What is a Good GPA in College?

Ask an advertising executive, a professor, a doctor, a tv producer, and an entrepreneur whether or not a college GPA is important, and you’ll actually get the same answer: yes, and no. 

Depending on your goals, your real-world experience, your academic history, and many other factors, that GPA might open – or close – important doors. But in some cases, it could be a side issue altogether, easily overlooked or overcome.

Having a good college GPA surely doesn’t hurt you. 

But when it’s hard to know exactly how important a college GPA can be in the world after college, it’s a real trick to determine what a “good” GPA would be. 

The type of program, whether a student is full- or part-time, whether or not the student is working while going to school, even the geographic location of the college: all of these factors provide context for a GPA. 

What might be a good GPA in one program might be below average in another.

A “good enough” GPA for some students means one that leads to graduation in four years. 

For somebody else, that GPA needs to stay high enough to maintain scholarship money, to belong to clubs or Honors societies, or to meet the minimum requirements for applications to graduate school. 

It’s all about where the student is heading; short- and long-term goals have to be defined before any benchmarks make sense.

Then there’s the recent topic of grade inflation. 

Not long ago, news that Harvard University defaults most often to A grades for all students spurred widespread concern about student work ethic and the legitimacy of college grading systems. 

Concern was strong enough to cause Harvard to make some changes in its grading scale.

Considering that research shows a long-term shift to higher grades across all branches of education, especially in elite schools, what constitutes a baseline “good” GPA is a moving target. 

But there are some generally accepted standards and useful guidelines to consider when evaluating student GPAs.

What is a Good GPA in College?

College Student Showcasing his GPA
leungcophan | Shutterstock.com

Some basic metrics can define a good college GPA. 

In order to achieve cum laude status (the Latin phrase indicating the first level of honor for a college graduate) at most U.S. institutions, a student’s GPA must be at least 3.5 – 3.7. 

For high or highest honors, GPAs would need to be 3.7-3.9 (magna cum laude) or 3.9+ (summa cum laude). 

These GPAs qualify in a very official way as “good,” but depending on a student’s goals for the future, they may or may not be helpful designations.

For a student who dreams of editing the Harvard Law Review, a 3.0 won’t be enough to join the program, even with an honors degree. 

But a 3.0 GPA will meet the minimum benchmark for many graduate programs, and it’s a respectable achievement for a student going straight into the job search or for a student coming from a particularly rigorous college or program, like Engineering.

Conventionfal wisdom for resume writing says to leave off a GPA lower than 3.5, or to provide the GPA from the major only, if it’s higher. The minimum GPA to maintain need-based scholarships or grants, however, is a much more manageable 2.0.

There’s an argument that a very high GPA indicates conformity and a lack of real-world priorities. 

Students who graduate at the top of their classes aren’t usually people willing to disrupt the system they’ve mastered. 

It’s hard to learn resilience if you’ve never made a B. Bill Gates didn’t go to class; Steve Jobs made B’s and C’s in high school and left college. 

Some interviewers admit they hesitate to hire applicants with high GPAs, assuming they may work only a few years and then leave for graduate school.

What is the Average GPA in College?

But GPAs aren’t what they used to be. A 3.0 today doesn’t make the same impression as it would have in 1960. It’s a little below the average of 3.15, or a B+.

Longitudinal research shows that college grade distribution rose 28% over the last 70 years, with A’s now making up nearly half of all grades, while D’s and F’s account for less than 10%. 

The C+ grade still denotes “above average work” on many college grading scales, but professors who give C’s now find themselves facing classrooms full of empty seats

Researchers like Louis Goldman and Stuart Rojstaczer have argued that the slow rise of average GPAs will devalue the grading process in general, leaving GPAs relatively meaningless.

Places like MIT, Caltech, and Princeton have instituted policies to counter the widespread inflation of grades seen at universities across the country, seeing an essential need to maintain a sense of rigor and accountability. 

Other schools like Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, and even Yale Law School have moved away from GPA altogether in favor of narrative evaluations and other nontraditional grading formats. 

