Why You’re Wrong about Your GPA, and what to Do about it

Many High School juniors who are trying to figure out their chances at competitive schools are confused about what their GPA actually is. Between "unweighted" and "weighted" GPAs -- and also with many high schools now calculating the grades of AP courses, honors courses, and standard courses differently -- students are often presented with two or three different numbers to represent their GPA. Even more confusing, many colleges use their own formulae to calculate GPA, meaning that the numbers your high school reports may all be different from what the university actually considers.

So what is a confused student to do? First of all, you should understand the process:

Many colleges will see and consider both your weighted and unweighted GPAs -- the former of which uses a 5.0 scale for honors and AP classes as opposed to the standard 4.0 scale. Most high schools will report both on your transcript. However, while a university may use your weighted GPA in considering your relative course rigor, they are typically more interested in your unweighted GPA when comparing you to other candidates. In other words, despite the common belief that an honors B equals a non-honors A, many colleges understand that an honors B is still a B even though it was earned in a harder class.

Complicating matters even further, many universities will recalculate your GPA using their own methods. Some will strip away all but the core classes, meaning the "easy A" you earned in art and gym no longer boost you as much as you thought. Instead, it is "Fundamental Five" which determine your GPA for many colleges: math, science, social science, English, and your foreign language.

So if you're looking at the 25th and 75th percentile numbers that many colleges publish, you will want to calculate your GPA using the most accurate metric possible. The best method is to consult the college itself and see if they'll reveal their system for calculating GPA. If not, or if you do not want to go through the hassle, the most conservative way to estimate your own GPA is to calculate your unweighted (i.e. don't differentiate between honors and non-honors courses) GPA from only the 'Fundamental Five' classes you have taken. While other methods of GPA calculation will be used to compare you against other applicants, this number will likely be the most accurate and universal one that you could use to estimate your chances of admission.

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Carnival of College Admissions: 2nd Edition

See All Editions | Submit an Article

Welcome to the second edition of the Carnival of College Admissions. We had fifteen articles submitted this time, thirteen of which have been selected for publication. After a successful first run, I am excited to bring a second week of excellent college admissions articles from all over the Internet. I hope to continue this feature long into the future, but I need your help. Click on the links above for more information about this cooperative effort and to submit a write-up of your own for next week's edition.Read on for all of the excellent articles from the 2nd Edition of The Carnival of College Admissions: Read more

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Campus Visits Dos and Don’ts

This article was submitted as part of the Carnival of College Admissions by Kat Cohen, Phd., Founder and CEO of ApplyWise.

Spring is a great time for high school juniors to visit college campuses. Here are some "Dos & Don'ts" that students and their parents need to know before visiting universities:

