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Grades, GPA, and Class Rank

When admission officers evaluate an applicant, one of the first things they look at is the quality of courses taken. If an applicant dropped math to take Extreme Weight Lifting and avoided every honors and AP course offered, no amount of A‘s will impress a competitive college. On the other hand, a student who takes every AP course she can cram into her schedule does herself no good if she ends up with C‘s. In short, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that grades matter.

How Do Colleges Evaluate Grades?

To begin with, they‘re more interested in grades in core academic classes than electives, but the overall grade point average, or GPA, is also important. Interpreting GPA information is tricky, though. How can you compare Cori‘s 3.78 from her high school in a blue collar suburb of Ohio to Caitlyn‘s 3.56 from a tony neighborhood of San Francisco? Obviously you can‘t. Not only does the competitiveness of the student body, the rigor of courses, and the grading standard of teachers differ across any two schools, but the method used to calculate GPA may be completely different as well.

Consider the impact of a high school‘s decision about “weighting” (assigning extra grade points to advanced courses). If a school chooses not to weight any course, then the highest GPA a student can attain is 4.0, regardless of how many advanced courses he takes.  By contrast, in high schools that weight honors and/or AP courses, students who take many such courses can have GPAs of 4.5 and up. Consequently, it makes no sense to compare GPAs of students from different high schools.

An isolated GPA doesn’t even provide much useful information about the extent to which a student has excelled at her own high school. Is Samantha’s GPA of 3.7 an impressive achievement at Suburban High? Who knows? Add the information that she’s at the 95th percentile of her class, however, and the 3.7 seems a lot more impressive than if we had no rank information – or learned that she ranked at the 70th percentile. Knowing a student’s class rank, therefore, gives colleges a much better idea of what a student’s GPA means at a particular school.

Class Rank

The concept of ranking students in order of descending GPA’s appears like a straightforward way of comparing student achievement. However, it’s anything but that. Methods of calculating GPA and class rank vary from school to school, and parents who don’t understand their school’s system are sometimes surprised and disappointed to learn in the fall of their son’s senior year that his rank is a good deal lower than they expected. Avoid surprises by educating yourself early—preferably before your teenager begins high school—about four major issues.

1. Does your high school report class rank to colleges?
Many schools, particularly private and highly competitive ones, don’t calculate class rank - or calculate it but don’t report it. To get a rough estimate of the percentage of students whose high schools report class rank information, I consulted online 2013-14 Common Data Sets (a uniform collection of data) from a number of top colleges that I chose randomly. At Stanford, The University of Virginia, Duke, Yale, MIT, and Cornell, the percentage of freshmen who submitted a high school rank ranged from a low of 28% (Yale) to a high of 46% (University of Virginia). Put simply, the majority of applicants at all these top colleges came from high schools that did not provide class rank information.

If your son’s high school doesn’t report students’ class rank to colleges, you can relax. While you’ll still want to understand how GPA is calculated, you don’t need to worry about how minor changes in his GPA will affect his class rank. 

2. How are GPA and class rank calculated?
If your school does report class rank information, the next thing you need to know is whether the complete GPA is used to rank students, or a modified GPA that excludes non-academic courses like driver’s education.

Then, learn your school’s formula for calculating GPA—along with any unintentional consequences of the methodology—so that you can help your child make informed choices about course selection. For example, one formula for calculating GPA adds the point values of all grades and then divides by the number of grades. In other words, a student‘s cumulative GPA is the mean of all grades earned. This formula has the virtue of being easy to understand, but has a significant drawback. If advanced courses are weighted, students who have a GPA above 4.0 will be penalized for taking extra unweighted courses.

To understand why this is true, consider the following hypothetical scenario. Both Salina and Jeremy begin senior year with a 4.2 grade point average. Now suppose that both students take the same five major academic courses, but Salina takes an extra band class while Jeremy takes advantage of his school's option for seniors to forego a sixth course and come to school one period later. If both students finish the year with straight A‘s, Salina will have a lower GPA than Jeremy because of her extra unweighted band course. Mathematically, once a student‘s cumulative GPA is greater than 4.0, averaging in any additional grade of 4.0 will lower it.

