SPOILER ALERT: This blog post includes actual math.
So, here's the thing: the grade point average is a simple mathematical average. You know, add up all the points and then divide by the number of values you added. An average gives a snapshot of the list of values as a whole--once you even them out, what's the take home message? The important part is that the averages evens out your performance. This is good for you if you have one really low grade; it's unlikely to bring down your GPA substantially. But it also means that one or two or even one semester of spectacular grades is not going to budge the GPA very much higher.
Let's look at an example. In the standard 4.0 grading scale, your grades are each assigned a point value, something like this. This is a simple, unweighted grading scale. We'll get to weighted grades in a minute. Let's say you've been getting A's and B's pretty much until the second semester of sophomore year, when you get a C in Phys. Ed. because the coach doesn't like you or whatever. Assuming you're taking six college-prep classes per semester (English, math, science, social studies, foreign language and some elective), you've earned 59-ish grade points--3.3 points average for each class. Then second semester sophomore year, you add 18.5 grade points instead of your usual 19.8. What does this do to your average? Well, 59ish + 18.5 = 77.9 / 24 (total number of grades you've earned in high school so far) and your GPA is now 3.25, down 5 hundredths of a point from your 3.3 average. You would still round this up to a 3.3, so you took very little hit from that C in gym. Yay for averages!
Now assume that you've finished your junior year with that 3.3 and you decide you want to apply to the Ivy League, so you need a 4.0. All you have to do is do fantastically in those classes senior year, right? Not so fast. 3.3 x 36 classes = 119 grade points, approximately. If you take six classes in that first semester of senior year and ace them all, you add 24 grade points for a total of 143. But then you have to divide them by 42, the number of classes you've taken up to that point. And you're sitting pretty with a (drumroll, please) 3.4.
Boo for averages!
If 4.0 means straight A's, how do people graduate with more than a 4.0?
They are using a weighted average, which means the more difficult classes are given a bonus point. The idea behind weighted averages is to give credit for the amount of work involved in earning the grade. A student who earns an A by reading 100 pages of Moby Dick a night for two weeks and then writing a 10 page critical analysis should earn more points than a student who took a month to read The Fault in Our Stars and wrote a one paragraph book report, right? So weighted grades assume that a B in an AP or college-level class is equal to an A in a regular class. Students who take all or mostly honors, AP, IB or dual-enrollment college classes will end up with GPA's higher than 4.0, even if they don't get straight A's in those classes.
So, let's go back to our "raising my grades at the last minute" example
If your 3.3 GPA has been earned in regular classes, and you suddenly switch to all AP classes and ace those, your GPA would become 119 + 30 = 149/42 classes = 3.5. In order to raise a 3.3 GPA to a 4.0 in one semester, you'd have to get 7.0 grade points in each class. I just don't know a school where that would be possible.
The Bottom Line?
If you want a high GPA as a senior, you need to start freshman year. On average.
It's midnight. You have a final tomorrow that covers every bit of information in your class going back to the beginning of the semester. What do you do? There are as many ways to study as there are students. Some students insist the key is to study in the room where you'll be taking the exam; "the things you look at while studying will jog your memory when you're taking the test," they say. Other students swear by pulling all nighters ("I do my best work in crisis mode") or sleeping with the text book under their pillow (Really!). Obviously, none of these methods work any better than the average old wives' tale, but there is one study technique that actually makes you less prepared afterward than you would have been if you never studied at all, and it's the approach most commonly used by students of all ages.
What's this terrible study process? Re-reading.
Yes, more than 95% of all students simply re-read their notes or textbooks and think they have "studied." Instead, they've done something far worse. They've become familiar with the material without actually having learned it. Cognitive science has shown that when we re-read information, the brain begins to check out. "I've seen all this info on the krebs cycle before. I got this. I wonder if there's any more pizza? Did Megan text me back yet?" says your brain, while your eyes are studiously following down the page. (Eyes are always better students than brains. Jerks.) This lack of focus leads to that "tip of the tongue" feeling where you know you know something about a familiar word or phrase, but you can't describe or define it. How many times have you heard "I know it, but I can't explain it"? Sorry to say but if you can't explain something, you don't know it. It's just that the term or phrase is familiar to you. Familiar is the enemy of knowledge.