  1. Do visit campuses during your Junior year, but don't miss any classes. Holidays, spring break and weekends are a perfect time to plan those college road trips. Before you leave, check to see if there are tours or information sessions available on the dates you plan on visiting. Regardless, walking on campus while school is in session will give you a true sense of campus life. But don't skip school to visit a college. You need to keep up with your academic obligations. Many universities have open houses on weekends and holidays to work around your academic schedule.
  2. Do research the college before you visit and don't visit without knowing the school's basics. Research the school's academic programs and facilities before your campus visit. This will allow you to focus on elements of the campus that you are most interested in. You'll not only impress the admissions officer during the information session, but you'll also remember the visit. Bring a checklist of your expectations and questions you want answered. Keep in mind, though, that asking generic questions will not make a positive impression.
  3. Do explore the campus on your own, but don't leave a campus tour without informing the tour guide ahead of time. Tours are designed to show visitors different facets of campus life. However, if you need to leave early for any reason, know that you may miss some important details. Also, let the tour guide know before hand; leaving abruptly can be distracting to both guide and the group. When you do have time to explore on your own, make time to:
    • Have lunch in campus dining center to meet current students. They are a great resource regarding life on and off campus. Imagine yourself as a student on that campus by interacting with students as much as possible.
    • Check out the surrounding community. You’ll be living there for four years! Now’s the time to explore nearby restaurants, movie theatres, malls and places even for employment.
  4. Do introduce yourself to your admissions officer, but don't monopolize his time. When you meet your admissions officer, have a brief five-minute conversation about your interest. Ask one thoughtful, well-researched question; this will make a positive impression. Remember, this is not an interview, so don’t dominate the admissions officer’s time. Admissions officers are very busy and you don’t want to come off as a nuisance.
  5. Parents: Do listen to your child's opinions, but don't ask too many questions. Let your student do the talking. Overbearing parents are not only embarrassing, but they often prevent the tour guide from sharing some important information. Often, your questions will be addressed organically throughout the tour. Or course, if you still have personal questions, you can always ask your guide at the end of the tour or send an e-mail.
  6. Do send a thank you e-mail only if you are genuinely interested in a school and made a personal connection. Don't send thank you notes that your parents have written. A sincere e-mail leaves a positive impression. It may even turn into a great relationship as you start applying. Be mindful not to be insincere or over the top (like asking the tour guide to be your friend on FaceBook or MySpace) in your correspondence, as it may make you look desperate. Also, parents -- do not write any of these letters for your children. Remember, this is their college search process.

Thank you, Dr. Cohen, for your submission. Be sure to check out ApplyWise for more information. You may also read my article on entitled What should I do during a campus visit? for another perspective

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7 Things Savvy Good Students Do to Avoid Being Rejected Good Students

Yesterday I spoke briefly about the various reasons why good students are not accepted. I also provided some advice for parents. Today, I'd like to discuss 7 techniques that savvy students may use to avoid the various reasons that get good students rejected:
Acceptance Packet College Acceptance Materials Enclosed

  1. Submit your application early - Quotas or preferences for a specific geographical location or gender occur at many universities. Unfortunately, because it is based on simple, statistical information, there's no way to color your application if you're disfavored. Instead, get around these ceilings by submitting your application as soon as possible. If a university is committed to accepting only 100 applicants from Massachusetts, make sure you are one of the first 100 they review. Naturally, you'll never know what statistical quotas each college is using on any given year, so submit every application early just in case.
  2. Do your research - Colleges frequently talk about the types of students they're looking for, but many applicants are not listening. Be different by actually keeping your eyes and ears open. Note the types of recruitment presentations each college gives, and if they seem particularly dedicated to finding, for example, first-generation students and you happen to be one, play up this fact in your essay. Also, read through each university's enrolled student information (usually available on their websites) and note any underrepresented population that you may be a member of. Statistics for racial groups, genders (both males and females are sometimes underrepresented), geographical location, and other basic statistics are available here. A sharp eye for phrases like, "we're committed to expanding our gender diversity" will let you know what types of personal features you should comment on in your essays.
  3. Fish DiversityExplore your own personal diversity - Even if a website or college admissions officer does not explicitly mention a certain group they feel their student body is lacking, you should still discuss the types of things that make you unique. This doesn't need to be only racial diversity, but also things like special personal experiences, status as a first-generation student, birth in a foreign country, physical disability, or anything that makes you diverse. For tips on how to discuss these types of things, consult my article on expressing diversity in the personal statement.
  4. Make yourself internally diverse - Even if you are interested in a college looking for more first-generation students and come from a lengthy Ivy League pedigree, all is not lost. There is rarely only one thing a college is looking for. So make sure to at least mention all sorts of facts about yourself that may put you into a niche the university is looking to fill. Avoid creating a laundry list of statistics, of course, but do feel free to discuss all of the unique features and experiences that have contributed to making you who you are.
  5. Appear interested and dedicated - If you're an otherwise qualified candidate but fall into a group the college simply feels it has too much of already, the admissions committee will be looking for reasons not to accept you. Make this job harder (and also encourage them to reject other applications in your same pile instead) by sounded interested in and dedicated to the university. Opening an essay with, "I have always wanted to attend X College" is trite, but weaving in an anecdote about how the school library reminds you of a beloved building from your youth will make you seem much more interested in the college than the average applicant. Subtlety weaving in something that would make the admissions officer think that you would be likely to contribute to the alumni fund will help as well.
  6. quill penWrite an essay with universal appeal - You may be incredibly passionate about football, but a college admissions officer who hates sports will be bored by the subject matter. This does not mean that you should avoid writing about it -- all personal statements should be about topics you have a passion for -- but merely that you should try to avoid any technical jargon that a non-fan would be confused by. Also, try to connect your topic to a more universal experience. For example, use a metaphor to compare your proudest in-game football moment to falling in love. Read your essay and ask yourself if everyone would be able to relate to it. If not, try to broaden your language.
  7. Above all, be the best you can be - You're not going to be able to anticipate every little thing the college may be looking for. So don't stress about quotas too much; instead, do the best you can to highlight yourself. If you put your strongest foot forward, the university is much more likely to be interested in you despite any quotas or preferences they might have

