Advanced Courses, GPA, and College Admissions: Not All Grades Are Created Equal

The quality of the courses you take in high school is the #1 piece of information that schools look at when they’re considering applicants.

Posted on Aug 16, 2017 12:51:45 PM

Your high school grade point average (GPA) is the #1 piece of information that schools look at when they’re considering applicants — in fact, it would probably be the #2, and #3 things, too, if that made sense. It’s been that way forever, and it’s not going to change within your lifetime, if ever.So it would seem to make sense – for uninformed students, anyway – to pack their schedules with “piece of cake” classes that generate an easy ‘A’. And, in truth, that’s not all that bad a strategy if those students aim for colleges that have less competitive admissions. But it stinks as a strategy for students who want to have a shot at gaining admission to more selective schools, as you’ll see when we discuss the University of Florida and Florida State University in what follows.

There are two basic reasons why aiming low to try for a high GPA stinks as a strategy. The first is that grades of C or better in higher-level classes, such as AP, IB, AICE, DE (dual enrollment), and Honors, increase the recalculated GPAs that selective colleges generate for purposes of making admissions decisions. Here’s what FSU has to say on that matter:

How do you weight honors, IB, AP, AICE and DE courses?

Honors courses get one half point of extra weight. For example, an A in English Honors would be counted as 4.5 in your overall GPA.

AP, IB, AICE, and DE courses get a full point of weight. For example, an A in AP English Language or ENC1101 would be counted as 5.0 in your overall GPA.

The only exception is for D’s and F’s. These grades are never weighted, regardless of curricular level.

So if a student achieves a B grade in AP, IB, AICE, or DE course, it would contribute the same amount to weighted GPA as would an A grade in a non-Honors course. And taking the higher-level course shows that the student has been willing to challenge him/herself; admissions officers at most more selective schools consider a B in an advanced-level course more valuable than an A in a lower-level course, which brings us to…

…the other reason that aiming low to try for a high GPA stinks as a strategy: selective colleges want to admit students who have challenged themselves with more demanding higher-level courses. Here are the first pieces of advice that UF admissions gives to prospective applicants:

  • First piece of advice for students who are about to enter their junior year: “The eleventh grade is often the most challenging academically. Take honors, AP, IB or AICE classes if they are offered.”
  • First piece of advice for students who are about to enter their senior year: “Take a full load of academic classes, including honors, AP, IB, AICE or academic dual enrollment classes.”

And here’s part of what FSU admissions has to say in a Frequently Asked Questions document:

"How much emphasis is placed on GPA…?

Our admission decisions are based on your academic profile, so it is important to take a challenging curriculum and to do well in those challenging courses.

What looks better: AP, IB, or DE courses?

All of these courses are considered academically rigorous. We want you to do the best you are able to do in the most challenging curriculum possible. We do not recommend IB over AP or DE classes.

One note of caution on DE classes: Taking a dual enrollment, non-core course isn’t advisable unless it’s in the field in which the student plans to major – nutrition, for example – or when there’s a scheduling conflict: if a student’s school has AP Physics and AP Latin scheduled for the same period, taking DE Physics would be fine. Taking a lower-level, relatively easy DE course to boost GPA or rank isn’t a great idea; virtually all admissions officers will see through it. On the other hand, admissions will consider it quite appropriate for a student to take a solid DE course out of genuine interest, or because of a high school scheduling conflict.

Dual enrollment works best when a student has exhausted his/her high school's curriculum and so turns to higher-level courses offered through dual enrollment, such as Abnormal Psychology, which is a higher-level course than AP Psychology.

In short, unless you’re aiming for less competitive colleges, challenge yourself with the highest level of courses in which you think you can do well with hard work. Not all grades are created equal, and hard work can reap big rewards.

Another note in closing… The Common App, accepted by more than 700 universities, still does not recognize AICE exams when asking students if they’d like to self-report standardized test scores. It remains unclear to us at this point which colleges consider AICE scores less worthy than scores from AP or IB tests.

Topics: Test Scores College Admission Test-Prep College Application


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