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:
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.