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What's a GPA?

GPA is a mystifying concept for many non-Americans. What does a 4.0 mean? What does GPA mean? Why does it matter? How do you calculate it? During my time as an educational consultant, I’ve explained this concept to dozens of students — and now I am going to try to explain it to you.

GPA stands for “grade point average,” and is a way of numerically condensing your letter grades (i.e. A, B, C, D, and F) into one number. It makes it a lot easier for those looking at your grades to evaluate your academic prowess without going into the nitty-gritty of your transcript. Imagine reading an unknown person’s transcript and going through all of their individual grades; a GPA makes an evaluator’s much easier.

A GPA is calculated by assigning a number to each letter grade, adding these numbers together, and then averaging them out. When courses are weighted the same (i.e. they carry the same number of credits), as they traditionally are in high school, the number assigned to each grade is as follows: A - 4.0, B - 3, C - 2, and D - 1. (F is, unfortunately, 0.) If you take five classes, and receive an A in all of them, you would receive 5 “points” for each class, add them together (so 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 = 20), and then divide by 5 (the number of classes), for a GPA of 4 — the maximum GPA. GPAs are calculated like this in high school — but not in college, where the value assigned to each grade is dependent on the number of credits. This explains why sometimes it is possible to receive a GPA above 4 while in high school: if you take college-level classes while in high school, they may assign a value higher than 4 to a A-level grade.

This is a helpful conversion chart, courtesy of the College Board:

The GPA system is a uniquely American system; remember that every country has its own grading standards. In the US, A-level grades are not uncommon, while in, say, many European countries, this is not the case. They have their own systems of measuring “average grade value,” and students abroad should check to see how their grades translate into the American system. 



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