One of the most common questions I hear from both students and parents is about the weighted grade point average (GPA) at their school and if it is true to that college “unweight” grades during the college admissions process. The answers to these questions are simple in the sense that these questions can be answered with a “yes” or a “no”, but the truth is far more complicated than a simple answer. More importantly, it is useful to understand what is meant by a weighted and unweighted GPA.

A grade point average is calculated by a school by comparing the grades a student earns with the number of credits a student can receive by passing classes. Most high schools award three or four credits for an academic class like history or math and one or two credits for a non-academic class like gym or chorus. Grades are worth points, such that an ‘A’ is four points, a ‘B’ is three points, a ‘C’ is two points, a ‘D” is one point, and an ‘F’ is zero points.

For example, a student named Jane Example attends a school that awards four credits for each academic class and two for each non-academic class. The grades in this example will be simplified to ignore any pluses or minuses to make the example easier to understand. If Jane earns two ‘A’s, two ‘B’s, and a ‘C’ in history, English, math, physics, and Spanish, respectively, and an ‘A’ in chorus, you can calculate her GPA by adding up the number of points she earned per credit. Since she earned four point for the ‘A’ in history, we can multiply those four point times the four credits for the class to get 16 points. Her ‘B’ in math results in multiplying three points times four credits to get 12 points. On the other hand, the ‘A’ in chorus is only worth eight points, since the class is worth fewer credits. In total, Jane earned 72 points, which, when divided by the 22 credits worth of classes she is taking, accounts for a GPA of 3.27.

Most high schools adjust the point values of grades for honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes to account for the competitiveness of class rankings. The idea is that a student who earned straight ‘A’s in the easiest classes should not rank higher than a student who challenged herself by taking honors or AP classes. The highest GPA a student who has only taken basic classes can earn is a 4.0. A student who is taking an honors class, however, has the opportunity to earn five points for an ‘A’, and some schools give an even greater weight to AP classes, allowing students to earn 5.5 points for an ‘A’ in such a class.

Let’s revisit our previous example. Let’s pretend Jane has a sister named Joan. Joan is also taking history, English, math, physics, and Spanish, as well as chorus. Joan, however, has chosen to challenge herself by taking honors level in history, math, and English, and AP level in physics. Even if Joan earns the exact same grades in her respective classes that Jane earned, she would instead earn five points for her ‘A’ in history, which, when we account for the four credits the class is worth, give Joan 20 points for history. Additionally, Joan would earn 4.5 points for her ‘B’ in AP Physics at her school. Given those results, Joan would have a GPA of 4.09. This would guarantee that a student like Joan, who challenged herself by taking several honors classes and an AP class, would rank higher than another student who may have earned all ‘A’s, but by taking lower level, less challenging classes.

Since most schools adjust, or weight, their grades based on honors and AP levels, why would college and university admissions offices unweight GPAs? As you may have noticed, not all schools use weighted GPAs. Even among the majority that do, not all schools weigh honors and AP classes in the same way. Not all schools award the same number of credits per course taken, which can change the weighting of honors and AP classes. Some schools, mostly very exclusive and prestigious private schools, do not offer honors or AP classes at all, with the idea that all of their classes are advanced and that the school does not offer basic classes in any subject.

Because the weighting of grades is not consistent or universal, college and university admissions offices “unweight” the grades and utilize the simplified GPA. This has led many students and parents to panic about this. Keep in mind that every students’ grades are unweighted, so this process does not advantage any one student over another. Furthermore, college and university admissions offices make up for the unweighting by accounting for honors and AP classes in another way.

Admissions offices tend to count the number of honors and AP classes a student takes over her high school academic career and assign their own point values to each one, usually assigning noticeably more points for AP classes. This is true as well for students whose schools offer International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in place of AP classes. The colleges and universities each individually create their own complicated calculation of GPA, honors points, and AP (or IB) points to measure the high school academic success of each applicant. Additionally, this calculation is adjusted based on the academic reputation of the applicants’ high schools, which accounts for those prestigious private schools that do not offer honors or AP classes. In other words, college and university admissions offices re-weight the grades.

While it is true that college and university admissions offices unweight the weighted GPAs that most students earn in high school, they make up for it by re-weighting students’ GPA using their own individual systems. My advice to students and parents is to not worry about weighted GPAs and to focus instead on self-improvement. A single student has no control over whether her school weighs grades or not, nor can she control how the colleges to which she is applying account for that. All she can do is maximize her efforts in improving her grades in preparation for the admissions process.