If you’re applying to a top university in the USA, you’ve probably been asked for your Grade Point Average (GPA). It’s a standard feature on most university application forms, as well as financial aid forms, scholarship applications, and loan applications.
But what exactly is a GPA? And what should you do if your undergraduate or high school grades were calculated on a 12-point scale or a 100-point scale – or if you were awarded percentage grades? How can you convert those grades (or any other grades not on the 4.0 scale that is standard in the USA) into a cumulative GPA easily understood in the USA?
In this article, we’ll:
- Discuss how universities, scholarship providers, and lenders use GPAs in their decisions;
- Learn how to calculate your cumulative GPA regardless of the point scale your high school or undergraduate institution used;
- Identify some useful GPA conversion tools, which will allow you to convert grades displayed as a percentage into GPA
- Discuss how other factors, such as differences in countries’ and universities’ grading systems can affect GPA calculations, and how an official credential evaluation can adjust for these differences.
What is a GPA? And what is the difference between a semester GPA and a cumulative GPA?
GPA is an acronym that stands for Grade Point Average, which is the standard 4-point grading scale used in both high schools and universities in the USA.
The system works as follows:
- For each class a student takes, the student receives a letter grade. An “A” is the highest grade in this system, and an “F” is the lowest grade. (“F” stands for “Failed.”)
- Each letter grade is assigned a standard numeric value, as follows:
|Letter Grade||Corresponding Numeric Value|
- This is how all GPAs were traditionally calculated. Note that more recently, however, some high schools have adopted weighted GPAs, giving extra points to advanced classes. These classes are often classified as “Honors,” “Advanced Placement (AP),” or “International Baccalaureate.” In this case, the school adds 1.0 to the corresponding numeric value for the grade received in each advanced class.
The school then averages the numeric value of each grade received for the semester to arrive at the student’s semester GPA. (If all courses have the same number of credit hours, they are weighted equally in this calculation. If the courses have differing numbers of credit hours, the school will take a weighted average.) As a simple example, let’s say a student took four classes in a semester, receiving an A (4.0), an A- (3.67), a B+ (3.33), and a C+ (2.67), all with the same number of credit hours. To calculate the student’s semester GPA, the school would add these four numbers and divide by 4. The student’s GPA for that semester would be 3.42.
- Schools also calculate each student’s cumulative GPA, which is calculated in the same way as a semester GPA, but covers all classes that the student took at that institution (in other words, all classes that the student has taken to date, in every semester).
As a simple example, let’s say that a student took five classes in her last semester of high school and received all “A”s. However, two of those classes were International Baccalaureate. The school would then assign values of 4.0, 4.0, 4.0, 5.0, and 5.0 to her grades for those classes. (The two 5.0 grades are for the IB classes, since 4.0 plus an extra 1.0 is 5.0.) Her weighted semester GPA would therefore be 4.4!
How do schools use GPAs in the admissions process?
Schools use a student’s GPA as one key factor in the admissions process, but it’s not the only factor. In general, the higher your GPA, the higher your chances of getting in. And the more selective the institution, the higher your GPA needs to be.
For example, for the incoming class of 2021 at Harvard University, the average high school GPA was 4.18. Ninety-three percent of Harvard freshmen had a high school GPA of 3.75 or higher, and no student was admitted with a GPA below 3.0.
In comparison, the middle 50 percent of students beginning their undergraduate studies in 2018 at the University of Southern California had high school GPAs between 3.7 and 3.97, and incoming freshman at Arizona State University had an average GPA of 3.54.
Note that GPA data for schools in the USA is generally provided as a range. That’s because there is generally not a strict cutoff, since other factors also affect admission to a school.
There are two reasons not to stress if your GPA isn’t terrific. First, many schools are willing to consider students with lower GPAs if the students show promise in some other way. For example, some students have excellent test scores or outstanding professional or academic achievements. For more information about how admissions decisions are made, check out these useful tips by Harvard University.
Second, GPAs tend to get somewhat less weight in admissions decisions for Master’s degrees and MBA programs. This is particularly true if applicants have significant work experience and have a demonstrated track record of professional achievement.
How do scholarship providers and student lenders use GPAs?
Some scholarship competitions only consider candidates with a GPA above a certain threshold. For example, a scholarship competition may be open only to students with a GPA above 3.0.
