Weighted vs. Unweighted GPA – What is the Difference?

Ever since you’ve been in kindergarten, you’ve known about grades. An A+ is good. An F is bad.

But by the time you reach middle school, things aren’t so simple. If you’re good in English, you might ace Mrs. Johnson’s Language Arts course, earning an easy A while you read The Scarlet Letter. But Coach Thompson’s Algebra class is giving you fits. 

It gets even more complicated once you get to high school. You might earn an A in a standard history course, but your AP psychology course requires three times the work, and you only pulled a B+. That B+ feels a lot more important than your A. 

To help compensate for the difficulty in classes, many schools have instituted a weighted GPA. Simply put, weighted GPA scales give more credit to difficult courses. 

While that might feel good when you’re taking one of those classes, it can be really confusing for people who need to make sense of their GPA. 

It becomes even more vexing when colleges start asking for your grades, and they have requirements for minimum GPAs. When they say you must have a 3.0 GPA, is that weighted or unweighted? And how do you even figure it out? 

As confusing as the process might be, we’re here to help. With this guide, you’ll be able to understand the difference between weighted and unweighted grades. Plus, we’ll tell you how to calculate them yourself, so you can apply to colleges with confidence. 

What is the Difference Between Weighted and Unweighted GPA?

Students Studying for Good Grades
photo via Shutterstock

So what are weighted and unweighted GPAs? Here are the main differences between the two.

You might consider calling an unweighted GPA the “raw” or “unchanged” GPA. In other words, it’s a straightforward grade, with no other elements considered. 

If you earn a 3.0 in your math class, a 3.5 in your English class, and a 2.5 in your history class, your unweighted GPA will be the average of the three. You have a GPA of 3.0, with no extra information or elements added. 

Unweighted grades are not considered with the difficulty or value of the class. If you’re in an honors class that has a higher research requirement, it doesn’t count any more than a standard college class. 

Even early college classes, in which high school students take actual freshman college courses in association with a university, have no more value in an unweighted GPA. 

Weighted GPAs exist to give credit to those harder courses. If a course is challenging, then it’s worth more than standard courses. This isn’t to say that those classes aren’t hard; it’s just that honor’s courses or advanced placement courses require more work than your usual college class. 

In most cases, the weighted GPA is measured on a 0 to 5.0, with harder classes earning the higher designation. An A in a standard course earns you a 4.0 grade, while an A in an advanced course gives you a 5.0. 

Do Colleges Look at Weighted or Unweighted GPAs?

While it can certainly feel good to get your report card back and see your GPA is a 4.5, especially when your classmates have a GPA of 4.0 or lower. But it would be even better if colleges take weighted GPAs into account. 

The bad news is that while a weighted GPA might impress your friends, colleges know that grades can go higher than 4.0. More importantly, they know that not every school offers weighted grades and that even really difficult courses are graded the same. 

To keep everything on a level playing field (or, to be more accurate, to decide which students should be accepted and which should not), most schools do not take weighted grades into account. 

In fact, many will even require that students or schools recalculate the grades to be unweighted. Some will also look at other aspects, such as a student’s placement within their class or the actual quality of the courses they studied

That sounds a little confusing, so let’s clarify. 

Let’s say two students are applying to the same school. Student A has a weighted grade of 4.5 and Student B has an unweighted grade of 4.0.

While Student A seems more impressive, the college looks at the student’s placement in their grade. Student B is the top student in their grade, while Student A is the 10th placed student in their class. 

When you look at it this way, it’s clear that Student B has the more impressive credentials, even if their GPA is lower. 

That’s the sort of thing that colleges look at when making admissions decisions. 

How to Calculate Unweighted GPA

Now that we know the difference between unweighted and weighted GPAs, and we know how colleges approach these types of grades, we need to figure out how they’re calculated.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to figure out your unweighted GPA, even if you’re an English major. 

The standard 4.0 grading scale connects every 1/10th of a decimal in your grade to a specific numerical average. To help visualize this, take a look at the way a 3.0 to 4.0 grade is calculated: 

95 – 100 = 4.0 GPA

94 = 3.9

93 = 3.8

92 = 3.7

91 = 3.6

90 = 3.5

89 = 3.4

88 = 3.3

87 = 3.2

86 = 3.1

85 = 3.0

If your grade is a 60 average, it’s assigned a 0.5. If it goes lower than 60, the grade is 0.0. 

So how do we put this into a cumulative unweighted GPA? 

Let’s say you take three classes, and you earn the following grades: 91%, 94%, and 86%. Those translate into the following grades on a 4.0 scale: 3.6, 3.9, and 3.1. 

Add those three together, and you get 10.6. Because you took three classes, that number is divided by three. 

Your weighted GPA then is 3.53.

How to Calculate Weighted GPA

After reading how to calculate unweighted grades, you might assume a weighted GPA is determined with the same method. 

For the most part, that’s true. But there are a few tricks to keep in mind. Namely, individual schools have their own weighting systems, and that system may differ from the one you’re about to see.

