightly lower GPA than the average for a particular college but still be a strong candidate because of the rigorous classes they took.  Additionally, the GPA can be a good common reference point when talking to students and families in general about post-secondary goals within your own school population.  It is an understood measurement within your community to begin discussions about classes and college goals.

Still, the best advice for students and families may be to focus a little bit less on the GPA, take the most challenging and rigorous courses you can manage successfully within the context of your entire life, and strive to get A's and B's in all your classes.  That, in and of itself, is the best formula for the beginnings of a strong college admissions profile.

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