Your first year at college will be a whirlwind of new experiences, which may include spending long nights in the library to ensure a good college GPA. But what is a good GPA in college? Many students believe that their education or career goals depend on a pristine transcript, but what is considered a good GPA in college depends on many factors.
In college, your GPA is different than it was in high school. A 4.0 GPA may make things easier for you, but the stakes are definitely lower. What a good college GPA is for one student may be a bad GPA for another student. In this deep dive, we explore how and why your college GPA matters, and what you can do to improve your grades.
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What Is a Grade Point Average (GPA)?
A GPA is a number that captures your average grade over a specified time period, whether over a single academic term or over your entire college career. The abbreviation GPA stands for grade point average, and grade points are your letter grades represented as numerical values. A 4.0 GPA is an A average, a 3.0 is a B average, a 2.0 is a C average, and so on.
The way GPA works in college is similar to the way it works in high school. The main difference is that, in high school, all of your classes usually carry the same weight. In college, however, you have to account for the fact that different classes are worth different numbers of credits. This requires a slightly trickier calculation.
How to Calculate Your College GPA
To calculate your GPA in college, you first want to multiply the number of grade points you have earned in each class by the number of credits each class is worth. Then, add all of these numbers together and divide the total by the total number of credits. This is more complicated than it sounds. Let’s illustrate this further with an example.
Say that you earned a B in a three-credit history class, an A in a four-credit biology class, and a C in a three-credit math class. Each of these grades is assigned a number, four for the A, three for the B, and two for the C. To get the total number of grade points, we perform the following calculations:
- History Grade Points: 3 credits x 3 (B) = 9
- Biology Grade Points: 4 credits x 4 (A) = 16
- Math Grade Points: 3 credits x 2 (C) = 6
- Total Grade Points: 9 + 16 + 6 = 31
The final step is to divide the total number of grade points, 31, by the total number of credits, 10. This works out to a 3.1 GPA for the term. Because your A in biology carries more weight than the other two grades, you have a slightly higher than B average. A 3.1 GPA isn’t bad, but it’s not ideal if you’re looking to enter a doctoral program after completing your degree.
Why Is College GPA Important?
Your college GPA is less obviously important than the high school GPA that helped you get into college. That said, earning a good GPA in college can go a long way toward achieving success later in life, and the benefits of a 4.0 college GPA, which is actually quite rare, are even more substantial. Below are a few reasons why excellent college grades matter.
Better College Opportunities
While it’s true that solid grades are more important for getting into college than staying in college, the benefits of a 4.0 GPA in college should not be underestimated. Some majors, for example, are impacted, which means that students have to apply for them during their sophomore year. One of the top criteria these majors consider is college GPA.
High college grades can also help you win merit scholarships. This is particularly important if you haven’t figured out how to afford college past your first or second year. The University of Washington is just one example of a school where students become eligible for Dean’s List Scholarships and other awards if they can maintain a college GPA of 3.5 or higher.
Graduate or Post-Graduate Options
If you plan to pursue a master’s degree or doctoral program, you need to be serious about your undergraduate GPA. Selective schools and competitive programs only admit students who have demonstrated a commitment to academic excellence, and a high GPA is the clearest metric that grad school admissions committees have at their disposal.
Future Job Applications
If you’re a recent college graduate entering the job market for the first time, a high GPA might be the most impressive thing on your resume. Good grades can make up for a lack of work experience in your search for entry-level jobs, especially if you graduated summa cum laude or won other academic awards.
Tips to Raise Your GPA in College
The realization that your college GPA actually matters may not come until after you’ve bombed a few classes. The good news is that most students are able, with a little help, to get their grades back up. Below are a few resources, tips, and strategies to raise your GPA in college.
Find a Tutor
Colleges and universities typically do not want to see their students fall through the cracks, which is why most of them have learning centers where you can go to find a tutor. Outside of their subject-specific expertise, these tutors may be able to use their knowledge of individual courses and professors to teach you how to raise your GPA in college.