It’s important to always check with your school and figure out the formula they’re using before you try to calculate a weighted grade. 

For this example, we’re going to use a general formula. According to this formula, an honors class is worth .5 more and an AP course is worth 1.0 more. 

With that in mind, here’s how an honors scale breaks down: 

95 – 100 = 4.5 GPA

94 = 4.4

93 = 4.3

92 = 4.2

91 = 4.1

90 = 4.0

89 = 3.9

88 = 3.8

87 = 3.7

86 = 3.6

85 = 3.5

And this is the breakdown for the AP scale:

95 – 100 = 5.0 GPA

94 = 4.9

93 = 4.8

92 = 4.7

91 = 4.6

90 = 4.5

89 = 4.4

88 = 4.3

87 = 4.2

86 = 4.1

85 = 4.0

To figure the total grade, we’ll go back to an example of three classes. In this case, you have a standard class in which you earned a 91%, an honors class in which you earned an 85%, and an AP course in which you earned a 92%. 

On the standard scale, your 91% converts to a 3.6. On the honors scale, your 85% is a 3.5. On the AP scale, your 92% is a 4.7. 

Now, you add those three grades together and divide them by three. The total weighted GPA for those three courses is 3.93

What Is Considered a Good Unweighted GPA?

Harvard University
At Harvard, students need exceptional GPAs for admission
chensiyuan, Sanders theater, CC BY-SA 4.0

As we’ve seen, unweighted and weighted GPAs can look vastly different. Straight As in an unweighted scale can get you a 4.0 GPA, but you can get that same grade with all Bs (or lower) on a weighted scale. 

How do you know what a good unweighted GPA is?

As that example indicated, the very best GPA on an unweighted scale is 4.0. That means that you’ve earned a 95% or higher in all of your courses. In other words, it’s straight As. 

But straight As are relatively uncommon, and they are not the only good GPA available. 

The best way to decide upon the quality of your GPA is to look at the requirements at schools you want to attend. 

At Harvard, the average unweighted GPA of students entering was 3.94. That means that students earned an A in nearly every class they took, with only one or two instances of an A- or maybe a B+. 

Without question, that’s a good grade. But we all know that Harvard is one of the most demanding schools in the world, so maybe we shouldn’t shoot so high. 

For the University of California, California residents need an unweighted GPA of 3.0 and non-residents need a 3.5. The average GPA may be higher, especially in the higher-end schools in the system, but this gives you an idea of what to expect. 

Simply put, a good unweighted GPA is usually around 3.5 or higher. 

What Is Considered a Good Weighted GPA?

As we’ve already indicated, weighted GPAs are far more complicated. Different schools have their own scales, which makes it difficult to compare grades across institutions. 

That said, there are some standards that one can find by using a general weighted scale like the one listed above. 

Once again, we get our best idea of figuring out a good grade by looking at requirements at various institutions. 

In the North Carolina university system, you must have a weighted grade of 2.5 or more. With that grade, you can apply to a top-level school such as UNC-Chapel Hill. 

But while the average grade at that school is 4.39, a weighted grade of 3.0 or even 2.5 will help get you into smaller UNC schools, such as their branches in Wilmington or Charlotte. 

At the University of Colorado – Boulder, the average weighted GPA of incoming students is between 3.53 and 4.0

In other words, the higher your GPA is, the better your application will look. That’s just as true with weighted scales as it is with unweighted scales. 

But in most cases, a weighted grade of 3.5 is considered good, and will at least allow you to apply to most major universities. A weighted grade of 4.0 or higher is very good and will be an impressive part of any application. 

Does GPA Even Matter?

Short answer, yes. Your GPA matters. 

There’s a reason that expected GPAs and minimum GPAs are a standard part of university admissions guidelines. But how much it matters differs according to the school.

In many cases, schools do not list a required GPA. They may insist that you hold a particular ranking in your class or that you have passed certain courses, but they do not have a minimum grade point average. 

In other cases, the GPA requirements can be very different. Take, for example, Johns Hopkins University, one of the top schools in the world. There, you must have at least a 3.0 on an unweighted, 4.0 scale to even be considered for admission. 

Over at a respectable state school like Colorado State University, the requirements are different. For that school, you must earn a 2.8 average GPA on a 4.0 to be considered. 

In both of these cases, the GPA requirement gives applicants an idea of what to expect. 

Ultimately, that’s the best way to look at GPA requirements. As you might guess, you might be able to apply to Johns Hopkins with a 3.0 and to CSU with a 2.8, but most of the students accepted have much higher grades. 

That’s because your GPA is a good indicator of your commitment as a student. Having good grades shows schools that you take your studies seriously, and you know how to work hard. 

If your GPA is lower than the average at a particular college, that doesn’t tell admissions counselors that you aren’t smart. But it does suggest that the workload at the school may be more than you can bear. 

Your GPA matters to schools because it helps them see the student you’ve been, which will relate to the student you’ll become at their institution.

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