College Admissions: The GPA Dilemma

I often receive questions regarding having a high grade point average (GPA) in high school, and how that affects your chances of getting into a competitive university. Today I would like to clear up some misconceptions about the importance of grades.

1. GPA is only a fraction of what schools look at.

As far as I know, a lot of universities in the United States do a holistic review of applications: it is more personalized and focuses on a lot of factors other than grades, such as

  • SAT/ACT scores,
  • High school curriculum and course rigor
  • Taking advantage of challenging courses like AP, IB and Honors
  • Extracurricular activities and community service,
  • Special circumstances and personal experiences

I have heard of many cases, where highly selective colleges would pick a student with a lower GPA but a more broad and open extracurricular agenda over a student with a 4.0 GPA and a 2300 on the SAT. If a student has nothing to say other than “I have a 4.0 GPA and do nothing but study”, chances are someone else with a more colorful extracurricular agenda will be picked over Mr. I-Only-Study. (However, don’t get me wrong- you still need to try your best in school, no slacking!)

To read more about this, check out these two articles:

  1. Confessions of an Application Reader
  2. How College Applications are Evaluated

If for some reason your grades aren’t as high as you’d like them to be, try to get involved in clubs, sports, volunteering, maybe even find a job or a hobby. When filling out your college application, you need to play to your strengths; and if grades aren’t your strength, it may be in your extracurricular activities.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to all colleges and universities: the most competitive universities, such as Ivy League Schools and teeny tiny fancy private schools, first look at your academic merits (again, not just grades, but also the course rigor, SAT/ACT scores, AP classes, etc.), and only then at the extracurricular activities and personal stories. However, bigger schools pay attention to your “fit” to the school, your personal story (which you will express in your essay), and your ability to learn from your experiences.These components need to be looked at in more detail…so..

Coming up next: structure of a typical college application and how to use it to your advantage!