Grade Point Average (GPA) and Class Rank: Debunking the Myths

GPA and class rank matter to admissions officers less than you think they do.  Don’t get me wrong — academic performance, measured by grades and relative to other students, weighs heavily in the evaluation process.  Because the ways in which high schools calculate GPA and class rank vary so widely, however, admissions officers generally take these numbers with a grain of salt.  In fact, over time, GPA and class rank have become an increasingly unreliable tool in applicant screening.

GPA means, by definition, that a high school assigns a point value to each grade that a student can earn (4.0 for an A, 3.0 for a B, etc.) and then averages these point values for an overall index of how a student is performing academically.  Let’s take a simple example:  An A is worth 4 points and your child has earned an A in each of the five classes she is taking.  The point values for her five classes average out to 4, which means that your child has a 4.0 GPA.

This method seems straightforward enough, except that no uniform scale for point values exists.  A high school in Tulsa could make an A worth 4 points, while a high school in Santa Fe could make it worth 4.5.  To complicate matters further, high schools frequently add bonus points to the value of grades that students have earned in honors or AP classes (called a “weighted” average, because a comparable grade in a more difficult class carries more weight in the GPA calculation).  These widespread variations in policy and procedure have forced many admissions officers to discount GPA substantially (unless they know and understand a particular high school’s calibration) or to create their own way to use it.  At the writing of my book, The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions, the University of Michigan, for example, recomputed GPA for every applicant based on core courses that appeared on the transcript.

If the seemingly endless ways that high schools calculate GPA cause frustration, admissions officers throw their hands in the air when they hear the term “class rank.”  Deans of admission from some of the most selective institutions in the country used words like “elusive,” “manipulated,” and “politicized” in my discussions with them about class rank when I was writing my book.  Many high schools, especially in suburban communities, have responded to political pressure from parents, who feel that a top ranking will help their children get into college.  Every student with a GPA above a certain cut-off point, therefore, gets ranked number one.  This solution has led to absurd situations, such as a single graduating class having 40 valedictorians, and has diluted the value of class rank as a comparative measure.  Graduating at the top of the class may still have meaning in some communities; however, as Rice’s Julie Browning told me, “All valedictorians are not alike!”

Colleges and universities have taken varying approaches to class rank as their ability to use it has declined.  At the writing of my book, Rice University tracked the information but used it with “caution.”  Pitzer College exempted applicants in the top 10 percent of their class from standardized testing (Pitzer has since become a “test optional” school for all applicants).  Mount Holyoke considered class rank only when it understood an applicant’s high school well.  Parents and students frequently focus on GPA and class rank as the ultimate indicators of academic success.  College admissions offices around the country, though, are sending a very different message.

Deans of admission whom I interviewed for my book repeatedly pointed out that roughly half of the students that their institutions admitted came from high schools that did not calculate class rank, a clear sign that the absence of this indicator does not pose a barrier to entry.  The vast majority of students that these highly selective institutions admitted from high schools that ranked, however, fell within the top 10-20 percent of their graduating class.  This statistic reinforces the idea that colleges and universities are looking for academically capable candidates who fall within a certain range, rather than those who have achieved a magic number.  Do not rule out your child’s chances of getting into a top college or university because her class rank puts her at 14 rather than one (especially when mere hundredths of a point can separate number one from number 14).  By the same token, do not assume that the number one spot will guarantee admission.  Selective colleges and universities look at the overall story that an academic transcript tells, a story that transcends a single numerical ranking.

Trying to figure out how your child’s GPA will affect college admissions prospects?  Contact me for a complimentary 30-minute telephone consultation.