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Last updated March 8, 2023

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Everything You Need to Know about Academics & GPA

Key Takeaway

Academic evaluations factor in a number of criteria, including GPA, course rigor, standardized test scores, and more. In this post, we explain how an admissions officer looks at your academics and GPA in context. 

Admissions evaluations almost always start with an academic evaluation. Is your grade point average (GPA) within the range we typically find competitive? How rigorous was your course load? Is your rank in class around where we typically find students admissible?

When I was an admission officer, the first thing I looked for was the student’s unweighted GPA. The next place I looked was the weighted GPA and where the student’s GPA and rigor were in relation to the rest of their graduating class. These data points give a valuable, albeit incomplete, insight into the student’s academic achievement within their high school.

Here, I will walk you through how admissions offices factor in your weighted and unweighted GPAs, the documents that contribute to the academic evaluation of your application, and various practices and policies admission offices have in place.

How admission offices make an academic evaluation

As I discussed above, admissions starts with academics. Colleges and universities are looking for students, after all. Yes, extracurricular activities, essays, and letters of recommendation are exceptionally important too. But if your academics don’t make you a viable candidate for admission, especially at a highly selective school, your admission officer might not even get to your essays.

We discuss academic review in our breakdown of how admissions offices process tens of thousands of applications. But for a quick recap, here are the factors that make up your academic review:

  • GPA (weighted and/or unweighted)
  • Course rigor within what your school offers
  • Standardized test scores (if submitted)
  • Other qualitative information:
    • Counselor recommendation letter
    • School profile

Difference between weighted and unweighted GPA

Unweighted GPA

Traditionally, an “unweighted” GPA is a number on a 0.0 - 4.0 scale. A “perfect” GPA (i.e. all As) would be a 4.0. Most American students are familiar with this model and are provided a GPA on their transcript. Note that some schools use different scales for unweighted GPA like a 100-point scale, 5 or 6 point scale, or even just a written transcript. Colleges understand this and will have policies in place to offer these students an equitable evaluation. Often, that means reconverting into a 4.0 scale.

Your unweighted GPA gives a clear picture of your overall grades on a standardized scale—that is, without taking into account what school you go to or what classes you took. As an admission officer, if I see a 4.0, I know this student has never received a grade below an A. If I see a 3.3, I immediately know they are a B+ average student, and so on. This is a quick hit of important data, but I need a lot more information.

Weighted GPA

A weighted GPA is a grade point average that is weighted to reflect the rigor of the curriculum. Schools often add extra points (or “weight”) when a student takes more challenging courses like honors or AP courses. Note that there are numerous ways to calculate a weighted GPA, so weighted GPAs should not be compared across high schools and curricula.

A common example is adding one point of possible GPA to an AP class, where an A in an AP class is a 5.0 rather than 4.0.

Weighted GPAs are useful to help quantify where a student falls in relation to their classmates when taking both grades and rigor into consideration. Extrapolate the example above to a graduating class of 300 students who took different courses and earned different grades. Some students would have GPAs above a 4.0, meaning they took advanced coursework and earned a high grade point average. As with unweighted GPA, this number is not a complete set of information, but it provides a quick hit of important data to admissions officers.

When colleges receive multiple applications from a single high school, a logical way to organize them is by weighted GPA because this singular number includes built-in context about rigor, which is an important factor. Doing this gives admissions officers a sense of which applicants from that school have higher levels of academic achievement relative to their peers.


Remember, the academic evaluation is where the admissions evaluation starts, but it is far from over. Your full transcript and test scores are part of an academic evaluation too. The admission officers reviewing the file need to dig a lot deeper into the written components of the file to better understand the applicant’s strengths and interests. It is quite common for a student with a relatively lower GPA from a high school to be admitted over a student with a relatively higher GPA based on the other factors of their application.

Also keep in mind that schools are looking for great community members and students who will engage outside of the classroom. They also have other institutional priorities like filling slots in particular majors, attaining a gender balance, enrolling students from historically under-represented groups, and even enrolling recruited athletes. Admissions is both very personal and not that personal all at the same time. If you need additional support with your application or essays, feel free to reach out to us.

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