Students whose schools utilize this formula often feel the need to forego unweighted electives, even ones they’d really like to take, to protect their class rank. Doesn't seem quite right, does it? If your teen attends a school that utilizes this type of GPA calculation, I'd suggest you advocate for changing to an alternative methodology that doesn't penalize students for taking extra unweighted electives. At a minimum, once your teen's GPA surpasses 4.0, you need to carefully consider the fact that every unweighted elective she takes beyond what is required will lower her GPA. She may decide to continue taking chorus anyway – and that’s not necessarily the wrong decision – but at least she won’t be surprised to learn that her rank has fallen relative to another student who avoided unweighted electives.

Another issue to educate yourself about is how grades in repeated courses are treated. For example, suppose your son has a terrible experience in his chemistry course and ends the year with a D. He takes it again the following year and pulls a B. Will both grades be included in his GPA, will the B replace the D, or is there some other policy? On a related note, how are grades from summer school courses treated?

Sometimes a student has one bad experience that really impacts his GPA negatively; a straight A student who got a single C in first year French, for example. By finding out your school’s policy on repeated courses, you might discover that she could repeat the course and completely erase the low grade.

3. Which courses are weighted?
Some high schools weight high school level courses taught at an advanced level, like honors geometry, while others weight only college level courses, such as Advanced Placement offerings. Find out which courses are weighted at your daughter’s school so you can help her make informed course selections.

4. How does your school treat grades in courses taken elsewhere?
A relatively new issue regarding class rank is whether courses taken outside the school are weighted and included in class rank. A generation ago, the vast majority of students took only those courses offered by their high school. Today, however, many schools permit – even encourage – students to take college level courses at local community colleges, at university summer schools, or online. If courses taken outside the high school are weighted and included in GPA calculation, then some students – particularly those with the greatest resources – will be able to inflate their GPA by taking courses that other students may not even have access to. Further, it provides an opportunity for students to increase their GPA covertly, robbing their competitors of the opportunity to respond by taking additional courses themselves.

Does this sound crazy? If you’re the parent of a typical high school student, you’re thinking I’m way off base, that your son doesn’t know or care what his rank is—and you’re probably right. But students aspiring to top colleges are often acutely aware of their rank, and many find themselves embroiled in bitter GPA wars with kids who were once good friends. Is class rank really that important?

How Much Does Rank Matter?

Colleges as a group are reporting far less interest in class rank. The 2012 survey of member colleges by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that among the admission factors that colleges use to evaluate applicants, the one whose importance had decreased the most over time was class rank. The percentage of colleges that rated it considerably important, the highest rating, plummeted from 42% in 1993 to a mere 13% in 2012 (1). That said, students aspiring to gain acceptance to colleges with acceptance rates in the single digits will obviously not want to sacrifice any advantage if they can help it. Consequently, I'd advise parents of such students to educate themselves about the rank policies at their child's school and help their kids to make informed choices.

What’s a Parent to Do?

The main point of this article is to encourage you to gain a thorough understanding of your high school’s policies regarding the calculation of GPA and class rank. If your school ranks students, get the answers to the following questions.

What is the formula for calculating GPA?

Does class rank depend upon the overall GPA, or only the GPA in core academic classes?

Does the GPA formula penalize students for taking extra unweighted electives?

Which courses are weighted?

How are grades in repeated courses, summer courses, and courses taken outside the high school treated?

Is there a limit to the number of weighted courses that can be included in the GPA ?

How much should families let considerations of class rank dictate a student’s course selection? I can’t answer that, but it’s an important conversation to have with your son or daughter. Start by understanding the policies at your school. Then discuss the pros and cons of potential course choices. In some schools, dropping band might improve a student's class rank, but it might also cause her to sacrifice an activity she loves and at which she excels, in which case the best course of action is not at all clear-cut.

Finally, if you feel that the policies for determining GPA and class rank at your child's school are unfair - or incentivize undesirable actions - advocate to improve the ranking system or eliminate it entirely.

Next article:  Admissions Testing.


1. Clinedinst, M.E., Hurley, S.F., & Hawkins, D.A. (2014). 2013 State of College Admission. National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).


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