Why do high schools give extra weights to honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses?
Readers of some of my other posts related to GPA have expressed confusion. I have stated that admissions folks at selective colleges are most interested in your unweighted GPA. So these extra weightings are, in effect, stripped in order to come up with your core academic GPA.
So why do high schools give these extra weightings, only to have them taken away by colleges?
Answer: Class rank.
High schools face a problem: how to rank kids by GPA when they have very different curricula? One student is taking Calculus III in senior year, while another is just getting through Algebra 2. Both earn an A in their respective math classes. In order to give the first student a higher rank in the graduating class, schools need to add a little something to the value of that A in Calculus.
Colleges do like to know where students rank in their high school class. Some schools report rank right on the transcript, which is helpful shorthand for college admissions officers. Class rank, then, is a reflection of both academic performance (grades) and the rigor of the curriculum—in comparison with other students at the same school.
But some high schools do neither calculate nor report class rank. This some schools do not give extra weight honors classes. Some weigh AP classes more—or less—than honors or IB courses. There is no standard practice among high schools in the United States.
Should this lack of standardization worry you as you apply to colleges?
Answer: Not really.
College admissions folks, especially at the most selective colleges and universities, are quite accustomed to comparing apples to oranges. Most sophisticated admissions operations will also have a bead on specific high schools (often specific officers are responsibile for certain cities, regions, or states), and most high schools submit “school profile” reports along with your transcript, to help college admissions officers interpret your grades. Ivy League schools even have some complicated formulas they use that factor in class rank, test scores, and GPA to come up with a number that helps them to compare apples to apples.
So what should you take away from this discussion?
1. Understand the difference between your weighted and unweighted GPA and its importance in the admissions process.
2. Understand that the grades that count the most are those in your academic core subjects.
3. Understand that class rank is important in the process (but no so much that you should fight tooth and nail for that one-thousandth of a point difference to move up a notch–more on that later!).
4. Know that admissions officers have seen all this before, and they are professional (but not scientific!) in how they do their job.
UPDATE October 13, 2009: For more on GPA and class rank, you might want to check out this post here.