The process may seem unfair at times, but these techniques should help to transform you from a rejected good student, to an accepted good student.

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When Good Students Are Rejected

Reader and parent Gary B. writes in, unsatisfied with the college admissions process and looking for suggestions:

My daughter was rejected from UCLA. That's a common phrase from parents, I'm sure, but here's what's uncommon: Her GPA was 4.1 weighted, 3.89 unweighted. She achieved 30 on the ACT, 740 on SAT II math, and 680 in chemistry. As I'm sure you know, these scores rank her in all the top percentiles. Though she didn't always take the hardest courses available to her, most were honors and AP. She was Vice-President of a club, spent three years on a sports team, two of them varsity, plays a musical instrument and did about 55 hours of community service in her junior and senior years. So I guess my question is: If she is so far above the averages, why was she still rejected? And what can I do to appeal the decision?

Thanks for writing, Gary. I wish I could give a more exact response, but I'm afraid that I just don't know enough about your daughter's unique background to know precisely why UCLA might decide not to accept her. She does seem like quite a talented young woman, though.

I would like to reframe your thinking a bit. Remember that college admissions is not just about the numbers game. An application full of high test scores and impressive GPAs complete with a resume padded with accomplishments and activities may look like a guaranteed admission, but there are other factors considered, too. Simply comparing basic statistical information between students rarely paints the entire picture. Application review is a holistic process, which evaluates the totality of a student's experiences. This explains some of the apparent inconsistencies that arise from comparing applicants.

Also remember that with the competitiveness of all students constantly increasing, there is more subjectivity than ever in the decision-making process. Two essays of equal technical merit and on comparatively deep and analytical issues may resonate differently with the same admissions officer. Sometimes getting lucky and penning a personal statement that touches upon the reader's particular emotions that day is the difference between acceptance and rejection, unfair as that may be.

Finally, remember that college do not simply admit the "best" 2000 applicants for their 2000 available seats. A university wants to build diversity into its new student body. Thus, if the "best" 2000 students all happen to play a musical instrument but have never competed in a science fair, the 2001st and 2002nd "best" applicants who did may be accepted over someone in the top 2000. In other words, similarities your daughter shared with other applicants in the same general test score and GPA bracket may have hurt her, even though these are circumstances completely beyond her control.

We can never really know for sure why admissions committees make some of the decisions they do. At best, we can plan and strategize, but ultimately luck does play a role, especially at the more elite colleges. Though I must recommend against pursuing to your final question, "what can I do to appeal the decision?" What you can do is much different than what your daughter can do. If she would like additional review, she may contact the admissions office herself and request information about the procedure. I encourage you to support her in this process if she decides to do it, but do not force her and especially do not do it yourself.

