Is there a list, by school, that specifies which is more important in the admissions process — the adjusted or unadjusted GPA? If not, how do I know which one colleges will look at more seriously?
Nope, there's not an official list that proclaims whether a college prioritizes a weighted or unweighted GPA, and there's not even an easy answer to your question. But “The Dean" will give it a shot, nonetheless.
An unweighted GPA (or “unadjusted," as you've called it) is the average of the final grades that a student receives in all classes, with no extra points given for classes labeled “Advanced Placement," “International Baccalaureate," “Honors," “Accelerated," etc. The most common high school grading system assigns four points to an A, three to a B, two to a C, one to a D and zero to an F. Most high schools add or subtract fractions of points for grades with a "+" or "-" appended. Therefore, when using the unweighted system, an A in AP Calculus is worth the same as an A in Business Math ... or even in Gym. And 4.0 is the highest GPA a student can attain.
However, because educators often believe that students should be rewarded for taking on extra challenge, many high schools will “weight" the grades of the more demanding classes. So a B in AP Calculus would provide four points (the same as an A in a “regular" math class) while an A in the AP class is worth five points.
You might expect that college admission officials would prefer the weighted GPA because it allows a clearer understanding of a student's workload and achievement and a fairer way to see how one candidate stacks up against the next. However, that's not entirely true. Your high school, for instance, might give a full extra point for every AP, IB, Honors or Accelerated class, while another high school nearby will give five points for an A in an AP or IB class but only 4.5 for an A in an Honors or Accelerated class. So you would end up with a higher weighted GPA than a friend from the second school, even if both of you earned the exact same grades in the exact same classes. This can mean confusing “apples versus oranges" comparisons for admission committees.
Thus, while college officials will certainly consider both the unweighted and weighted GPAs (if provided ... not all schools compute this), their primary emphasis is typically on what I call “The unweighted GPA in context." In other words, it's not just the final average that's important, but the route that a candidate took to get there. These days, the vast majority of colleges — even giant universities — practice what's called “holistic admissions." This means that they don't look only at GPAs and test scores, but they also scrutinize these figures in relationship to many other factors in the applicant's profile. These factors include socioeconomic background, other demographics, academic goals, extracurricular accomplishments and — above all — the strength of the curriculum when compared to what is offered at the student's high school.
An admission official might evaluate five applicants in the same afternoon who all show a 3.6 unweighted GPA on their transcripts. So the admission officer doesn't stop there. He or she will look for more information, such as the following:
- How many AP (or IB or other extra-demanding) classes did the student take?
- How many (and which ones) does the high school offer?
- Did the student choose the heavy-hitter AP classes (e.g., AP Calc, Chem, Bio, Physics) or go for less grueling AP's like Psychology and Environmental Science?
- How tough is the high school overall?
- Did the student also seek challenges outside of school, such as college classes or summer classes?
- Is the 3.6 GPA the result of fairly consistent grades throughout high school, or did the student flounder a bit as a freshman before earning only A's in the hardest classes later on?
The admission folks thus recognize that all 3.6 GPAs are not created equal, and students who have elected rigorous classes and gotten good grades in them will be favored over those who took less demanding classes or who got their best grades in Yearbook and Band. This is what I mean by “The unweighted GPA in context."
Moreover, in an effort to bring as much parity as possible to this crazy process, some colleges will create their own GPA for every applicant. They do this by taking grades in only core subjects and sometimes adding weight for the most rigorous classes. Thus, the GPA that these colleges will use when comparing candidates is neither the student's weighted nor unweighted GPA, but an institution-specific customized version.
Of course, ultimately, there will never be a transcript-evaluation process that is truly fair to everyone. You've probably noticed in your own school that the difficulty of your classes can be determined by the teachers you're assigned almost as much as by the subject matter. There's never been a student in the history of the free world who didn't at least once say something like, “I've got Mr. Masiello for Math. I'm screwed!"
Bottom line: As you continue through high school and make your academic choices, you'll boost your college acceptance odds (although not always your sanity!) by aiming for the most challenging classes that you think you can handle. And although your grades will certainly play a major role in your college outcomes, try not to focus excessively on either your weighted or your unweighted GPA because admission officials will be looking beyond these digits to see a bigger picture.
About the Ask the Dean Column
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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