Know your goal GPA for college admissions.

“What GPA do I need?” This, in addition to “What SAT score do I need?” is perhaps the question I am asked most. In May, as another school year ends, many families will sit down to review the year’s academic performance. They will also compile a list of colleges and universities that best align with this performance. Understanding your GPA for college admissions is an important part of the application process.

Another important part of the process is understanding the timeline. Visit this post to learn how the college admissions timeline has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s the Value of Your GPA for College?

First, let’s discuss why colleges even care about your GPA in the first place. I certainly agree 100% that your GPA does not correlate with your ability to succeed after high school. However, the harsh reality is that the majority of colleges believe otherwise. Statistically, the primary reason students withdraw or drop out of a university is that the academics are too difficult. The homework and tests for classes like “Biology 101,” “Calculus II,” or “Introduction to Ecology” are too much to handle. So, the student would rather attend another university where the work is more manageable.

Retention Rate

When you withdraw from a university, it negatively affects what is known as the “retention rate.”  This is the number of students who enroll as freshmen at a university and return for subsequent years of education. The more students who drop out, the lower that retention rate. This makes the college looks “worse” in the public eye. This in turn leads to a whole bunch of negative economic impacts the colleges would rather avoid. Put simply, they are looking at your academic data to make sure that you can handle their coursework. They don’t want to drop out. This data includes your GPA, SATs, SAT IIs, and APs.

Back to High School

Now let’s discuss how your GPA fits into the larger college admissions process. The issue with looking strictly at your GPA is that it is not a standardized number for all applicants. Let’s say, for example, applicant “A” has a GPA of 2.8, but attends a competitive high school where 90% of students have below a 2.5. In contrast, applicant “B” has a GPA of 3.3, but attends a more relaxed high school where 90% of students have above a 3.6. Furthermore, I tell you that applicant A has taken the most challenging curriculum available to him. It’s chock-full of AP and honors coursework. On the other hand, applicant B has taken the easiest curriculum available to him. Which student would you consider more academically qualified?

Even though applicant B had a higher GPA in terms of the number, applicant A has clearly performed “better” academically-speaking given the context of his situation. In this regard, when admissions’ officers review academic data, they are not simply looking at the number in and of itself with respect to your GPA. Rather, they are trying to understand the context behind your academic situation. They do this with data such as coursework, class rank, class percentile, and the school profile (a document your high school will automatically submit to every university that details what classes were available to you, whether it participates in class rank or class percentile, the difficulty of the curriculum, etc).

So What Should Your College Admission GPA be?

So now that you have this context, here’s how you figure out your goal GPA. Put the following phrase “School X first year student profile” into Google. It will likely return a PDF or website link in which it will actually show you different percentiles of GPAs of current freshman (e.g. 75% of admits had above a 3.6, 25% of admits had below a 2.5, and the average GPA is a 3.4). If you meet or exceed the average, then your GPA will (most likely) not be what denies you admission. That being said, remember that this process is more complex than simply looking at a number. I hope this clarifies some things for you!