What Is a Weighted GPA?

Learn the meaning of a weighted GPA in the college admissions process

Report Card
Report Card. Carrie Bottomley / E+ / Getty Images

A weighted GPA is calculated by awarding additional points to classes that are considered more challenging than the basic curriculum. When a high school has a weighted grading system, Advanced Placement, Honors, and other types of college preparatory classes are given bonus weight when a student's GPA is calculated. Colleges, however, may recalculate a student's GPA differently.

Why Does Weighted GPA Matter?

A weighted GPA is based on the simple idea that some high school classes are much harder than others, and these hard classes should carry more weight.

In other words, an 'A' in AP Calculus represents a much greater accomplishment than an 'A' in remedial algebra, so students taking the most challenging courses should be rewarded for their efforts.

Having a good high school academic record is likely to be the most important part of your college application. Selective colleges will be looking for strong grades in the most challenging classes you can take. When a high school weights grades in those challenging classes, it can confuse the picture of the student's actual accomplishment. A true "A" in an Advanced Placement class is obviously more impressive than a weighted "A."

The issue of weighting grades gets even more complicated since many high schools weight grades, but others don't. And colleges may calculate a GPA that is different from a student's weighted or unweighted GPA. This is particularly true for highly selective colleges and universities, for the great majority of applicants will have taken challenging AP, IB, and Honors courses.

How Are High School Grades Weighted?

In an effort to acknowledge the effort that goes into challenging courses, many high schools weight the grades for AP, IB, honors and accelerated courses. The weighting isn't always the same from school to school, but a typical model on a 4-point grade scale might look like this:

AP, Honors, Advanced Courses: 'A' (5 points); 'B' (4 points); 'C' (3 points); 'D' (1 point); 'F' (0 points)

Regular Courses: 'A' (4 points); 'B' (3 points); 'C' (2 points); 'D'(1 point); 'F' (0 points)

Thus, a student who got straight 'A's and took nothing but AP classes could have a 5.0 GPA on a 4-point scale. High schools will often use these weighted GPAs for determining class rank—they don't want students to rank highly just because they took easy classes.

How Do Colleges Use Weighted GPAs?

Selective colleges, however, usually aren't going to use these artificially inflated grades. Yes, they want to see that a student has taken challenging courses, but they need to compare all applicants using the same 4-point grade scale. Most high schools that use weighted GPAs will also include unweighted grades on a student's transcript, and selective colleges will usually use the unweighted number. I've had students confused about being rejected from the country's top universities when they have GPAs over a 4.0. The reality, however, is that a 4.1 weighted GPA may be just a 3.4 unweighted GPA, and a B+ average isn't going to be very competitive at schools like Stanford and Harvard. Most applicants to these top schools have taken large numbers of AP and Honors courses, and the admissions folks will be looking for students who have unweighted "A" grades.

The opposite can be true for less selective colleges that struggle to meet their enrollment targets. Such schools are often looking for reasons to admit students, not reasons to reject them, so they will often use weighted grades so that more applicants meet minimum enrollment qualifications.

The GPA confusion doesn't stop here. Colleges also want to make sure that a student's GPA reflects grades in core academic courses, not a bunch of padding. Thus, a lot of colleges will calculate a GPA that is different from both a student's weighted or unweighted GPA. Many colleges will look just at English, Math, Social Studies, Foreign Language and Science grades. Grades in gym, wood working, cooking, music, health, theatre and other areas will not be given nearly as much consideration in the admissions process (this isn't to say that colleges don't want students to take classes in the arts—they do).

To get a sense of the unweighted GPAs needed to get into some of the country's top colleges and universities, check out these GPA-SAT-ACT graphs for admitted and rejected students (GPAs are on the Y-axis):

Amherst | BerkeleyBrown | Caltech | Columbia | Cornell | Darmouth | Duke | Harvard | MIT | MichiganPenn | Princeton | Stanford | Swarthmore | UCLAUIUCWesleyan | WilliamsYale

When you are trying to determine if a college is a reach, match, or safety for your combination of grades and standardized test scores, it is safest to use unweighted grades, especially if you are applying to highly selective schools.