weighted gpa

Weighted GPA: Why a 4.0 Doesn’t Always Equal 4.0

Have you ever been at a party with friends when someone says, “I can’t believe SuchAndSuch didn’t get into XYZ State University. She had a 4.0!” Or maybe when Grandma asked about your grades, you told her you had a 4.0, even though you know you bombed AP English last semester?

The phrase “4.0” has the connotation of meaning “straight A’s” or “really, really good.” Today, a huge chunk of the population (Gen X and older) attended school when it was still impossible to earn over a 4.0.

RELATED: How to Convert Your GPA to a 4.0 Scale (from The College Board)

A 4.0 really did mean you had straight A’s. That’s no longer true. The GPA scale has changed, and how college admissions looks at GPA with it.

After all, many colleges now report an average GPA of students offered admission to be over a 4.0. How does that happen? Does that really mean that most of the students offered admission to that college had straight A’s in high school? No, no it doesn’t. Here’s why the 4.0 can now be so misleading.

Not All 4.0’s Are Equal

Not all 4.0’s are created equally. While some of the variation can be explained by different policies regarding which grades (include electives or not?) get calculated in a GPA, you can mostly thank the advent of the weighting system for the discrepancies.

For a host of complex and complicated reasons, most high schools now weight advanced courses on the high school transcript. This means an A in a weighted course will receive more than 4 points in the GPA calculation. Advanced/weighted courses generally include those labeled Honors, AP, IB, or Dual Enrollment.

There’s a catch, though. Not all school systems weight the same amount. Some schools might not weight Honors at all, while others weight Honors level courses. Some school systems might weight Dual Enrollment courses, but only certain ones. Many school systems weight advanced classes one point in the GPA calculation, but some school systems might weight AP classes two whole points. (I’m looking at you, entire state of NC prior to 2015.) Yes, that means if you earned a C, you still received a 4.0 in that class.

Forget the Number and Focus on the Transcript

This variation in weighted GPA can result in some whacky comparisons from one student to the next. I once saw a transcript from a student with a 4.8 GPA who earned 4 C’s in the junior year. This makes it impossible to make a thorough, informed, and fair decision regarding a student’s academic performance without taking a closer look at the transcript.

Having spent literally thousands of hours reviewing transcripts, my job would have been a hundred times easier if there was a standardized GPA weighting system. That won’t happen. As such, most universities use a transcript review process that includes either a human element to really discern what the school-reported GPA really reflects or a process that recalculates the GPA into a standard that will be meaningful for comparison and review.

So the next time you hear, “I have a 4.0” realize that you could be talking to someone who has multiple C’s. That weighted GPA does a number (pun intended) on the overall picture! Or you could be talking to someone who actually does have straight A’s. Similarly, with the addition of the holistic review process, understand that sometimes it does make perfect sense why someone with a 4.5 school-reported GPA might get a “thanks but no thanks” while a student with a 3.5 from another high school could get the fabulous “you’re in!” email.