If you’re an international student applying for scholarships that require you to list your GPA, it’s very important to convert your grades into the U.S.-formatted GPA. Why? If the scholarship provider can’t determine if you meet the GPA requirement, you won’t pass their eligibility check. That means they won’t even consider you. So when you search through scholarship listings, make sure you have your GPA calculated and that you meet any eligibility requirements for the scholarship for which you are applying!
Some student lenders operate in much the same way. Private lenders, whether in your home country or in the USA, typically don’t ask about your grades if your loan is collateralized, meaning that your parents have mortgaged their home or other property to secure the loan. That’s because the lender knows your educational or financial prospects don’t matter since it can seize your parents’ property if you fail to make your payments.
If, however, you have a no-cosigner loan, where the loan is based on your future earning potential and not your parents’ assets, the lender will most likely ask about your grades. Grades are an excellent prediction of your future success – and your ability to finish your degree program, get a great job, and pay the lender back – which is all they care about. Of course, companies issuing no-cosigner loans also consider other predictors of future success, such as the reputation of your university, the value of your degree program, and your prior professional experience.
If you have a good GPA and are interested in a no-cosigner loan, we recommend checking out MPOWER Financing. MPOWER was recently named by U.S. News and World Report as the best lender for international students.
How can you convert your percentage or other grades to a semester or cumulative GPA?
To get started calculating your American GPA, try the iGPA Calculator. It’s a free tool that gives you an approximate American GPA based on the standard 4.0 scale.
The challenge for international students, of course, is that converting your GPA to the equivalent in the USA can be more complex than simply performing a straight mathematical conversion. Other factors that may be taken into consideration include:
- The grading culture and practices of your home country overall (in some countries, the average grade might be the equivalent of a U.S. 2.0, while in others it might be 3.0);
- The grading practices of your particular high school (if applying for undergraduate programs in the USA) or undergraduate institution (if applying for a graduate program); and
- The difficulty of courses taken and how an American institution assesses it.
This is where an official credential evaluation can be useful. It’s a verified report that takes all these factors into account and can be sent to college admissions officers, job recruiters, financial institutions, and other organizations that require official documentation of your academic accomplishments in your home country.
Do I need an official credential evaluation and how can I get one?
Here is an unfortunate truth: Most U.S. schools, employers, and financial institutions do not understand the education systems in other countries.
Therefore, if you want to study or work in the USA, you might need to show proof of your previous academic achievements in terms that everyone can understand.
A credential evaluation bridges that gap. It is a document that converts your academic performance to the grading scale used in the USA.
Many schools partner with trusted credential evaluation services like World Education Services (WES). Your school might even have specific requirements about which credential evaluation services are necessary to apply for their international student programs. For example, some schools will not review international applications until a transcript evaluation is completed. In other cases, it might not be a requirement, but it is still recommended.
The same is true for financial institutions. Some may ask applicants for their grades as a way of demonstrating they are good candidates for a loan. Others might simply prioritize candidates who come prepared with these types of official documents.
About credential evaluations
One thing to know about credential evaluations is that there are different kinds. You will want to order the kind that best matches your goals.
In terms of converting your GPA, you need a course-by-course credential evaluation. In addition to providing your exact American GPA, it also reports the equivalency of every credential you have earned in school, while listing your courses and grades. This makes it perfectly easy for employers, schools, banks, and others to see exactly how you have performed as a student.
The course-by-course credential evaluation is typically required for graduate admissions, undergraduate transfer admissions, and professional licensing purposes. But it can also help you stand out when applying for scholarships and student loans.
Before you order a credential evaluation, be sure to:
- Determine your goal. Outlining your goal will help you decide which type of evaluation to order. For example, if you want a credential evaluation that contains your GPA, don’t order a basic document-by-document evaluation, as this report only lists a U.S. equivalency for each credential.
- Contact your institution. Ask your school or lender if you need to use a certain credential evaluation provider. Also ask if there is a type of credential evaluation report they prefer.
Although you can estimate your cumulative GPA using the iGPA Calculator (linked above), the only official way to convert your GPA to the U.S. 4.0 scale is by getting a credential evaluation. The best part of having one is that your report can be used again and again, throughout your lifetime, to help you meet your financial, academic, and employment goals in the United States.