student unhappy with her gpa

In our three-part series about what college admissions officers looked at, we explored the importance of grades in admissions decisions. College admissions officers consistently rank grades as the most important factor in admissions decisions, so it’s no wonder students worry about less than stellar GPAs.

What is a bad GPA?

There’s no magic number that defines a good or bad GPA because how good your GPA is will depend on what your goals are.

Let’s say you’re a San Francisco native who wants to stay local. If your goal is UC Berkeley, you’re going to need a pretty perfect GPA – 85% of incoming freshmen at Berkeley have unweighted GPAs above 3.75, so if you’ve got a 3.0, you don’t have a good GPA. But that 3.0 looks pretty competitive at nearby San Jose State University where a fifth of incoming freshmen have GPAs in the low 3’s. And that same 3.0 looks really good at a college like Sonoma State University where nearly a third of incoming freshmen have GPAs below 3.0.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Weighted vs. Unweighted

High schools across the country weight GPAs in entirely different ways. For example, let’s say high school A adds 10% to final grades in AP classes, but high school B doesn’t add anything for AP classes. The student who took a lot of AP classes at high school A is going to have a much higher GPA than the student who took a lot of AP classes at high school B, right? To account for these differences, colleges look at your unweighted GPA. Any bonuses added on by your school probably won’t have much impact in terms of college admissions.

So I should take easy classes, right?

If colleges don’t really count the bonuses that schools add to adjust for course difficulty, then you might think you’re better off taking easy classes to get higher grades.

You would be wrong.

The second most important factor in college admissions is course rigor, so colleges want to see you get good grades AND take tough classes. Taking the easy way out won’t offer you an edge.

Then what can I do about this bad GPA?

Even if you’re a senior about to apply to college, there are still things you can do to ensure that you’ll end up attending a college that fits your needs.

  1. Reexamine your goals. If your GPA is only low when you compare it to the GPAs expected at super selective colleges, you should keep trying to bring your grades up while exploring more college options. There are literally thousands of four-year colleges in the country; limiting yourself to the top 20 or top 50 nationally ranked colleges cuts out hundreds of great options, and one of them might just be the perfect college for you.
  2. Show a pattern of improvement. If your GPA is low because you slacked off in 9th and 10th grade, there’s no time like the present to make a change. While earning better grades in 11th and 12th grade might not bring your overall GPA up to where you want it to be, it can show a pattern of improvement over time. Colleges want to see students who have grown and matured in their time in high school, so by showing that growth through stronger effort and better grades, you improve your chances of admission even with a lower-than-desired GPA.
  3. Establish your smarts with stellar test scores. A great SAT score won’t erase a low GPA, but a series of really strong test scores can help. SAT, ACT, and AP scores show how you compare to students across the country; if you can post some really strong test scores, you can show intellectual capability despite low grades.
  4. Consider a non-traditional route to your dream college. Think about attending a less competitive college for a year or two before applying as a transfer student to your dream college. As a transfer student, your high school GPA is of far less importance than your college GPA, so going the transfer route gives you a second chance at a better GPA.
  5. Highlight your non-academic accomplishments. You’re more than just numbers on a page. By highlighting your extracurricular accomplishments, you can showcase your strengths in a way that can help to balance out those bad grades. If you have a mediocre GPA but you’ve done amazing things outside of school, you can still be a competitive applicant at some pretty awesome colleges!

The Takeaway: It’s Never Too Late

It’s never too late to make improvements. Whether that means working to bring up your grades in junior and senior year; prepping for the SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Tests to balance out some bad grades; or exploring other college options, tutoring with C2 can help to make your road to college a little less bumpy. Contact your local center to schedule a consultation.