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How Important is a High School GPA in College Admissions?

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By Renee Roush on March, 17 2023 | 7 minute read

Here at Collegewise, we’ve noticed a rising trend in our students to hyper-focus on their grade point average (GPA). 

Interests, passions, and curiosities have begun to take a backseat to the attempt to nudge that cumulative number up by a tenth or a hundredth of a point.  Because spring tends to be the prime time for schools to work with students on course scheduling, it’s important to address this trend and offer advice regarding how colleges actually look at an applicant’s course curriculum, grades, and…  the GPA. 

When you’re considering your classes for next year, what’s really the most important thing?  Is a college more likely to admit students with the highest cumulative GPA possible, and who’ve crammed the highest number of AP courses into their schedule?  Read on to find out what’s actually the most important thing.  Spoiler alert: it’s not your GPA.


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How is My High School GPA Affected By AP and Non-AP Courses?

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a sophomore about the classes she’s planning to take next year, and she shared that she wanted to request seven advanced placement (AP) courses.  “Seven AP courses?” I asked.  “That’s…  a LOT.”  Her current course load is strong- two APs and four honors courses.  She’s certainly a bright, capable, and ambitious student.  However, leaping from two AP courses to seven AP courses is a significant bump in rigor.  She’s also involved in debate, is a varsity lacrosse player, and does community service on the regular.  And, it should be noted that taking 7 AP courses also means that a student must do well in all of them.  It’s junior year, after all; it’s a critical year.

So we moved into a deeper conversation about these plans.  Honors courses tend to require around 30 minutes of work per night, whereas AP courses tend to require about an hour.  She claimed to spend about 3 ½ hours a night on homework in her sophomore year, with very little work on weekends.  With seven APs, she’ll be jumping to 5 ½ to 6 hours at least, per night, and because of her outside commitments, it’s likely she’ll need to use her weekends to study as well.  During lacrosse season, she’ll play 2 ½ hours each afternoon of the week, and longer when she team has games.  And what about debate, which has its competitions during the spring?  And then, add the community service.  

It turns out that this student is aspiring to highly selective institutions, and she felt as though taking a non-weighted elective course would lower her GPA - even if she got an A - and she felt the boost she’d get from the AP weighting was paramount.  What I heard when she explained this reasoning to me was that she felt her GPA was more important than authentically exploring her interests.

This student was ready to sacrifice the things she felt passionate about in order to tack on a few tenths of a point to her GPA!  So I asked her the same questions this blog post asks you to ponder:

What if you weren’t concerned about making sure your GPA was the highest possible number?  What if, instead, you were committed to taking classes that motivate and inspire you?

If you're a student (or the parent of a student) that is torn between whether to take AP or international baccalaureate (IB) courses, check out our blog: AP Courses vs. IB Courses: Which One is Better?


Is Your High School GPA the Most Important Information on Your Academic Transcript?

Yes, of course, it’s important to earn the highest grades you can. But, for many colleges (especially the more selective ones), the most important information on your high school transcript is not objective; it’s not the number of honors and AP courses, and it’s not your GPA or your class rank.

At most selective colleges, when an admissions officer looks at your transcript, the question they’re looking to answer is much more subjective.  It’s something like this: “What does this student enjoy learning about?”  In my own admissions work, I reviewed a transcript looking for themes- I wanted to discover a student’s passions and excitement for learning based on the courses they chose to take while in high school.  I wanted to see evidence that a student was pursuing topics that inspired their intellectual curiosity, and ones that were going to help them advance their knowledge about topics they truly loved.  And, let me be frank: in seventeen years in college admissions, I never once counted the number of AP courses a student took.  If one student from a high school has a 98.4 GPA, and another student has a 96.2, I didn’t automatically close the file of the student with the lower GPA and keep reading the student with the higher one.  That minuscule difference was never the important thing.  Instead, what’s important when comparing two applicants is finding the one with the most unique voice, the one with perspectives that will propel class discussions, the student who might translate their intellectual passion into an incredible senior research project, or one that will join a club or start a campaign or host a movie night in their dorm room based on their passion for a particular intellectual pursuit.

The admissions office at any college wants to admit human beings who hopefully have deep interests, who have gone down the rabbit hole engaging with topics that they love (anything from social justice to baseball stats), and who will bring those interests into their college community in a meaningful way.  They are looking for students who take the classes they want to take because they love the things they’re learning.  They are much less interested in a GPA that is .2 points higher than another kid’s.


How to Choose Courses Strategically

At Collegewise, some of the most fun we counselors have is talking to students about what they really love.  Course selection is certainly a favorite time for me, because I get to help a student explore the possibilities they have to dig deeper into the subjects they’re most curious about.  You love chemistry?  Cool…  What is it that you love- the research you did in the lab, or the logic of the periodic table, or the scientific phenomena you studied in your textbook?  Did you love the connections you found with biology or with ecology?  What was your favorite project in that class, and why do you think you enjoyed it so much?

Maybe you loved reading Macbeth, and your school offers a playwriting class.  Perhaps you are passionate about politics, and your school offers a course on criminal justice.  Maybe you did love the lab work in that chemistry class, and your school offers the opportunity to create an independent study so you can pursue a research interest on your own.  No, none of those courses will be weighted enough to boost your GPA, but the admissions office will take a second glance at those choices because they are revealing your individual, unique pursuit of topics you love.  And that is what’s interesting and compelling in a college applicant.

Additional readings:

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About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the family. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for your student to be their best self - whether in the classroom, the applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, lead to 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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