Question: Due to circumstances beyond our control, my son has attended 3 high schools in 4 years. He's a stellar student with a high ACT score who's excelled at all schools. But the grading systems at each of his schools is different, so we're not sure of how he should report his GPA on his applications. OUR PROBLEM IS... the guidance counselor at his current school (for his 11 & 12 grades) doesn't want to report ANY GPA on a 4pt scale, unweighted or weighted. He wants to simply report only the percentage total for 11th grade at their school which is 97. I didn't even think it was reasonable to report a percentage as a GPA on the common app. I've always been told that it's expected that GPA is reported on a 4pt or 5pt scale.
My son is applying to very selective colleges and has been nominated for several major merit scholarships, too. He has been through so much with 3 school changes, yet he's persistently excelled. Thus we want his GPA to be accurately and fairly reported in order to give him the best possible chance for acceptances and scholarships. So how should he go about reporting his GPA?
Don't fret ... your “problem" isn't actually a problem at all. Granted, your son's situation is a little convoluted, but nothing that admissions pros ... especially at the more selective colleges ... haven't tackled before. It's really not as rare as you imagine.
All your son needs to do is to make sure that all of his target colleges (and scholarship programs) receive a transcript from each high school he attended along with a “school profile" from every school that explains its grading system and provides some extra information about classes offered, community demographics, etc. (In situations like yours, it's common for the school profile to come only from the senior-year high school, but it would be worth your while to gather profiles from the other two schools as well. They may even be available online.)
As you've already noted, colleges do not always officially use the GPA that is on the high school record ... whether weighted or unweighted. Instead, they may create their own formula which can vary from college to college. Some places, for example, will include only core academic subjects in this formula while others will use all grades. Some weight grades as they recalculate; some don't. So even if your son had attended only one high school, and even if the counselor at that high school provided colleges with both a weighted and an unweighted GPA on a 4- or 5-point scale, the final figure in your son's admissions-office file might be different. (And the GPA from his current school in percentage form is fine ... and frequent. College folks know how to convert it to a 4.0 scale. Easy-peasy!) ;-)
Often, when an applicant is evaluated by admission committees, the initial focus is on the unweighted GPA. Then the admission officials will scrutinize that GPA in the context of the rigor of the student's course load. Thus, the GPA on the application is just a jumping-off point and, from there, the process becomes more holistic (and subjective) as the adjudicators discuss whether the student reached that number via a demanding load or a lighter one.
If an application asks for a self-reported GPA, as the Common App does, your son can estimate the number. He should mark it unweighted (the application should allow him to choose this option) and he should compute it using the College Board's scale that you'll find here: https://pages.collegeboard.org/how-to-convert-gpa-4.0-scale. Then he can turn to the “Additional Information" section of his application (or a separate extra letter) to explain his multiple schools (with multiple grading systems) and how he arrived at the GPA that he listed on the application form. My advice, however, would be to not confuse the admission staff with too much detail in this statement. He should simply point out that he attended three schools with three different grading systems so he has estimated his average and is sending transcripts and profiles from each school. He can also use this same “Additional Information" statement (or letter) to explain WHY he attended so many schools. (Or this might be essay fodder instead ... depending on what the reasons were and if your son feels that he can discuss the transitions in an essay-worthy way.)
Your son sounds like an accomplished young man, and he should have many enviable college options. But do keep in mind that admission officials at the most sought-after schools are looking for more than just top grades and test scores. Such achievements will get applicants only to the outer gates. Next, the admission officers will ask, “What's special?" And the standard litany of teen endeavors will rarely qualify as “special." A candidate with an unweighted 3.8 GPA who has published a novel, danced on Broadway, or researched mercury telluride compounds in depth since age 12, is likely to sail by the applicant with a 4.0 who is vice president of the high school debate society and leads the marching band. Thus, your son's real challenge will be to highlight his unique accomplishments rather than to unravel the complexities of his grades.
Bottom line: There is plenty to worry about as you and your son navigate the admissions maze, but his atypical high school trajectory ... and the confusing GPA that comes with it ... shouldn't be on that list.