Episode 21: A Deep Dive Into GPA Calculation – Bucknell University

[00:00:06] BW: Hello and welcome back to College Admissions Insider, the podcast where helping listeners find and apply to the school of their dreams is our dream too. I’m Bryan Wendell from Bucknell University.

[00:00:17] BT: And I’m Brooke Thames, also from Bucknell University. Speaking of listeners, we love it when you all send us questions, and sometimes we even turn those questions into entire episodes.

[00:00:26] BW: That’s right. Today’s episode comes from a listener, Marile Borden, who is a parent from Massachusetts, who has a daughter starting her senior year of high school. She asked us specifically about those three important letters in the lives of any college-bound student G,P and A.

[00:00:46] BT: Marile writes, “Have you considered an episode around GPAs? I’d love to hear if and how you recalculate GPA, as well as your thoughts on the age-old question, is it better to get a B in a harder class or an A in an easier class?”

[00:00:58] BW: She also says it’s tough to know if a certain GPA number is in the ballpark because every school seems to calculate that grade point average a little differently. So, today, we’re going to answer all those questions and more as we take a deep dive into GPA calculation.

[00:01:15] BT: Here to help us break it all down is Kevin Mathes, Bucknell’s dean of Admissions, who is no stranger to College Admissions Insider. Welcome back to the podcast, Kevin.

[00:01:22] KM: Thanks so much, Brooke and Bryan. I’m thrilled to be back. I think this might be my third episode with you, so I’m excited to have a further conversation.

[00:01:30] BW: Yes, it’s exciting. And let’s just jump right into it with Marile’s first question, which is how does Bucknell calculate — or in her words, recalculate — an applicant’s GPA? How might that compare to what other schools around the country might be doing?

[00:01:46] KM: This is a question that my team and I get quite a bit, and we use the age-old answer in the admissions profession, which is it depends. It depends on the schools that you’re looking at. So when you look at Bucknell University, we actually don’t recalculate grade point averages during the application review process. We’re using the grade point averages reported by your individual high schools.

However, we do recalculate the GPA for our students who choose to enroll at Bucknell. So if you’re looking at our data and statistics, you will see an average GPA reported, but that is only for students who chose to attend Bucknell for their first year experience and then, of course, beyond. But what I will say is when we do recalculate a grade point average, we tend to look at a lot of the main core classes: English, math, sciences, history, social sciences and foreign language.

[00:02:37] BT: But there are also instances where schools don’t report GPAs and even some that don’t give grades at all. They give another form of evaluation for classes. So how might schools assess the transcripts of those students?

[00:02:50] KM: We use what the high school has provided to us. So I can break it down in terms of the schools that do, and then a little bit about the schools that don’t. For the schools that do, we see a lot of variation in grade point averages and scales, so it’s really important for my team and for myself to make sure that we’re familiarizing ourselves with the high school and with the information they’re providing.

A lot of your schools, if you’re listening in, will have something called a school profile, and they tend to give us this information. Is your school using a 100 point grade scale? Are they using an ABCD grade scale? Are they using ABCD with pluses and minuses? Some schools use 4.0, 4.5, 5.0. I’ve seen 7.0. I’ve seen 13.0. I have seen schools that are doing what Brooke just mentioned, which is there are no grades. It’s a narrative report where a student’s transcript is actually a written evaluation of each of their classes over their four-year experience.

So what we do is we take that information and use it to the best of our ability. We are not comparing you as a student to another student, because your schools operate very differently. So we’ll take the grade scale that the school is providing us to understand how you’ve performed within the context of your high school environment. If your school is one of those handful that don’t give grades, who are doing a narrative report, we read them. So we then read how you’re doing in those classes to understand can you handle the academic rigor of a Bucknell education?

[00:04:14] BW: I think that’s super interesting. And it brings up a really good point that someone on a 13 scale — which I had never even heard of that before you said it — if you get a 13 out of 13 and someone else, another student, gets a five out of five, you’re not actually comparing those students. You’re looking at each thing within their own context. That’s all part of this holistic review that I’ve heard you talk about before on this podcast.