Choose a College Major That Interests You
This tip might seem obvious, but you can get your college GPA up by pursuing a bachelor’s degree program that makes you excited to start studying. Some portion of your college career will be devoted to general education courses, but you will spend the majority of your time learning a specific subject. If it’s something that interests you, you’ll get better grades.
Attend Your Classes
Some students enter college believing they can skate by without attending class, but reading the required texts and borrowing notes from classmates isn’t enough, especially for your harder classes. Studies have shown that students who attend class do better than those who don’t, so you can boost your college GPA simply by showing up more often.
Plan Your Coursework Strategically
One deceptively simple way to raise your college GPA is to take control of your schedule. Since college is a marathon and not a sprint, consider spreading out your most challenging coursework. You are more likely to raise your GPA in a given semester if you take a blend of easy and difficult classes than if you take your most rigorous classes all at once.
Create a Study Schedule
As soon as your semester schedule is locked in place, you should have a pretty good idea of what your most challenging courses will be. After you collect your course syllabi on the first day of classes, you can start mapping out your weeks. Make sure you leave enough time to complete your most difficult assignments and study for your most stressful exams.
What Is Grade Inflation?
Grade inflation is a historical phenomenon whereby the average GPA at colleges across the country has increased steadily over time. Even though a 2.0 GPA, or a C average, sits at the middle of the bell curve, the average GPA in college is closer to 3.1. This same research suggests that the average college GPA rose 0.35 points from 1983 to 2013.
The concern with grade inflation is that today’s college students aren’t necessarily doing better than their historical counterparts. In other words, a 3.5 GPA in 2022 is less impressive than a 3.5 GPA in 1992. What’s weirder is that grade inflation appears to be worse at top-tier schools. At Harvard, for example, the average GPA in 2017 was 3.65.
The causes of grade inflation are hard to pin down. The best explanations attribute the phenomenon to competition within universities. In the quest for more funding, academic departments may lure students with the promise of higher grades. Similarly, faculty members may give out higher grades in order to get better teacher evaluations from their students.
Whatever the cause, the truth of the matter is that grade inflation has made it harder to know what a good GPA in college is. A 4.0 just isn’t what it used to be. For this reason, other measures of academic excellence have started to gain favor. If someone graduates summa cum laude, for example, it usually means they are in the top five percent of their class.
Final Thoughts: What Is a Good GPA in College?
A good GPA in college is one that, even after accounting for grade inflation, boosts your chances of success after graduation. If you plan to go to graduate school or intend to apply for competitive jobs, an above-average GPA is something you should aim for. Generally speaking, a 3.5 GPA is considered a good GPA, and a 4.0 is off the charts.
As long as you keep your course load manageable, avoid getting sucked into too many extracurricular activities, and put in some good, old-fashioned hard work, you should be able to achieve an impressive GPA. Your future self will thank you for making high academic performance a top priority.
What Is a Good GPA in College? FAQs
Your college GPA is calculated by adding up the number of grade points you’ve earned and dividing the total by the number of classes on your transcript. An A is worth four points, a B is worth three, a C is worth two, and so on. For an academic term in which you earned two As and two Bs, you would divide your 14 grade points by your four classes, for a GPA of 3.5.
What is the highest GPA in college?
The highest GPA in college is usually 4.0, which would mean that the student has earned an A in every class they have taken. There are some colleges, such as the University of Iowa, that award 4.33 grade points for an A+. Under this grading system, a student who received an A+ in every single class would graduate with a 4.33 GPA.
How rare is a 4.0 GPA in college?
A 4.0 GPA is relatively rare in college despite grade inflation. Ultimately, it depends on the difficulty of the school and the difficulty of the major, but even students who seek out easy classes have trouble maintaining a straight-A average. At the University of Connecticut, for example, fewer than five percent of students graduate with a 4.0 GPA.
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What is a cumulative GPA in college?
In college, a cumulative GPA is your GPA across all the terms you’ve been in school. In other words, your cumulative GPA is a rolling average of all your grades, not just your grades from the most recent semester. The GPA that appears on your college transcript is a cumulative GPA because it takes into account every course you’ve ever taken.
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