The idea of the student as a consumer, the shift to holistic grading in some schools, and an overall shift in ideas about authority and equal access to education all contribute to the way instructors evaluate student work.

What Is a Good GPA in Grad School?

Most graduate students still have to think about GPAs, at least for as long as they are still in graduate school. 

Graduate programs require a minimum GPA or progress toward a degree to remain enrolled, and most students maintain higher GPAs in graduate school than they did while undergraduates.

But scholarly research and academic publication generally mean more than grades do in graduate school. 

It’s even possible that too high a GPA in the absence of compelling professional activity would send the message that a student pays too much attention to classwork and not enough to longer-range goals.

The good news: most students in a graduate program work closely with advisors who support and guide them to make the best choices for their field. 

Most programs have scaffolding in place to make sure their students earn grades to sustain their enrollment and their funding, while keeping degree candidates on track with their thesis requirements, their research, and the professional publications necessary to secure a post-doctoral fellowship or to start a career.

If the graduate program is a professional track like Law or Medicine, or if it’s in a largely corporate field like Engineering or Architecture, those GPAs will be important factors when applying for or being placed in internships. 

Some medical residency programs are based only on interviews and recommendations, but those recommendations may be harder to acquire if your GPA is low. 

Human Resources departments of prominent architecture and engineering firms sometimes won’t process an application with a GPA under 3.0.

It’s worth considering that some graduate and professional schools have done away with GPAs completely, considering classes to be high pass, pass, or fail only. 

Often if a student fails a class once, they can retake it. These programs rely on interaction with faculty advisors and evidence of scholarly work to determine whether or not a student is making adequate progress toward a degree, and the focus is on professional academic practice rather than on classroom grades.

What Is a Good GPA and GED Score to Get Into College?

Evaluating high school GPAs brings up yet another set of conditions to consider. 

Selective colleges and universities look for a 3.5 – 4.0 high school GPA range in an unweighted grading scale. 

Smaller schools and community colleges accept students with GPAs as low as 2.0, but even need-based scholarships can have GPA minimums starting around 3.0.

But high schools across the country have adopted weighted scales topping out at as much as 12 points. 

College admissions departments then must adjust these grades back to an unweighted, 4-point scale in order to evaluate students effectively and fairly. 

Every admissions department manages this process differently, but the GPA associated with each student during the admissions process is not necessarily the one on file at their high school guidance office. 

Many schools review a student’s transcript and reassign a GPA based on the school’s own priorities.

Colleges welcome students with GEDs, and there are specific standards there as well. 

While the GED classifies a score of 165-174 as “college-ready,” the higher the score, the better the indication to the admissions department that the student is ready for college-level work. Scores above 175 can even earn college credit at some schools.

Admissions departments would rather see students attempting the highest level coursework offered, wherever and however they attend school. Evidence of consistent interest in a particular area of study can hold more weight with admissions, for instance, than an exceptional GPA.

How Much Does College GPA Matter for Jobs?

There’s also debate as to whether or not GPA matters in the job search. 

GPA might matter, at least for the first job in a graduate’s career. 

A solid GPA can stand in for absent work experience, but it’s not considered to be the best indicator of professional success. 

Many HR departments interpret a strong GPA as evidence of a good work ethic and a sign that a candidate is a fast learner. 

Others see a high GPA and assume the candidate focuses on the short-term picture and may not know how to make critical decisions in practical contexts.

A novice job candidate’s best bet is to foreground meaningful aspects of their resumé or CV: inspirational coursework or academic successes of any kind, relevant practical experience, personal philosophy, or work ethic. 

If special circumstances surround a less-than-stellar academic history, those narratives can make for a stronger application than data ever could. 

Human Resources departments are looking for indicators of critical thinking skills, the ability to work under pressure, and the maturity to work well with a team. GPA can’t tell that story.

There isn’t a gold standard for GPA scores, not in any level of education or in the world after school ends. There is a spectrum of standards, and the measure of excellence lies in each student’s plans, strengths, and ingenuity. Numbers matter, but people matter more.