Holistic Academic Review: More Than a GPA

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This week we welcome Assistant Director of Admission & Digital Media, Samantha Rose-Sinclair to the blog. Welcome back, Sammy!

It’s that time of year! For new goals and resolutions? Perhaps. For feeling recharged after time off from work and school? Hopefully. For a crisp 3-inch blanket of snow draped across the ground? Maybe, but in Atlanta probably not. 

 For “How’d Emily get admitted with a 4.4 and John get denied with a 4.7?” Absolutely. Given my digital media work for our office, I’m privy to chat threads that start just like that, all the time. This time of year, those questions are on especially heavy rotation as “Chance me with a X.XX GPA” turns into “I was admitted/denied/deferred with a X.XX GPA.” So, all other elements of fit and the holistic review process aside (Which is no small “aside”, but my colleagues have written lots of great blogs on the matter) let’s talk about the limitations of using, and comparing, transcript GPAs alone as a decision indicator in holistic admission.  

The impact of weighting, and extracurricular courses 

Many schools use weighted GPAs to add extra point(s) to their more rigorous courses- AP, honors, etc. Essentially, the aim is to create a grade point that not only factors in a student’s performance in a class, but also the difficulty of the class. 

 Let’s say a school gives one extra grade point to AP courses (So, an A in an AP is five grade points, compared to four in a regular course). Emily and John both take two AP courses, and both get As for grade points of five. Emily has early dismissal at the end of the day, which she uses for her internship. She doesn’t get a grade for it. John is particularly interested in science, and is taking an anatomy course he’s enjoying- it’s offered at a regular level, so his A gets him four grade points.  

EMILY Classes Letter Grade Grade point 
AP Calculus A 5.00
AP Biology A 5.00
Early Release—Work  
AVERAGE   5.00

 

JOHN Classes  Letter Grade Grade point 
AP Calculus  A  5.00 
AP Biology  A  5.00 
Anatomy  A  4.00 
AVERAGE    4.666 

 In the short example above, both students received all As, both students used their time productively to explore additional interests, yet Emily’s average is a 5.00, John’s average is a 4.67.   

As the “A” in the abbreviation suggests, GPAs are just averages. They don’t give the context of what courses a student took, and how that impacted the final number. Here’s the good news: in holistic review, context is everything. Using your transcript to unpack your full course history and performance gives far more insight into your academic preparation than the GPA summarizing that performance.  (Video version, if you prefer)

The impact of non-universal school scales and curriculums 

In the above example, I gave you the scale by which the school weighed GPAs. When admission counselors review transcripts, we’ll typically have grading information available to us from a school report, school profile, or on the transcript itself. Out in the wild of various admission forums and chats with neighbors/friends/your great aunt’s second cousin… you won’t have that information, yet, it’s critical to understanding the ranges of GPAs typical at a given high school. A few weighted 4.0 scale examples: 

School One: honors get .5 points added, APs have 1 point added. The highest grade awarded is an A+. They offer 34 honors courses and 29 AP courses and do not limit the APs a student can take. Valedictorian has about a 4.9 

School Two: again, honors get .5 points added and APs get 1 point added. The highest grade awarded is an A. The school offers 18 honors courses and 22 AP courses, students are limited to taking 1 AP sophomore year, 3 junior and senior years. Accordingly, GPAs tend to average lower than School One, the valedictorian has about a 4.5 

School Three: Honors and AP courses are both weighted with two points, accelerated courses are weighted with one point. In the spring of 2020, all passing grades were marked as As, which is the highest grade awarded. There are no limits on weighted courses. Valedictorian has about a 5.6.  

There are an infinite number of curriculums and grading scales, there is no universal standard across United States school districts. The above hasn’t scratched the surface on 4.0 models, let alone 100 point models, 6 point, 7 point… you get the idea. When you see Emily on Reddit’s admission decision with a 4.4 and you’re curious what it means for you, it’s a fruitless comparison. Or perhaps fruit filled, as a 4.4 at her school is likely apples and oranges to a 4.4 at yours. Terrible play on words, sorry. 

apple and orange on a scale

Unweighted GPAs and the impact of rigor

In an unweighted GPA model, there’s no extra weight added to coursework, each course is factored into the GPA based on points for performance alone. Emily and John are both interested in aerospace engineering, and took the following schedules this year:  

EMILY Classes  Letter  Grade point 
AP Physics  A  4.00 
Calculus  A  4.00 
Honors English  B+  3.3 
AVERAGE    3.766 
JOHN Classes  Letter  Grade point 
Underwater Basket Weaving  A  4.00 
Precalculus  A-  3.7 
The Art of Napping  A  4.00 
AVERAGE    3.9 

At first glance, John’s earned a higher average than Emily, with a 3.9 compared to her 3.77. But all naps that I took in college aside…who has the stronger academic preparation for college-level coursework in aerospace engineering? I’ll let you make that call.  

The impact of performance over time and subject  

When looking at the transcript, admission reviewers can see patterns in course choice and performance. Where did the student perform their best? Which subjects did they challenge themselves in? And, how did they perform over time? We also may receive information from the student or school providing insight on circumstances that impacted a student’s academics. We may find upward academic trends (improved grades as a student progressed) or downward trends. In other words, while Emily and John could have a similar GPA, one might have had lower grades in 9th grade, while the other, in 11th. We know juniors are tired of hearing this, but given that they represent the more advanced coursework that you’ll build from in college, those later courses and their grades tend to matter more. All in all, the transcript tells a story of academic fit through the lens of your growth, strengths, and interests, which isn’t quite captured in a single number.   

So why does this matter? If you’re waiting on admission decisions, it can truly be stressful reading other students’ stats and trying to anticipate what it means for you. The reality is, those numbers are entirely devoid of the context—academically, and the additional context of holistic application review that we’ve sidelined for now—that they were made in. And so, I encourage the academic equivalent of “don’t judge a book by its cover”. While I know it’s tempting to try and find signposts hinting at a decision as you wait, my hope is that armed with this understanding, you can save yourself the headache and heartache of comparison and keep your sights on your own path, and your own accomplishments in this new year ahead.

Author: Samantha Rose-Sinclair

Sammy Rose-Sinclair has worked in college admission for six years. She uses her love of engaging with students, families, and counselors to interact with the Tech Admission community on our social media channels (@gtadmission) as the assistant director of admission and digital media.