What is GPA?
Most of you are probably familiar with the concept of GPA from your high school report card or honor roll. The acronym stands for grade point average, and it is typically calculated using a 4.0 scale. You can see a helpful example of a GPA calculator and an explanation of how letter grades are converted to grade points here.
Essentially, GPA is a shorthand version to communicate your average performance across all of your classes. For instance, a 2.0 = a C average, while a 3.7 = an A- average. It’s helpful for students, advisors, registrars, etc. because it compresses a fair amount of information into a single score. For instance, say one semester you achieved a B- in Western Civ, a C+ in College Algebra, a B in General Psychology, and an A in College Writing. That would come out to a GPA of 3.0 or a B average.
GPA is not a full picture of you, your intelligence, or your academic ability! Rather, it is a handy tool that schools & universities use — for a variety of reasons — to track students’ grades.
GPA is also broken down into at least 2 different categories: semester & cumulative. My example above describes what GPA might look like at the end of one semester. Cumulative GPA tracks the average of your grades over every semester of classes you take. Sticking with that same example, if you were to raise your grades the next semester to a 3.3, then your cumulative GPA would also rise slightly.
How much does GPA matter?
The short answer is “it depends.”
There are a variety of factors that we should consider when accounting for the importance of GPA. First, I’ll give you several reasons why you should care about and try to keep a solid GPA throughout college. However, I’ll also follow that up with some cautions about why you shouldn’t obsess over your grade point average.
Reasons having a respectable GPA is advantageous
Like I mentioned above, GPA is a blunt instrument and does not fully represent you as a student. It gives a quick overview of your grades/grade history.
GPA, limited though it is, is often used as a criterion when colleges do some of the following activities:
- Narrow the pool of applicants for certain programs.
- Determine whether a student may continue in a given program (for instance, as an education major, I needed to maintain a certain GPA for core courses)
- Grant scholarships and awards.
- Check whether students are achieving Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). SAP is used to determine if an academically struggling student will be put on academic probation, and it can even affect financial aid, if GPA falls below a certain point.
If you want to pursue a specialized field or a graduate degree after college, having a high GPA *may help* you to achieve that goal.
* May help: a high GPA is not a guaranteed access card! Acceptance committees certainly look at your academic history, but that is far from being the sole determinant of whether or not you get in.
Reasons not to freak out about your GPA
We often assume that good grades/a high GPA correlate with being a good student. And that can certainly be true in many cases. However, your grades are only one representation of your learning.
Some people can earn a high GPA with relative ease, but in my book, they’re not a great student if they’re not actually curious about the world, interested in learning, or willing to take on new challenges. Others may earn a relatively modest GPA, but they’re actual amount of learning — of taking in, integrating, and utilizing their new knowledge — is really off the charts.
In short, here’s why should care about your grades without being obsessed with earning all As.
- You are not your GPA! Grades matter to a point (see above), but they don’t define you. Failing a class doesn’t make you a failure. Acing your classes doesn’t necessarily make you a success. Your academic performance is only one tiny component of who you are as a holistic being! Exhibiting strong character — being someone who is kind, hard working, willing to help others, and wants to keep learning throughout life — is more important than graduating summa cum laude.
- GPA does not equal amount learned. If you’ve put forth your best effort to learn during your education but only earned mediocre grades, you may have benefited more from the experience than someone who put in little effort, breezed through classes, yet managed to pull off high scores.
- There are many careers and opportunities in which your GPA will not matter. Rather, simply having earned your degree or certification, regardless of your grades, will determine whether or not you’re eligible for a position.
- In the big scheme of things, your GPA is relatively unimportant. I finished a master’s degree five years ago, and I can’t tell you the last time anyone asked me about the grades I earned (during my MA or at any point in my education).
So, does GPA matter? To a certain extent, it does matter in academic contexts. But please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that GPA is more than it is. It’s not a measure of intelligence or ability or learning; rather, it’s a shorthand method of condensing academic information into one small, easily-tracked number. It’s a useful tool, but with definite limitations!
Cheryl Comparativo completed a BA (Secondary English Education) and an MA (English and Comparative Literature), both from colleges accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
She teaches courses in literature, composition, and college preparedness, along with doing administrative work for an accredited college’s student-success center. These areas all mesh with her passion for teaching and mentoring college students.
A book lover, Cheryl enjoys reading widely across many different genres; a recent favorite read was Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. She and her husband Chris enjoy traveling, playing volleyball, and trying new restaurants. They also have two much-loved dogs.