Sorry to say but if you can't explain something, you don't know it.
So what should you do to make your studying time really count? Study actively. Active studying is work, and it's the effort you put in that makes it better. Incorporate as many pathways into your brain as you can, by rewriting notes, drawing diagrams or writing questions you can use to quiz yourself later.
Keep your brain guessing about how the information is going to come in and you'll be much more engaged, and understand and remember better what you study. Which means you'll have to study less to get better grades. They call this working smarter, not harder.
A final tip for you for next semester: The absolute best time to study is immediately after class. No, really, walk out of class, sit down in the lobby or under a campus tree and rewrite those notes immediately, reorganizing and making connections as you go. The second exposure to the material will strengthen the new neuron connections that were created in class while they're still young and strong. Spending 15 minutes right after class will save you at least 45 minutes of wondering what you thought "THE LAW OF THE JUNGLE!" had to do with the Panama Canal.
Admissions season is over by January 1 for many of the most selective schools. But there is still hope! Here's a list of colleges with February deadlines for Fall of 2015. See the "Best Colleges You Can Still Apply to for Fall 2015" article on Time Magazine's website for more colleges with late application deadlines.
Virginia Military Institute (#18)
University of Michigan (#22)
Stevens Institute of Technology (#58)
Grove City College (#58)
CUNY Bernard M Baruch College (#70)
Purdue University (#76)
Presbyterian College (#84)
University of Mary Washington (#107)
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (#114)
DePauw University (#134)
Wofford College (#134)
Miami University – Oxford (#144)
Ohio State University (#144)
University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire (#147)
University of Wisconsin – Platteville (#156)
Indiana University (#169)
Saint Joseph’s University (#169)
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (#173)
Gonzaga University (#177)
CUNY Brooklyn College (#189)
CUNY Queens College (#194)
University of Wisconsin – La Crosse (#202)
Alfred University (#231)
Dickinson College (#235)
Colorado State University – Fort Collins (#248)
Radford University (#248)
Bryant University (#86)
University of Wisconsin – Madison (#99)
Webb Institute (#2)
College of the Ozarks (#62)
Washington University in St. Louis (#62)
John Carroll University (#95)
Mount St. Mary’s College (#122)
Earlham College (#129)
Ursuline College (#173)
Wagner College (#208)
Iona College (#214)
Lake Forest College (#214)
Muhlenberg College (#223)
Merrimack College (#235)
In last Sunday’s op-ed “U.S. approach to college not healthy,” author Natalie Abulhawa decries the college admissions process, but her concerns and conclusions are based on rumor, not fact. The German higher education system is not fairer than ours. In fact, their system, while free, is even more selective and more dependent on exams to “quantify [the students’] worth” than ours is. Unlike the German system, most admissions committees at American colleges and universities evaluate applications holistically. They try to get a feeling for who the student is and what he or she can contribute, both on the university’s campus and as an alum with the school’s name attached. Has the student distinguished him or herself on or off campus? Is he or she known for leadership, for kindness, or for pushing intellectual boundaries in class?
In addition, compared to German students, US students have a vast array of colleges to choose from. While Miss Abulhawa’s options are somewhat limited due to her “barely average” grades, she would benefit from consulting a professional college admissions counselor. A knowledgeable counselor would introduce her to one of the many “top-tier” schools looking for students with “social [and] environmental responsibility” that she says do not exist. (Tell that to Reed College, Bryn Mawr College or the University of Colorado.) College admissions counselors--both independent consultants and school guidance counselors--spend many hours developing expertise in matching students and families to the right schools. He or she also guides the family through the admissions process, reducing stress and ensuring that a good fit is found for each student, whether close to home or far away. Miss Abulhawa is correct that the college admissions process is not user-friendly. But there are experts available to help.
I'm always available to my clients by text. Contact me to learn more about how inexpensive it can be to have a college counselor on call!