The most important thing you can do as a parent is to remain positive and supportive. Be there for your daughter and help her through the disappointment she is feeling. This time is incredibly stressful for her. I highly recommend my article on this topic, How Parents can Deal Positively with Rejection, which should provide additional guidance for you and some tips for how to support your daughter. Know that a single rejection is never the end of the world, and that if UCLA was your daughter's dream school, there are still avenues to her ultimate enrollment there. Good luck to you and your daughter, and thanks again for your question.

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Does Using Other Acceptances as Leverage to get more Financial Aid Work?

Stack of dollar billsA reader going by the name Coach left a comment disagreeing with my advice in answering the question, how many colleges should I apply to? in which I recommended students limit themselves to 5-7 choices. Coach made a very interesting argument, and suggested that applying to many more colleges may be a better route (click here to read his full comment):

I don't see any value in limiting students to a specified number of colleges. In fact, it's counterproductive. More college acceptances in a high numbers game generates 2 advantages: increase of the possibility of being accepted somewhere, and working with more leverage to get more financial aid by working several school offers against each other's.

You make a helpful point about using competing financial aid offers for leverage, Coach, but I have to disagree with you somewhat. Even with only 5-7 applications, students should still receive enough acceptances to provide this advantage (assuming they are reasonable with their acceptance expectations and self-assessment). There is no need to apply to 20 or more schools simply to have a dozen financial aid letters to throw in the other colleges' faces. The extra time and expense associated with additional applications -- even with the Common Application Form -- will not pay off in this regard.

Also, while your tactic may have worked a few years ago, it is becoming much less effective now. With the number of applications rising substantially, and with colleges' finances stretching thinner each year, universities have their pick in a large field of very qualified applicants. Many students asking for a financial aid boost will hear, "we're sorry, but we have reached our cap on financial assistance," even with leverage.

Many financial aid officers hate this technique, as well. You will find that some colleges even have strict polices against adjusting aid offers; however, some will if you know how to ask. But remember, a university is neither a flea market nor a Circuit City. Financial directors will become less accommodating if you use the word "negotiation", and they will absolutely not "price match", so avoid both terms. Offering to "bargain" or insisting upon your "leverage" are two more words to stay away from. What you should be requesting is a "review".

When asking for this review, do so in a formal letter rather than a phone call. This allows you to be more controlled in your correspondence and avoids financial aid representatives from falling back on a "I can't do that" script they have memorized. In the letter, thank the officer for his or her offer, and express great interest in the school and its programs. Then, show your worry about being able to meet your expected family contribution (or EFC). Explaining any special circumstances such as unemployment, death in the family, or medical bills should be done at this point as well. Finally, simply ask if they can provide any help.

Discussing exact dollar amounts of other offers, or mentioning how many colleges gave you better financial aid plans are generally regarded as boorish tactics, and often will hurt your chances. Maintain the tone of asking for help rather than threatening or boasting, and the reader will be much more likely to think of ways to meet your needs. You may make a brief, casual mention of a competing offer, but only in passing. The goal is not to appear as if you have expectations as a result of your other offers, but merely to express that your financial situation will have to play a role in your ultimate college decision.

Whatever their response, thank them for their assistance and move on. Pressing the issue will not help. Even if your badgering gets you an extra few thousand dollars for your first year, the aid office will most likely lower your assistance when they review your plan in the following years.

Be respectful, and eliminate words like "leverage" from your vocabulary. You're not at a used car lot, and financial aid officers hate being made to feel like car salesmen. You can ask for a review, but never try to "negotiate". And finally, to return to Coach's suggestion, it is never necessary to apply to additional colleges only to receive financial aid offers to later use to "bargain". This tactic worked in the past, but has no place in the modern admissions strategy. I maintain my advice to apply to 5-7 colleges, and to stick only to schools that you would really want to end up attending. Save your time and money by rejecting the old, outdated leveraging technique.

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