Understanding the Difference Between Weighted and Unweighted GPAs

Learn about what it means to have a weighted GPA, how colleges recalculate applicants' GPAs, and what college admissions offices are looking for when it comes to course rigor.
Students taking a test

"Is my GPA heavy or light?"

This perplexing question came from one of my students in a conversation about his recent college visits. I was about to ask him what he meant, when it occurred to me that he'd probably heard admissions representatives discussing "weighted" and "unweighted" grade point averages during information sessions on campus. Understandably, this concept confuses many students and their parents as they navigate the college process.

So what does it mean if a high school "puts weight" in your GPA? Does it make your transcript heavier to lift? Hardly. "Weighted," in this case, refers to the additional point value added to grades to provide a numerical increase for more rigorous coursework. If an A+ in standard or college prep coursework is worth 4.0, then an A+ in an honors class will be worth slightly more. How much more is determined by the school's own grading scale. For the sake of our discussion, let's say that an honors grade of A+ is worth 4.15 points, and an A+ in an AP or IB course is worth even more; let's say, 4.3 points. So, a student with all A's in a less rigorous curriculum at a high school that puts weight into grades may have a 4.0 weighted GPA, while a student with A's in mostly honors and AP/IB courses might have a weighted GPA well above a 4.0.

Each high school creates its own grading scale, and these vary widely from school to school. I worked at two high schools. One put weight into the grades, similar to the point values mentioned in the previous paragraph. The other high school did not put weight into the grades. In addition, that school's grading scale was based on 100 points. There, an A+ in a standard course, an honors course, or an AP/IB course would have a value of 100 points.

Given this variation in practice, how, then, do colleges look at transcripts for students with a weighted vs unweighted GPA? They consider not just the grade in the course, but the rigor of the curriculum as well. Many colleges recalculate applicants' GPAs on an unweighted scale, then perform a rigor assessment to determine how many courses in that unweighted, recalculated GPA are honors or AP (or IB). For example, a student with straight A's in a standard curriculum would show an unweighted, recalculated GPA of 4.0, while a student with a mix of A's and B's in a curriculum that included many honors and AP/IB courses could have an unweighted, recalculated GPA of 3.8.  Which applicant will be more competitive for selective college admissions based on this grade evidence? The student with the more rigorous curriculum—even though the unweighted, recalculated GPA will appear lower than the student with all A's in standard courses. The bottom line: Colleges want to see that students are challenging themselves where appropriate, even if it means that they may not necessarily get all A's.

With all that said, not every college recalculates GPAs, so in those cases, the admissions review will involve a look at the GPA as reported by the high school. Often, the rigor assessment will also be part of this review. Admission readers will generally assess transcripts in terms of the patterns and progress (an upward trend, for example) shown by the applicant over the course of the years for which he or she has grades at the point of application (generally 9th, 10th, and 11th grade), and at some point, first semester 12th grade marks will be reviewed.

Students and parents often express concern that if their high schools do not put weight into their grades, it will be hard to be competitive in applicant pools against students whose high schools do put weight into the grades. I like to reassure them that the admission reviewers do have ways of sorting all of this out on their end, and of making sure they are considering not only grades, but rigor as well. So, if the GPA on your transcript is "weightless," don't worry—admissions readers will still recognize the gravity in your high school coursework.