College Applications -- What Matters to Colleges

BYLINE: Cincinnati
AUTHOR: Lisa Marker-Robbins
COMPANY: LEAProgram

When Ohio's largest high school, William Mason High School (Mason), dropped the honors of valedictorian and salutatorian as well as overhauled its GPA system, we heard an uproar across all forms of social media. Accusations flew of MHS "going soft."

I was surprised by the outcry, because this is far from the first high school to make either move. Perhaps the responses were due to citing students' mental health as a factor in dropping the honors.

As I pondered this and perused both positive and negative responses, my first thought as an independent college counselor was this: Most really don't understand how colleges view GPA when considering an applicant. 

How Do High Schools Approach GPA?

There's no standardized high school GPA in the United States. If you survey five different high schools, you will likely find five different options, including some of the following:

  • No weighting for honors, AP or College Credit Plus classes
  • Weighted grades for rigorous coursework with the weight being different from high school to high school
  • Seven-point or 10-point grading scales or other variations
  • Include or exclude pluses or minuses
  • Percentage scale instead of the point system
  • Weighted, unweighted or both on transcripts


With so many variations, it's easy to see how comparing GPAs is like comparing apples to oranges. The generally accepted scale for colleges is 4.0, which allows for a more fair comparison of students.

How Do Colleges Approach GPA?

In order to get to a more apples-to-apples approach, few colleges look at simply the GPA when assessing grades, the No. 1 "getting in" factor. The grade analysis methods behind closed admissions office doors include the following:

  • Looking closely at rigor (not just GPA): College admission offices take into consideration which classes a student has taken and grades earned. Colleges want to see that students appropriately challenge themselves with the options offered at the school. Students are not penalized if the school lacks a wide variety of rigorous options. The question is have you taken advantage of what is offered.
  • Recalculating GPA: Colleges often recalculate a weighted GPA back to a 4.0 scale for all applicants.
  • Looking at core subjects: Colleges will often recalculate the GPA (weighted or unweighted) to include only core subjects like English, math, science, social studies and  foreign language.
  • Rigorous coursework: Colleges might also recalculate the GPA to include a standard weight for rigorous coursework.

Does Class Rank Matter?

When a high school does not publish class rank or awards a student the honor of valedictorian or salutatorian, it is not held against the student and is simply not a factor in the admission equation. It is not hurting or helping the student. In my hometown of Greater Cincinnati, it was more than a decade ago that most area schools eliminated publishing class rank; Mason was among them.

While many students think the perfect 36 ACT or taking all AP's or yes, even being valedictorian is a ticket to the Ivy League or similar, they are sadly mistaken. It's been documented in one recent admission cycle that Stanford rejected 69% of applicants with perfect scores, and I assure you the freshman class was not made up of only perfect-scoring students. I once sat in a meeting with a Yale admissions officer who stated 60% of perfect score applicants were not admitted in favor of students with lower scores but a better holistic picture. I can give countless examples of this, including Ben Shumaker from Michigan who was valedictorian among 536 students, yet not admitted to a single Ivy, USC or Case Western.

What Does Matter?

Data and Voice. The vast majority of colleges take a holistic approach to evaluating applicants.  The data is the GPA, course work taken as well as ACT/SAT. But many people forget that voice is an enormous component. Voice is your essays, resume of activities, recommendation letters, and interviews (if offered). For highly selective schools where all of the students have similar high achieving data, the voice is what makes the difference and most notably the resume.

"Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be"

This advice of New Your Times bestselling author Frank Bruni is a great reminder. Be the best you, and if this includes admittance to a coveted Ivy, bravo for you; I will be the first to congratulate you! Regardless, perfect scores, 4.0 GPA's, Valedictorian status don't define you or your future. Just look at the list of Fortune 500 CEOs.

Post a comment (* required field)

Name *
Email * (will not be published)
Website
Comments *