Students have been told that they need more than just a perfect high school GPA to get into college — they also need to be well-rounded and participate in many extracurriculars. But, just how important is your GPA, especially to top schools?
Ivy League school expectations for GPAs are set extremely high — they have some of the lowest acceptance rates around and it can be hard to stand out in an impressive applicant pool. There are, however, other factors that play significant roles in college admissions, especially with the use of holistic evaluation. Holistic evaluation means that many admissions committees will not only consider numeric measures like SAT or ACT scores and GPA on a student’s college application, but will also look at supplemental essays, letters of recommendation, school involvement, internship experience, and hobbies in areas like sports or arts.
What is GPA?
GPA, or grade point average, is a calculation of a student’s scores across all of their high school classes. This measure serves to show a student’s overall success in their studies and is important when applying to colleges.
Basically, GPA is the total average of all of a student’s grades throughout their time in high school. Higher grades like As will translate to higher GPAs, while lower or failing grades will bring the average GPA down. There are two different types of GPA: unweighted and weighted.
An unweighted GPA reflects the grade earned in a course, without taking the course level into consideration. It is always reported on a 4.0 scale. This holds all students at the same level, which makes it easier to weigh students against each other in terms of academic success.
A weighted GPA takes into consideration the score in a particular class, as well as the difficulty level of that class (for example, AP classes are usually considered more challenging than regular courses). High schools calculate these differently, but the most common scale reaches 5.0. The variability in this scale causes issues in being able to compare students across high schools.
What Colleges See
Colleges prefer to examine the unweighted GPA of a student when they make admissions decisions, as unfair as it may seem to students. This means that students must shoot for all As in their classes if they are aiming for a perfect GPA while also taking the hardest coursework available to them; although Ivy League colleges may prefer an unweighted GPA, they still are interested in the difficulty of the classes that students are taking, just not in correlation with their grades.
Some top colleges also look at class rank, which is determined by GPA. This is where a student’s grades place in comparison to their peers within their own high school. Not all high schools rank their students, however, so this doesn’t apply to all applicants.
GPA and Ivy League Schools
To be completely honest, most students who want to have the best chances of acceptance to top schools like the Ivy Leagues need to have good GPAs that place them around the top 10% in their classes.
Since the Ivy Leagues receive many applications every year, there are many students with strong academic performances and good grades. This means that, in order to stay competitive, it would be best for the applicant to also demonstrate a strong GPA in addition to other important metrics.
There is a list of criteria outside of GPA that colleges use to evaluate students students when considering admission. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Difficulty of Curriculum Taken
- Standardized Test Scores
- Extracurricular Activities
- Letter(s) of Recommendation
- Personal Essays
Is GPA the Most Important to Ivy Leagues?
It is almost impossible to rank which are the most important factors for admissions. Every college wants different things and looks at students differently. However, GPA is certainly a large factor for colleges, especially for top universities that many students want to attend. Not all colleges have a minimum GPA requirement for admission, so GPA can also work more as a starting point for universities to contextualize students’ overall academic success.
Even though some schools may not have a required minimum GPA, there is typically a cutoff value that students should reach in order to be considered competitive applicants.
Strong GPAs will certainly help students land their applications in front of the Ivy League admissions boards, where the standards are pretty high. Students should also keep in mind, though, that GPA is not the only factor that plays a role in their college admissions! It can be a great way to demonstrate strong learning skills and dedication to academics, but other factors can also demonstrate those qualities.
While Ivy League institutions and other top colleges will prefer to admit students with GPAs on the higher end of their high schools, that doesn’t necessarily mean the valedictorian and salutatorian will always gain admission to every Ivy League — they’re looking for the whole package!
What are Schools are Part of the Ivy League?
First, which schools are Ivy League schools? There are eight Ivy League institutions, known for their rigorous academics and strong reputations:
- Harvard University
- Yale University
- Princeton University
- Columbia University
- Brown University
- Dartmouth College
- University of Pennsylvania
- Cornell University
Is GPA the Most Important to Ivy Leagues?
The Ivy Leagues are all different in culture, admissions processes, and academics, but all prioritize academic excellence and will require relatively strong GPAs for admission. For Princeton, competitive applicants have unweighted GPAs of 3.8. Harvard has named a weighted GPA of around 4.18 to be a “sweetspot” number for students looking to gain admission to the number one college in the country.
For most of the Ivy League schools, they expect as close to a 4.0 unweighted GPA as possible. However, the actual unweighted GPAs of students admitted could vary, with many around the 3.5-4.0 range.
GPA alone will not make or break a student’s application — but it can play a pretty influential role.
These colleges want to make sure that all of their admitted students will not only be able to keep up with the academic demands of their schools, but that they can excel. This is a primary reason why Ivy League schools are looking for students with strong GPAs in high school.
What Does this Mean for Me?
It can be daunting for students to learn about the high GPA expectations of Ivy League universities, but they shouldn’t let that deter them from applying to their dream schools!
There are still many other criteria that could make you desirable to a school, such as extracurriculars and standardized test scores. Having a well-rounded education is just as important as a high GPA. Students should focus on making their true interests and personality shine through their application — that’s what will capture admissions officers’ attention and could even help an application with a slightly lower GPA.
What’s more, admissions officers understand that life can get in the way of perfect grades. Many Ivy League applications will include a place for students to explain a semester of lower grades or personal instances that might have gotten in the way of reaching a perfect 4.0. This can present a good opportunity for students who faced hard circumstances and want a chance to explain why their GPA is not an accurate representation of their time in high school.
Will a Lower GPA Mean Automatic Rejection from Ivy Leagues?
Context is everything for college admissions. Ivy League universities will want to see high GPAs, but they will also consider the difficulty of students’ course loads: it is more impressive to admissions boards if a student challenged themselves with the hardest available classes than if they received straight As in the easiest classes available.
This is good news for students who may think their GPAs are not high enough to gain admission to their dream school or an Ivy League university. If colleges notice that a student started out with Bs in their freshman year, but then throughout the years took harder courses and eventually got all As their senior year, they will likely consider the student’s learning curve and ability to adapt. Demonstrating improvement can be just as powerful, if not more powerful, than showing consistency.
Can Anyone Help Me Stand Out?
SoFlo tutors are students from top universities who are eager to help you make the most of your high school career and prepare you for the college application process. Check out our tutoring and test prep services for a virtual tutor who will help you reach your goal GPA and SAT score!
About the Author
Keli Pegula is a sophomore at Dartmouth on the Pre–Med track. She’s a SoFlo tutor who scored 1480 on her SATs and 34 on her ACTs. When she’s not at school in Hanover, she might be in her hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania — the town where the iconic TV show The Office is set!