What is a GPA?

Grade point average, or GPA, is the means by which total performance in school, usually from middle school through college, is calculated. The evaluation of performance by number has been a part of education for over 200 years, and was first championed by tutor William Farrish at Cambridge University in the late 18th century. However, the way in which GPA is calculated, and the specific ins and outs of assessing performance may be unique to a single school, or a country. Over time, and particularly in the 1960s, many students and teachers sought to ban grades completely, and some universities and private schools did not give letter or number grades. Until a few years ago, for instance, the University of California, Santa Cruz, operated on a written assessment system instead of a grading system. The incompatibility of this system with those students who wished to continue their education, and even the demands of the students themselves reinstated a more standard grading system in the 1990s. It would be difficult in this explanation to discuss the vast range of GPA as calculated by the various countries or private institutions that employ such disparate systems. Focus in this explanation emphasizes US evaluation of GPA. It exhibits enough variation alone to have students, even good ones, fairly confused.

In the US there are essentially two types of GPA: GPA as assessed per semester, which may be the mean of two quarter grades, and cumulative GPA, a measure of total grade point average at a specific level of schooling. A high school would look at all grades earned at the high school level in assessing cumulative grade point average. The current system assigns points to letter grades in the following manner:

points F = 0
D = 1
s C = 2
B = 3
A = 4

Based on discretion, some universities may reduce or slightly raise points if a student earns a letter grade with a plus or minus. There’s usually one exception to this, which is not unilaterally practiced. An A+ in a class may be no better from a points standard than an A. Some universities do rate an A+ as 4.33 points, but most don’t. When the school doesn’t count the plus, but does deduct points for an A-, many students feel this is intrinsically unfair.

Total grades to calculate grade point average, are given points that are added, and then divided by the total number of classes. This can get more difficult at the college level when not all classes constitute the same number of units. Points may instead be multiplied per each unit, (an A in a 5.00 unit class would be worth 20 points) and divided by total number of units. It’s helpful to use many of the online GPA calculators when attempting to figure out grade point average at the college level. Cumulative grade average employs either of these systems to look at complete performance in school.

Although the highest possible GPA used to be a 4.0, achieved only by receiving straight As in every course, there have been some changes that bear remark. Some high schools now offer a different point system for students who take Advance Placement (AP) courses. In this case, letter grades are one point higher for A, B, and C grades, which means students taking these course can earn a maximum of 5 points if they get an A grade.

With this system, students can earn higher than a 4.0. Not all schools employ this additional point system for AP classes, and college admissions boards must figure out what grading system is employed. The newer system for rating AP courses higher also means that students without a straight A average could technically earn a 4.0. This new twist to grade point average is significantly complicated.

Many students wonder how much their grade point average matters; this largely depends upon the type of profession or further education they want to pursue. Some employers are interested in GPAs, and others merely require a college degree for certain positions. Most colleges, on the other hand, and grad schools have minimum GPA requirements, and most Ivy League Schools don’t consider students who don’t have the highest GPAs, especially when competition for attending these schools is fierce. Some schools do take into account significant improvement in a student’s performance. Freshman grades at the high school level may not matter much if a student did very well in sophomore and junior years.