As you may well know, not all grades are created equal, but what you may not know is why. Advanced placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes in the natural sciences will be much more challenging than classes in knitting, bowling, or gym. For this reason, some high schools give out higher point totals for the tougher courses. In the race to the top, a weighted GPA will trump an unweighted GPA most of the time — see our Weighted High School GPA Calculator to crunch the numbers. If you plan to take advanced courses, here are a few key things you need to know:

What is a Weighted GPA?

As you decide which courses will work best for your career plans, you will need to learn a bit about how regular and weighted GPAs work. In most high schools, receiving a certain letter grade means that you have earned a particular number of points for the class.

In a traditional 4.0 GPA scale system:

  • A = 4.0 = 4 points
  • B = 3.0 = 3 points
  • C = 2.0 = 2 points
  • D = 1.0 = 1 point
  • F = 0.0 = 0 points

When the total number of points earned is divided by the number of credits taken, you will be left with your GPA. Such a number can be used by administrators to rank students within their graduating class. An A in an AP calculus class, however, will be worth 5 points instead of 4 points and is considered weighted. The addition of a weighted class can boost your 4.0 average to a 4.25.  You will, in effect, be rewarded with a higher GPA for taking a harder class. Higher GPAs ultimately lead to higher class rankings and better college options.

Examples of Weighted Classes

Though you may be a bit nervous about taking a weighted class, many of the course offerings are extraordinarily empowering. Honors classes offered by high schools typically carry a 0.5 point weight increase and are designed to be a more in-depth variation of your core classes, such as, Honors English. At the next level — with a typical 1 point weight increase — are the popular and well-established AP and IB advanced course programs.  Advanced Placement offers mostly 1-year programs with a variable amount of subjects from six subject groups, whereas, the International Baccalaureate offers a two-year comparable program with a  set six subjects from six subject groups.

In both programs, you can study a variety of fields ranging from the natural sciences to the arts.   You will have the opportunity to study subjects, such as, chemistry, physics, computer science, psychology, music, or even Chinese. Weighted grading is ultimately used to encourage you to explore the wider world in as much detail as possible. Some advanced classes may even allow you to complete independent study projects. If you succeed in the class, your hard work will also be immediately evident in your new GPA.

Benefits of Taking Weighted Classes

There are a number of obvious benefits to taking demanding classes. The instructors themselves are usually topnotch and have often been tapped to teach the courses by their admiring colleagues. Such teachers are generally able to explain difficult concepts with remarkable insight. Though the material may require more study time, you will ultimately feel invigorated by what you are learning. The rigorous coursework will also prepare you for the in-depth college classes that are surely in your future.  Your choice to challenge yourself also demonstrates that you are ambitious, a quality many selective schools look for in a candidate.

If you want to be the valedictorian, then you will likely need to take as many weighted classes as possible. Even if you have gotten an A in every class of your high school career, you will be out of the running if you have not challenged yourself enough. If you are already ranked high, the weighted classes can push you to the top. In the worst-case scenario, you will end up as one of the co-valedictorians, which is just as honorable.

Drawbacks of Taking Weighted Classes

If you do not consider yourself a superb academic performer, you should think more closely about your class choices. Getting a lower grade in a weighted class can knock your GPA down a notch, which could come back to hurt you in the end. The work itself can be rigorous. Some teachers will assign papers, oral presentations, and group work. Others might require you to do some extra reading outside of class. All advanced placement courses, for example, are designed to help students pass a standardized exam at the end of the year. For this reason, the material that students are charged with learning is non-negotiable.

One further drawback is that some college admissions departments will throw out your weighted high school GPA and instead convert all of your numbers back over to unweighted GPA. Though this may seem unfair, it is the nature of the business. You might wish to research your target colleges and universities ahead of time to see which grade point scale they use to make admissions decisions. This can save you quite a bit of work in the long run.

Who Uses Weighted GPA?

Both high schools and colleges use weighted GPA. The former relies on it to develop class rankings that are fair to all students. The latter uses it to make tough admissions decisions when two applicants are thought to be equally qualified. Some college admissions officers will also use it to decide which applicants get scholarships and internships. Many merit scholarships are based almost entirely on GPA. You will therefore need to make a good impression, especially if you hope to attend one of the expensive Ivy League schools in the Northeast.

How to Decide?

Though you will ultimately need to decide if you can handle accelerated coursework, you will not need to bear the burden alone. With some input from parents, older siblings, teachers, and guidance counselors, you should be capable of making an informed choice. Once you have begun learning advanced concepts, you can begin laying the groundwork for a successful college career.

In the end, weighted classes will allow you to remain ahead of the pack in your high school academic career. You might begin the process by taking a few honors classes. Alternatively, you might jump into a rigorous IB program, which seeks to produce students who are both intellectual innovators and ambassadors for humanity. Whatever you decide to do, your GPA will remain with you as you charge on to bigger and better things.