Scrolling through your next year’s course catalog looking for the best classes, turning in diligently completed homework, and trying hard any chance you get–if that is you, you are not alone in this continuous strive for the perfect GPA. 

Most students begin calculating their projected GPA even before they have completed the first semester of freshman year in high school. There’s no doubt that GPA is one of the essential pieces of information colleges will consider in your application. However, not only will GPA vary drastically in the way your high school calculates it, but it also changes depending on how colleges recalculate it when using their formula. 

It is undoubtedly great to set goals and strive for the best you can achieve, but before the GPA game becomes a stressful reality, find out how your school calculates GPA. Many high school students have no choice but to settle for classes available in that particular year. High schools can change their AP availability and even change the grading systems halfway through the year. Stay in touch with any changes, and do not despair. 

GPA matters, but it is not everything. 

For clarification purposes, and since some high schools use unweighted vs. weighted GPA, let’s review the difference between the two and how each is calculated. 

Fundamental Differences Between Weighted and Unweighted GPAs

Unweighted GPA

Traditionally, GPA is calculated on an unweighted scale. An unweighted GPA is measured on a scale of 0 to 4.0. It doesn’t take the difficulty of a student’s coursework into account. An unweighted GPA represents an A as a 4.0 whether it was earned in an honors class, AP class, or lower-level class. An unweighted GPA is measured on a scale of 0 to 4.0, and it does not take into consideration the difficulty of a student’s coursework. An unweighted GPA means an A, whether it was earned in AP class, honors class, or a general degree program class. 

Weighted GPA 

This represents the student’s academic accomplishments as it does take under account the course difficulty, and it is measured on a scale of 0 to 5.0, some even higher. So, an A in an AP class might translate into a 5.0 weighted GPA, and an A in a regular class will turn into a 4.0 weighted GPA. If the student took honors classes, the highest weighted GPA earned would be 4.5.

How are these calculated?

Unweighted GPA – since there is no consideration of the level of classes, the calculation is easy. For example, if the student is taking five classes, and in two, the grade is As = 4.0, and in the other three, it is a Bs = 3.0. The unweighted GPA will be the sum of all = 3.4.

Here is a visual representation in case the grades earned are all over the map. 

Letter Grade/Percentile/ GPA

A +  97-100 4.0

A     93-96   4.0

A-   90-92   3.7

B +   87-89  3.3

B     83-86  3.0  

B-    80-82  2.7

C+   77-79  2.3

C     73-76   2.0

C-    70-72  1.7

D+   67-69  1.3

D     65-66  1.0

F     Below 65 0.0

Most schools, more or less, follow this scale for unweighted GPAs. Yours may be slightly different, but it shouldn’t vary too much. Weighted GPA – if we use the same example as above, As+As+Bs+Bs+Bs, to calculate the weighted GPA, we have to consider each grade in conjunction with the class level. 

Translation: using the unweighted GPA conversion scale for grades in regular classes, adding 0.5 to the scale for honors classes, and adding 1.0 for AP classes. So, it will look like this: 

Grade A in regular class =4.0

Grade A in honors class = 4.5

Grade B in AP class = 4.0

Grade B in honors class = 3.5

The sum of all five grades divided by 5, and the weighted GPA is 4.0. 

Not all schools will use this exact weighted GPA scale, but as you can see, there can be a big difference between the numbers you get for unweighted GPA and weighted GPA based on the types of classes you’re taking. 

When it comes to the importance of the GPA with college admissions, it is important to remember that admissions look at your coursework in conjunction with your GPA to reach a conclusion about your academic potential. They understand that some schools do not consider the difficulty of students’ classes when calculating GPA. If you challenge yourself in your classes but don’t have an absolute number in the end, you will still look better in the college admissions process than someone in regular-level classes who has a 4.0.

It may be harder to stand out from your classmates with your GPA because more students will have the same level of class difficulty. If class rank is based purely on unweighted GPA, your class rank may not reflect the effort you expended. Students with a lot of AP classes can have lower unweighted GPAs than students who took less stressful classes despite being more academically driven.

College admissions officers are aware of the limits of the unweighted system, and they will look closely at your course record to determine whether your GPA is an accurate reflection of your academic potential. The bottom line is that colleges will look more in-depth than the raw numbers when evaluating your high school academic record regardless of whether your GPA is weighted or unweighted.

   If Your School Uses Weighted GPA…

A 4.0 may be the commonly accepted gold standard, but with a weighted GPA, everything shifts upward. A genuinely remarkable GPA under the weighted system will be close to a 5.0, but even that kind of number, as impressive as it might sound, is not a golden ticket to Harvard’s gates. Admissions officers will be able to tell which classes you took and how much you pushed yourself, so your GPA by itself becomes only one part of a much larger picture. 

With a weighted GPA, your class rank is more likely to reflect your academic drive and ability because your GPA is a reflection of both your grades and the levels of the classes in which you earned them. You’ll have a higher rank than someone who earns the same grades as you in lower-level courses.

So what do colleges care about at the end?

This is a loaded question, and the answer is one size does not fit all. At the end of your high school journey, your GPA will be a reflection of your work ethic, drive to succeed, interests, and personality. That’s that! Challenge yourself and get ready to stay in for the long run. The GPA is just one part of that personality side of yours, so it will be the entire application that will have to present a connect the dots story, which, if well put together will emerge as your real personality and character. 

If your transcript shows the increasing difficulty in your coursework, this will look impressive to colleges, even if your GPA isn’t perfect. If you have a 4.0 GPA but took all the least challenging classes in high school, colleges will be less impressed since you didn’t push yourself academically. This means you should continue working on taking challenging classes and getting high grades in them to be as impressive as possible.

