Why Grades Aren’t as Important as You Think

I was flying home from San Diego yesterday morning, and I decided to buy a copy of USA Today to keep me occupied for the flight. As I was flipping through I came across an interesting headline:

A’s on the rise in U.S. report cards, but SAT scores founder

The article centers around research conducted by Michael Hurwitz of College Board and Jason Lee, a graduate student at the University of Georgia. In an extensive study they found that the percentage of students graduating with an “A” average has risen to 47% from 38.9% since 1998. That’s nearly a 10% increase in 19 years.

Interestingly, despite the rise in GPAs, SAT scores have dropped to 1002 from 1026 during that same time.

And the researches found that this phenomenon was happening three times as much at private schools than at public schools.

In the Past

When counseling students on college admissions, I always advise that students are judged based on three important criteria, each having equal weight:

  1. Grades – 33%
  2. ACT/SAT Scores – 33%
  3. Qualitative Information (resume, essays, recommendation letters) – 33%

In this situation, a student with weak ACT/SAT scores or weak extracurriculars can compensate with excellent grades and still have a good chance of admission into a competitive college. This is particularly true in Texas with the top 10% rule. As the article points out, however, more and more states are going away from ranking. I don’t think this will happen in Texas any time soon, but one never knows for sure.

What’s Changed?

During my three years as a high school counselor, I have seen firsthand how grades have become inflated. Colleges are also figuring this out and putting less emphasis on grades, which are certainly less of a predictor for college readiness than in the past. In fact, I’ve spoken to numerous college admission reps who say they rank all candidates based on the colleges’ own formulas. That allows the colleges to compare students in an “apples to apples” format rather than look at inflated GPAs from one school compared to non-inflated GPAs from another.

Simply put, a high GPA at an “easy” school does not necessarily look better to colleges than an average GPA from a hard school.

In the Future

With GPAs and grades becoming less reliable indicators of college readiness, more and more colleges will start placing less emphasis on them. The article only confirms what I already thought; the weight of each of the three criteria has changed:

  1. Grades – 20%
  2. ACT/SAT Scores – 40%
  3. Qualitative Information – 40%

In contrast to the above weights, students can no longer overcome a lack of extracurriculars and low ACT/SAT scores by having higher grades. Colleges know grades are inflated, so grades therefore are becoming less emphasized in the admissions process.

Now, I’m not saying grades don’t matter…quite the opposite. Students in the top 10% in Texas will have their pick of colleges. But bad grades can easily sabotage an application despite high achievement in the other areas. So make sure you maintain solid grades.

And this all fits with what I see as a high school counselor. We have numerous students who fall in the middle of the class rank yet still get into competitive colleges. The secret is either high ACT/SAT scores or exemplary extracurricular participation.

So, my advice to students who aspire to attend a competitive college:

  • Start your ACT/SAT prep early, likely in the summer before your junior year and get the best score possible.
  • Find extracurricular activities and community service that you truly enjoy and immerse yourself in them on a consistent basis.

If you focus on these two areas and continue to get good (not necessarily great) grades, then I guarantee you will have a long list of colleges from which you can choose.