Back to another question that Marile brought up, and I’ve heard this one too, is it better to get a B in a harder class — let’s say, honors, AP, IB — or an A in a “regular” or “normal level” class?

[00:04:51] KM: Sure. My answer is I’d really like you to get the A on the tougher class. I think that’s always our dream as admissions professionals that you take on that rigor and still perform well. But I think that leads to another great thing for students listening in and their family members listening in to really think about as you’re embarking on your course selection process in high school, which is how do you find the right balance?

We want you, particularly in selective admissions at places like Bucknell, we want you to take advantage of the rigorous classes available at your high school, but we never want you to push yourself so far over the mark that your grades are really taking a hit. I think that’s something that you want to talk to with your family, want to talk to with your school counselor. How do you balance the right proportion of rigors that you can continue to perform well in your classes as they get harder?

What I will say is that, say as a first year student in high school, you are a straight-A student, and your sophomore year is the first time you’re able to take honors or AP, IB, dual enrollment, those classes Bryan was mentioning, I think it’s a really good thing to try some if you’re able to, if your school allows it. Then start to assess what to do beyond that. What can you do as a junior and senior, and how can you take on more of it? If you are that student who has straight A’s in ninth grade and then moved to 10th grade, if you’re taking that tougher class and getting A minus, B plus, B, that’s not the end of the world. I mean, I think that’s one of those pieces where we see that you’re taking on challenge and still performing well.

I think where my team and I get a bit hesitant is when some students take on so much rigor that they go from straight A’s to B’s, B minuses — where there’s full letter grade drops, full point drops, where you’re moving from one grade level to another. I think when we see too much of that, that’s when we start to question whether or not you’re taking on too much rigor to the point that it’s a detriment to your performance. So I think it’s striking that balance of maintaining a good solid performance of where you’ve been. If there’s a little bit of alteration, it’s okay, but you don’t want so much variation that makes us question your ability to handle rigor.

[00:06:52] BT: Another aspect that Marile addressed her question is about knowing whether your GPA is in the ballpark that a particular school is looking for. So how should students compare their GPA to the posted GPA range of the schools that they’re looking for?

[00:07:06] KM: That’s another great question, Brooke. I think, again, I’ll go back to it depends. You want to make sure that when you’re doing your research on different institutions, that you’re understanding what is the GPA that they’re publishing.

As I mentioned, at Bucknell, we’re only publishing an average GPA of our enrolled class, which means that we’ve recalculated those grade point averages for all of our 1,000 students that will be first year students this fall. At other institutions, they might be recalculating grade point averages at the time of application, so they might be saying this is an average GPA, a median GPA, a range of GPAs for our applicant pool. So you want to make sure that, first and foremost, you’re understanding the data that you’re looking at.

Then the next thing is you want to understand how are they actually getting to that grade point average. As I mentioned earlier, at Bucknell, we really focus on recalculating the core subject classes during high school, which is, again, English, mathematics, history, or social sciences, foreign language, and the natural sciences. So we’re taking those five core classes to come up with that grade point average. And I think what’s really important for you to remember as students and family members is that if you’re looking at your transcript and saying, “Oh, I have a 4.5, and Bucknell’s average GPA is a 3.61,” you need to then be thinking about, “Okay, how do I look at my transcript and think about how Bucknell is calculating?” Let me only look at those five core classes that they’re looking at. Let me try to think of those on a 4.0 scale because that’s what we calculate too. That can help you start to understand how you might fare in that range or that average that we’re providing.

[00:08:39] BW: Now, a lot of schools aren’t going to just publish those specifics because what you just said, that could fill a couple of paragraphs. So if you’re getting a viewbook or you’re looking at a poster at a college fair that has the average GPA, you might not get that context. So how could a student know the exact recalculation method that a school on their list might be using?