Their most significant concern is that you’ve managed to challenge yourself intellectually with your coursework. 

How should you then raise your GPA, develop a work ethic, and winning attitude toward success? Perhaps that is an important question that needs to be answered here as well. 

Have you heard about the saying that spending 10,000 hours achieving mastery is what is ultimately needed to succeed? This rule was developed by Anders Ericsson and made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, and ever since, it has been gracing the podcasts and the TED talks around the world. I know, if you are like me, you must be thinking I don’t have 10,000 hours to master all of the things I need (and have) to master. Besides, this rule presupposes that merely spending that many hours will make anyone a master at a craft, while, in fact, there are many other factors that play a role. 

So if this isn’t the way, then what is?

Help is all around, so learn to recognize it.

Find a mentor, a role model, a master who has achieved mastery and is now ready to teach it. 

In this case, being in high school has its most significant benefits. Find that one teacher that is ready to help and make him or her your most excellent resource. Make yourself open to feedback, ask questions, and aspire to learn. We have mirror neurons that learn by watching our mentors or learning from reading our virtual mentors. In our minds’ eye, we take the place of the main character and download his or her life, making the experience ours. This is the same reason why when you watch a movie; you can experience fear and happiness as if you are the main character. 

Knowing this, when I wanted to learn how to be a better test taker, I would research about excellent test takers and how they succeeded. I would watch videos for hours on end until I internalized the material and followed the pattern and speed of great test-takers. But what if you are not so fortunate and such mentors don’t come easily at your school? There are always books, and although books seem to dispense theoretical knowledge, they can force you to analyze your mistakes and make you reflect on past troubles. 

Spend time honing what you are good at.

That AP Physics C class that most of your classmates dread might be your saving grace only because you are naturally attuned with the material. And if that happens to be the one for you, pursue it vigorously. It will inevitably have a substantial impact on your overall GPA. Teachers love enthusiastic students, even if that enthusiasm is not in the subject area they teach. 

Passion for lerning is contagious. 

Take notes and study them.

When you study for a test, to maximize what you’ve learned, take notes, and summarize the “ten things to take away from this.” This is a great exercise to improve your long term memory and make the knowledge stick. 

Often times, when studying for a test, reading out loud, the material can be beneficial too.

Find a like-minded group of friends.

And while mentors are great to get guidance from, finding classmates and friends who share your interests and talk about those interests is another great way. The mentors will be on another level and not always available and enthused about the beginning stages of shared interest. But with friends, you will be equally striving and finding your path through learning together.

There are many examples of collaborative work that has led to great results and long-term friendships. Authors like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, all rose as writers together by comparing notes, editing each other’s works, and ultimately encouraging each other, for over 20 years.) 

And this brings me to my next point. Just when you finish one year of high school, the next one will roll around, and no matter how familiar a subject feels, once the tests and homework start piling, it will feel like you are on the edge of failure. Every single time. You will never think that you have achieved the goal and reached the end. Not even at the end when it is May, and you have just finished the set of AP tests. And that is normal. But the only solution to success here is to have learned from failure on time. And there is going to be a failure, so embrace it and learn from it. The lost points on homework, the procrastination before a long lab work due, the AP Analysis that demands 20,000 words paper, and nothing has been done three days before due; all that is a failure to plan or execute on time. 

And failure is painful but cliche as it sounds–no pain, no gain. 

But here is the good news: failure can force you to look and value success. Failure is the growth mindset we all pray for but do not welcome when the moment comes. 

Your GPA and your health are closely related. 

This will not at all be possible if you are not getting the needed hours of sleep and proper nutrition. 

Raising your GPA will only happen if you are in a sound state of mind when you are not troubled by sleepless nights and bad relationships. This, in fact, is the number one requirement. 

If you don’t sleep enough, you’ll be too tired, and you won’t learn.

If you’re in a bad relationship, your brain will be distracted, and you won’t learn.

If you don’t exercise your creativity, you won’t be able to combine ideas and learn or produce new ideas. If you are too anxious, you will spend too much mental energy worrying about the future instead of learning in the present. 

It boils down to mental, physical, and spiritual health. You need all three. 

Improving your GPA can seem like a juggernauts task if you look at it as one big number. 

Break it down into subjects and see where you might have to put extra effort. Identify the issue where you fall short of your ideal goal and make it a point to improve by 1 percent every day. The key is to have consistency and stick to the one percent every day (and if you feel this is too negligible to move the needle, calculate the 1% a day over the ten months, which is the length of one school year.) How many times better is that than where you started?

Stay organized.

There is one other factor that often gets neglected but is very important, much like sleep and nutrition, and that is taking detailed notes and staying organized. 

Take copious notes and personalize them to make learning easy and relatable. If your notes are colorful and organized, you will be able to stay motivated when reviewing. Besides, who wants to go through the grueling work of revising notes before a test just to be able to read it. 

Unorganized notes and untidy desks can mess up the thought process and overwhelm the brain. 

This next suggestion goes back to the failure point. And that is to review past mistakes and correct them. It is a smart move to solve old test questions since they will provide you with the perfect type of practice.

Record and celebrate your progress.

Keeping a close watch on your grades will create an internal barometer in you that will be like a control mechanism helping you to self-regulate. Over time, it will be easy to track success and failure. Still, more importantly, you will be able to envision the outcome and successfully prevent a problem before it even happens. 

Either way, it is a win-win.

And last but not least, to keep your vision of the desired GPA and, most importantly, achieve that vision will require you to stay calm and collected. Stress before or during the test is a significant impediment, and always counterproductive. Have confidence in yourself, and remember that you are more than just a number, but way, way more!

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