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  • Writer's pictureAlison Merzel

Don't Let "Average GPA" Scare You Away

If you look at published GPA ranges for many well-known colleges and universities, you may start to scratch your head in bewilderment. When you see that the average GPA for an admitted student at a large public university exceeds 4.0, you start to wonder what in the world is going on. I know I do!

Grade inflation is indeed at an all-time high. A colleague in one of my Facebook groups posted a pre-pandemic chart that showed that in 1995, 45% of freshmen in college had an A+, A or A- average in high school. In 2019 that percentage rose to 68.1%. It is likely that because of the pandemic, the numbers are even higher.

That being said, as you evaluate potential colleges that might be a good fit, you have to take the GPA information with a grain (maybe a pound) of salt. Here are two reasons why:

1) GPA ranges vary wildly not just by high school, but by state.

In my local high school in Ohio, for example, a student with a 4.3 GPA may qualify for the Cum Laude society, representing the top 10% of students in their graduating class. If you look at the profile of students admitted to the University of Florida, a school that is predominantly comprised of students from Florida, the middle 50% have GPAs between 4.4 - 4.6, meaning that 25% of the students have a GPA higher than a 4.6! A student with a 4.3 from Florida is not equivalent to a student with a 4.3 from Ohio. This is why admission officers explain that they review applications within the context of a student's high school. The Florida student and the Ohio student are not being evaluated against one another.

2) GPA scales vary wildly.

Some high schools use weighted, while some use unweighted. Some use a 4.0 scale, some 5.0, some 10, and some 100, for example. Colleges often recalculate the high school GPA as it is, primarily looking at grades in core academic courses (English, history, math, science, foreign language).

When you look at the average published GPA for a newly enrolled freshmen class, it is not clear what GPA was used to calculate that number. It is also not clear what percentage of students are represented by that number.

So, do not discount a college as a potential option based on the published GPA. Keep in mind that the admissions officers carefully scrutinize each course a student has taken during each term of high school. They will assess what courses are offered at your high school and evaluate whether you have taken an appropriate amount of rigor and done well in those courses.

Since the GPA information is not all that helpful, what should you do to assess if you are a student that is qualified for enrollment at a particular college or university?

One place to start is with the platform your high school uses to manage the college planning process. Examples include Naviance, SCOIR, and School Links. These platforms typically have scattergrams, which enable you to see the profile of students from your own high school who have historically been admitted, waitlisted, and denied to a particular college or university. You will not know any demographic information about the students that may be impacting the outcomes, but you can at least get a sense of the academic profile of students who are getting offers of admission from your high school.

You can also assess where you sit within your own high school class. Even if your high school does not rank students, you may have an idea of where you fall - do you think you are in the top 10%? The top quarter? The top half? Your high school counselor can help you evaluate this if you are unsure. Then, you can use this information as you assess the colleges of interest. What percentage of their students fall in these ranges? The Common Data Set for each school often shares this information.

Finally, you can reach out to the college admissions representative for your region. Their job is to familiarize themselves with the high schools in their territory. If the information you are seeing on the college website doesn't make sense for your high school, ask them what a realistic profile looks like for a student coming from your school. They aren't going to give you a specific test score and GPA, but they may give you a range of data that is more applicable based on your circumstances.

Yes, this would all be a lot easier if colleges and universities were way more transparent about how decisions were made. Unfortunately, they typically don't reveal the recipe for their secret sauce, so we just need to do what we can to access information that can help you make the best possible decisions about your educational future.

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