[00:09:00] KM: The closest that you’re going to be able to do that with is to reach out to the admissions office that you’re looking at their institution. So reaching out to the territory representative for your high school, the admission counselor who works with your high schools is a great way to just understand the basics.

I don’t think anybody will actually give you their formula and their calculations, but they can at least hopefully tell you what are the classes that they include in their recalculation. Some schools do give some extra weight to tougher classes. At Bucknell, we don’t. We do a straight these are the core classes, these are the grades, this is why it’s the average GPA. So we don’t add any extra weight to AP, IB, dual enrollment, honors classes. So we’re straight unweighted GPA when we are recalculating. But other schools do add in some weighting.

So I think you can try to talk to them to understand the basics. You can get a ballpark, but I don’t think you’ll ever be able to get a specific calculation and model to do on your own that then you could run the information yourself. I think get the basics and then try your best to ballpark it, so you can see how you’re faring.

[00:10:03] BW: They’re not going to give you the secret recipe.

[00:10:05] KM: We tend not to do that.

[00:10:08] BT: Kevin, you mentioned core classes there, and we actually got another question from a listener about GPA. Natalie writes, “Does Bucknell consider AP Computer Science a core class or not?” That brings up a larger question: Are all classes included when you calculate GPA, even electives like art, or business, or PE, athletics?

[00:10:29] KM: Yeah. I will say we do include computer science in the calculation of our grade point average. I would say it gets classified based on how the high school classifies it. Computer science is one of those interesting subjects where some high schools will put it under their math curriculum, and others will put it under their science curriculum. It usually falls between one of the two, and that’s how we’ll include it. We’ll include how your school has described it to us and we like to make it part of the calculation.

In terms of the electives, we tend not to do electives in our recalculation of grade point average. The electives that we will include would be college level classes. If you’re taking an AP, IB, dual enrollment, music, art history, studio art, those types of things, we will include it because you’ve taken it at the college level. If it’s below that, we do not.

[00:11:17] BW: Then kind of a follow up on what Brooke was asking, what if a student doubles up on a core class? So they take more core classes than that are required. Maybe they take two science classes in one year, instead of just the one that’s the required minimum. Does that get factored in when you recalculate?

[00:11:35] KM: It absolutely does, Bryan. So what we’ll do is, anything that matches up with what we consider core classes will be included. So for some students, if they’re following their high school graduation requirements, they might not need to take four years of subject matter throughout their entire high school career. They might only need to do three years of a subject. Then if they have that opportunity to open up and still take five classes a year, maybe it’s doubling up in a subject area that they’re really interested in. If you’re doing that, we’re going to include it.

Some students also, because of their structured school days, can take more than five classes. Sometimes, they’re taking six, or they’re able to fit in some extra classes here and there. We will include all of that because you’ve done the work and you’re demonstrating your capabilities in those subjects. We want to make sure that it’s reflected in how we’re reviewing your application. Ultimately, when we are doing a recalculation that it’s reflected in there as well.

[00:12:29] BT: Another aspect of that balance in there in terms of kind of charting your career through high school.

Something you mentioned earlier is looking at kind of how grades change over time. I’m wondering, is there any more insight that you can give into how you look at that improvement over time — if a student got B’s and C’s in their freshman year and sophomore year, but maybe in their junior and senior years got A’s and B’s? How do you consider that?

[00:12:53] KM: Absolutely. We do look at your grades year to year and then overall. So one of the things that we do when we’re reading an application is that we look at what is the overall grade point average that your school is reporting to us? Then when we look at your transcript, we see has it been steady over your four years, has it been changing over four years and what does that change look like?

So for some students, and like the example you gave, Brooke, they start out a little bit slower. Maybe the transition to high school is a little different for them and started out a little bit lower and then progressively have gotten stronger. That’s always a welcome thing to see. Then you see other students who have what I like to call a roller coaster, which is that start high, then maybe there’s a dip, and then it comes back and it’s more steady.

