GPA Explained–With Some Simple Advice

One of my most popular posts is dedicated to explaining the difference between an unweighted and weighted GPA.  It generated a lot of discussion (and continues to do so).

I thought I would take the opportunity to provide more clarity about how a GPA is used in the college admissions process.

But an initial word of caution is in order:  the generalizations below must be treated as such.  Many individual readers are looking for hard and fast rules about how their grades will be treated by admissions officers.  The fact is, every case is different:  different colleges, different students, different years…the number of variables is enormous.  So use these general rules as your guides, not as gospel.

Your transcript is your number one most important document in the admissions process.  This is the proverbial “permanent record,” at least as far as colleges are concerned.  The courses you have taken and the grades you have earned tell a college most of what they need to know about you as a student.  More than your test scores, more than your extracurriculars, more than your community service, and more than your teacher recommendations, your transcript documents your past and is a pretty good predictor of your academic future.

The rigor of the courses you take is as important as the grades you earn.  If you hope to gain entry to the most competitive colleges in the country, you have to take the hardest courses offered and do well in them.  So every student should take the most difficult courses they can handle—and get the best grades possible.  See this post for more information on academic rigor vs. grades.

Your academic core courses count more than your non-academic electives.  The GPA recorded on your transcript takes includes your performance in gym, choir, keyboarding, health, and the like.  These courses may be required for graduation, but they are not usually part of the requirements for admission.  College is not a vacation resort:  it is an academic experience.  So you will be judged on your academic performance in the core courses:  math, science, English, social studies, and foreign language.  See this post for more on calculating your core GPA.

If you take honors, Advanced Placement (AP), or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, you may be given “extra credit” in your GPA to compensate for the rigor of these courses.  Schools do this primarily to reward high performing students with a higher class rank (which is explained in this post).  But an A is an A is an A.  If you get a B in an honors course, it is never the equivalent of an A in some other course.  Don’t rationalize and try to convince yourself otherwise.

Colleges do look at grade trends, so if your transcript has some blotches on it, you always have an opportunity to make improvements.  Bad grade in 9th grade life science?  Do better in 10th grade chemistry.  Colleges like to see students who pull themselves together and begin performing to potential.  You will not be able to erase the stains, but you can make the overall picture more attractive.

So what’s the bottom line?  Simple rules

  1. Take the hardest courses you can.
  2. Get good grades.
  3. Don’t rationalize poor performance.
  4. It’s never too late to get your academic act together.


Mark Montgomery
College Counselor




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Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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  2. i have a 92 unweighted average because i took band in my freshman year and got a 84 average for the year my physical education average was also only a 90 all of my core grades are 93+ so i was wondering if college admissions will be able to see that my unweighted gpa would be a 96 or 97 when excluding minor classes such as band and gym. Will my school allow me to send colleges the gpa without those classes or does it not matter because the college admissions see that its because of low grades in minor classes. its the opposite of what you point out because my non core grades actually bring down my core grades as opposed to bringing them up, thank you and i will be waiting for a response

  3. Hello. Colleges will see whatever is printed on your secondary school transcript . Your school decides what goes on it. Colleges will pay attention to everything, but they are going to be most interested in your academic courses and performance. They will also look at trends…upward trends are obviously preferred.

    I hope that helps! Thanks for writing in!

  4. Hey mark,im an international student and applying for nyu abu dhabi.i am a nigerian and they said i needed only my international result that is my how do i calculate my gpa and weight it or unweight it because we do not do such things here in my country.i would be glad if u reply via email

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