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What is a GPA?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A grade point average, or GPA, is the system many schools use to rank student academic performance. Each grade a student earns is weighted according to a uniform scale so that a single number can be used to express grades earned over a semester, year, or even entire academic career. A GPA is usually regarded as a rough indication of a student’s abilities, and often serves as a way of ranking and distinguishing people for purposes of university admissions, scholarship awards, and job interviews. The number is not used in the educational systems of all countries, and not all countries or schools use the same scales.

Basics of Calculation

Many academic institutions around the world use a letter grade system for student assessment. On this model, an “A” represents ideal work, a “B” or “C” may be awarded for work that meets the standard, and a “D” is usually reserved for work that is somehow deficient. An “F” is typically awarded only for failures. Most systems do not use the letter “E.”

GPA is calculated by assigning a numeric value to each grade earned. Different schools may use slightly different scales, but most assign “points” to letter grades, such as the following:

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

Factoring in Pluses and Minuses

Grading scales that make use of pluses and minuses — where a student could earn an A-, for instance, or a C+ — sometimes make amendments to the scale to account for these intermediary values. An A- might be a 3.6, for instance, while a C+ would probably be a 2.3.

There is often some controversy when it comes to the A+ designation. Not all schools recognize an A+ and in most cases a so-called “perfect” GPA (on a 4-point scale) is a 4.0. Some schools will award a 4.3 value to an A+, while others elect to stick just to a 4. As such, some students may actually have grade point averages that exceed 4.0, while others may carry a 4.0 without actually having earned all As — as would be the case with a student who earned three A- marks alongside three A+s, for instance.

Calculation and Weighting

GPA is usually only calculated based on final grades earned, and as such is a single way of expressing a student’s overall performance. Rather than saying that a student earned one A, two Bs, and a C, one would say that she had a 3.0 average for the semester, quarter, or year. Expressing the grades for a single class still usually happens in terms of letter. It would be more correct to say “she earned an A in chemistry,” for instance, than “she had a 4.0 in chemistry.”

Things get more complicated when classes carry different credit values. If chemistry is a four-credit class, for example, an A earned there should — and usually does — count for more than an A earned in two-credit course. To compensate for this difference, schools usually calculate GPA on a credit hour basis.

Going back to the example above, if a student earned an A in a four-credit course, Bs in a four-credit course and in a two-credit course, and a C in a three-credit course, her overall GPA would be calculated as follows: (4 x 4) + (4 x 3) + (2 x 3) + (3 x 2), all divided by the total number of credits — in this case, 13 — for a total of 3.07.

Significance Within Academic Circles

Grade point averages are often used within schools to rank students. They may also be the basis of scholarship awards, graduation honors, and other academic accolades. Along with standardized test scored, GPAs are often the most efficient way to assign students a numeric value, thus quantifying their perceived ability when it comes to academic success and problem-solving skills. Most colleges and universities consider grade point averages very heavily when making admission decisions. Graduate and professional schools are usually the same way. Though a final decision to admit or deny a student often comes down to individual characteristics and personal essay responses, high GPA and test scores are often essential to advancement in early stages.

Significance in Future Life

The value of a grade point average is rarely something students can close the door on once they graduate. Most entry-level jobs want to see school transcripts, and employers often make hiring decisions influenced at least in part by academic success. This is particularly true in professions that require precision, such as law and medicine. Simply attending a good school is not always enough — students must also usually show that they earned top grades in order to get the field’s top jobs.

Of course, there does come a natural point at which GPAs begin to lose their value. Over time, a person’s professional record begins to stand for itself, and grades earned years ago fade into history. Until experience has a chance to trump learning, however, grades stay important, often longer than students would like.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon336252 — On May 27, 2013

My GPA is 3.5. I know that this is not enough to apply to Johns Hopkins University, but I have a great desire. Last semester, my GPA was 3.0, but I am trying to do my best. Do I have any chance? I don't know, maybe I have some difficulties calculating my gpa. Am I right?

By anon125340 — On Nov 09, 2010

so if you have straight a's it's a 4.0 gpa?

By subway11 — On Jul 09, 2010

Sunny27- That is an interesting point you made. I remember my sister telling me that she had a friend that had a perfect GPA at NYU in undergraduate studies but when she went on to Law school she could not handle the pressure and dropped out of school.

It is hard to imagine that happening, but I think that the character also plays a significant role in success which is probably why employers don’t focus on the GPA.

For example, a student that does not work or have any outside activities has a higher ability to earn a better GPA than for the student that has to work full time and go to school full time to pay for his or her classes. An employer might view the latter student as having the right mix of experience.

By Sunny27 — On Jul 09, 2010

Baileybear- I agree that the GPA matters most in college admissions for undergraduate, graduate and professional courses of study. Most employers seeking entry level college graduates often do not refer to the GPA at all during interviews.

They are more concerned with experience obtained by internships and volunteer work. For these graduates GPA is not a factor. However, if the student is looking for a career in research, medicine or legal studies than GPA plays a significant role

By baileybear — On Jul 08, 2010

Your GPA used to have a lot of pull in your life, however nowadays it seems to matter less and less. While it's true that some colleges look at your GPA as a means of acceptance, trade schools really don't care much about it.

You should be very cautious when dealing with schools that seem interested only in the admissions process and follow up by asking your admissions representative what kinds of effects a bad GPA might have on your admission.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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