A lot of times, we find that with students who have maybe experienced some hardship during high school. I’ve seen students who have had to leave school for two months because of mono, and you see a dip for that semester that year because they’ve been out of school for two months and have been trying to just do work at home and catch up. Or it could be that there was an injury that happened playing a sport, or there could be something that happened in their family where a family member was really sick, and they were out of school a little bit, or trying to help out at home. So we want to make sure we’re understanding the context of if there is a change, what potentially caused it, and then did a student bounce back? How did they maybe recover once things were better? And maybe they got back to that great performance they were having.

The other thing that I will mention is that schools will think about how a performance matches up with their admission process. So, at Bucknell, we do admit into our three colleges: Arts & Sciences, Engineering, and the Freeman College of Management. So one of the things that my team also looks for is how do you perform in individual classes? If you’re somebody who’s applying to Arts & Sciences and wants to major in a humanity, an art, or a social science, and your lowest grades are in science, that’s more okay with us because you’re telling us you’re interested in pursuing the things that you’ve performed well in, and we know that you can do well in.

I think where, again, something we really consider is, if you tell us you want to major in engineering at Bucknell, and your lowest grades and not great grades or in math and science, that doesn’t exactly match up to us. It makes us pause and have some concerns. So we look at that GPA and the grades you’ve gotten over the four years in a lot of different ways.

[00:15:13] BT: I’m curious, in those instances where there was a life event or something happening outside of the classroom that impacted how a GPA might change, what are the ways in which students are able to communicate that to the schools that they’re applying to?

[00:15:25] KM: That’s a really good question too. For some students, their school counselors will tell us in the letter of recommendation, because they typically know what’s happened in a student’s life and how it’s impacted them. But I would say for students and for you to be able to take ownership of it, on the Coalition and Common Applications, there’s a section for additional information, which is essentially free space. It’s open for you to write anything that maybe isn’t covered in the rest of the application. That’s where we recommend a lot of students take the initiative to tell us what happened. So we see that and that’s how we learn about it is that they put it there, and they tell us the event that happened and what went on and why the grades may be dipped. I think that’s what’s really helpful.

I always encourage students that if that has happened to you that you take advantage of using that space. Because if you don’t, and nobody else is telling us about it, then we don’t know and we just think you had a bad year.

[00:16:14] BW: Kevin, in our last episode, episode 20 with Jill Medina, we talked about academic rigor and how to choose classes in high school. One thing that I learned in that episode was that you see more than just the transcript. The school actually will send along kind of a school profile that explains all these intricacies of GPA calculation that that school has. So can you kind of let us see through your eyes what exactly you’re looking at when you review a transcript, because it’s more than just the transcript that the student has access to, is that right?

[00:16:45] KM: That’s right, Bryan. So we tend to start as a team with the school profile because it grounds us in understanding what’s offered at the school. So the first things that we are looking for are what kind of curriculums does the school offer, because, again, it could be AP classes. It could be an IB program. It could be dual enrollment. It could be honors, gifted and talented, accelerated advance. Some schools are creating their own courses. So we want to ground ourselves in how can a student challenge themselves.

Then we look at what kind of grading scales the school telling us that they use. So then when we look at the transcript, we can say, “All right. Now that I’m understanding how the school operates, did the student take advantage of what was available to them, and how did they perform within the offerings that they were able to take advantage of?” So it helps us ground ourselves and understand that individual context, rather than setting a general expectation for the entire applicant pool that is not going to work for everybody.

That’s how we start to meld those two pieces together to then understand how do we think you can perform at Bucknell academically and contribute to the intellectual environment?

[00:17:52] BW: That’s interesting. I also wonder, do transcripts these days — because they did when I was in high school decades ago — but do transcripts these days have class rank on them? Do you look at class rank at all, which is obviously a factor of GPA?

[00:18:06] KM: Some do. Some schools are using a class rank, and we’ll look at it if it’s there. I think, again, it’s very contextual because you have to be thoughtful about how a school is using it.

Something that I didn’t mention earlier is that some schools will give you a weighted and unweighted GPA. We always try to favor the student as much as we can, but sometimes with class rank, you’ll see there’s different class ranks based on which system that the school is using. If it’s weighted and unweighted, sometimes, they give us both so they can show us with a weighted GPA, they’re this rank. With an unweighted, they’re this rank.

I think why that matters to us is that it can help us understand curriculum, again, because unweighted means that it’s just the straight grade point average calculation at the school. It doesn’t take into account the level of difficulty of the curriculum, whereas weighted does. That’s why we always try to benefit the student with what makes them look the best. But I would say the class rank is something that we pay attention to, but it doesn’t drive the ultimate decision.

Again, I think we have to be mindful of the size school that a student is going to because some schools that rank have 700 students in a graduating class, and being ranked in the top 100 is being ranked just outside of the top 10%. Whereas a student who goes to school with 50 students and is number two, you know, they’re still also in the top 10%, and it looks a little differently. So we have to just be careful about how we use it, just because of the variation we see in the in the schools that utilize it.

[00:19:29] BT: At the end of the day, universities and colleges are considering the full student when they’re reviewing an application, right? Not just the hard numbers of maybe GPA or class rank. What would you tell a student whose GPA or class rank fall at the lower end of those ranges, but they’re super involved in extracurriculars and other out of school activities and all around a well-rounded student?

[00:19:53] KM: I would say to really think about where you land within a school’s information that they’re providing. So when you look at colleges and universities, trying to understand where you stack up. If you are landing on the lower end of ranges, it’s not impossible, right? Because when we publish ranges and say, “This is our average. This is our median. This is our middle 50% range,” there are students on the bottom end of those things. They’re still attending our schools. We’re still admitting them.

So I think what’s important to think about is if you end up on the lower end of ranges, you have to think through what else am I doing that makes me competitive. Is it that I am taking in the tougher curriculum? Is it how I’m engaged in my school in my community? Am I on an upward trajectory where, yes, I started out slow, and I’m continuing to perform better and better, so the school will see that I’m on a great pathway to continue being fantastic in college? To then help you assess if applying to that institution is the right idea.

Again, I always go back to utilizing the resources you have — talking to your school counselors, meeting with admissions folks when you’re visiting their campuses or if you reach out via email. Feel free to ask them questions, so you can get a better sense of if you’re going to land in a competitive world at that institution.

[00:21:10] BW: I think that’s about all the time we have for this episode of College Admissions Insider. Thanks to Kevin Mathes, dean of Admissions at Bucknell, for joining us today. I think we’ve really seen that, yes, the GPA is super important, and it kind of summarizes your high school career in some ways. But it’s also important to remember that Bucknell and other schools are going to look at the story behind that number and really see what that tells about the student and their prospects. So thanks again, Kevin.

[00:21:38] KM: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

[00:21:40] BT: We also want to thank Marile Borden and all of our listeners for tuning in. We love knowing that these episodes are helpful for all of you in the college admissions journey. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your friends and family, and be sure to rate us and subscribe.

[00:21:54] BW: We know that some of you out there are listening through our website, That’s fine. But we’d also love for you to try listening through your favorite podcast app. It’s an easier way to get each episode. All you do is search for College Admissions Insider, and then you’ll make sure each biweekly episode appears right in your feed.

[00:22:12] BT: Speaking of, our next new episode will be out in just two weeks. Until then, you can contact us at [email protected]. Send us your questions or ideas for future episodes. As you can tell, we really do read your emails and even turn some of those into entire episodes.

[00:22:28] BW: Finally, we’re on social media. You can follow @bucknellu on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You also should check out the student-run Instagram account. It’s a really great way to get the unfiltered view of Bucknell. That’s @iamraybucknell. We also will put those links down in the show notes.

[00:22:45] BT: Thanks for listening. See you next time.

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