What is a Good GPA for Harvard and the Other Ivy League Schools?

Posted a year ago

Gaining admission into an Ivy League university is the dream of many students, but it certainly ain’t easy. Everyone knows that.

In order to even be considered for a spot at the likes of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, there are a number of academic aspects (and some non-academic aspects) you need to ace.

Your strength as a candidate, and ultimately whether you’re admitted or not, will depend on how you compile these factors in order to form a complete profile.

However, what these top universities consider a “perfect candidate” remains shrouded in mystery, and obviously this makes it hard to compile your profile with conviction and certainty.

The one certainty of Ivy League admissions is that if you need to be smart… like, really, really smart.

Academics can account for up to 40% of your application, depending on which university you apply to. Of that 40%, no academic aspect is more important than your high school grade point average (GPA).

How to Calculate Your GPA

Student studying

A high school GPA is a score, generally on a 4-point scale, that reflects your academic performance during your high school years.

While US universities don’t release official cut-off scores, they do have score expectations. At the Ivy League level, those expectations are high.

Universities may track your GPA back as far as the age of 14, so you’ll need to be on top of your game from an early age. The main attribute universities look for is a steady improvement in your grades over the years. And, obviously, that you've consistently worked to a high standard.

You’re probably wondering how you compile years of high school work into a tiny little number between 0 and 4, right?

When your school grades you with letters (A+, A, B+, B, etc.) or as a percentage (90%, 86%, etc. out of 100%), it can seem like a foreign idea. Yet, regardless of which system your school uses, letters or percentages, a GPA can be calculated.

A GPA converts those letters or percentages into numbers, then averages those numbers together. Let’s say you’re taking five classes, and you have As in two of them and Bs in three of them. The two As will each translate to 4.0s, and the three Bs will each translate to 3.0s. If you add 4.0 + 4.0 + 3.0 + 3.0 + 3.0 and then divide by five, you’ll get a GPA of 3.4.

If your grades aren’t quite as simple as that, here’s a quick letter grade and percentile to GPA conversion chart to make things easier:

Letter GradePercentageGPA
FBelow 650.0

GPAs are understood globally and can be calculated regardless of your curriculum. So whether you’re a US native or you come from a faraway land like Australia or New Zealand, your GPA can be calculated and used as part of your US university application.

Whether your GPA is “good” or not will depend on the university you’re hoping to attend.

But to give you a ballpark figure, the average high school GPA in the USA is 3.0, which also accounts for the 35% or so of students who don’t end up applying for college. So anything above 3.0 is above average in the US.

Of college applicants, however, the average GPA is more likely to be closer to 3.5 to 4.0. If you’re aiming for a top university such as the Ivy Leagues, a 4.0 average – or close to – is expected.

To make things a little more complicated, GPAs on the traditional 4.0 scale are considered "unweighted", which can be problematic because it doesn’t take the difficulty levels of classes into account. For this reason, the most selective US universities prefer the “weighted” GPA system.

A weighted GPA providest a more accurate depiction of the standard achieved across a selection of students, and are measured on a 5-point scale.

So if you want to go above and beyond, and really make a play for the Ivy Leagues, you can select more difficult high school classes that will lift your GPA. Obviously, you have to work much harder to achieve good results, but a good score in a harder class adds more... weight... to your weighted GPA.

Given admission rates tend to hover around 5%%, difficult classes are almost essential if you’re hoping to gain admission into Harvard, Yale or one of the other six Ivy League universities.

Average GPA of Admitted Students at Ivy League Schools

Ivy League students

Ivy League SchoolAverage GPA of Admitted Students
Brown University4.05
Columbia University4.13
Dartmouth College4.01
Harvard University4.10
University of Pennsylvania4.04
Princeton University3.90
Yale University3.90
Cornell University4.19

As you can see, the academic expectation of the Ivy League universities is well above average; only two universities fall below a GPA of 4.0.

Final Thoughts

Yes, I know, this is pretty daunting.

Many of the Ivy Leagues expect near perfect academic performance. In many ways it seems really unfair!

But remember, academics are just a portion of your college application. Your goal is to take all aspects and compile them to create a complete profile. You need to position yourself as the perfect candidate.

If your academics aren’t quite where they need to be, you can compensate with your extracurriculars and your personal essay.

There’s plenty of room on your application to impress outside of your GPA.

Having said that, it will make life much easier for you if you can achieve as close to 4.0 as possible.

Just work hard, keep your nose in the books and I’m sure you’ll be kicking all sorts of goals.

You’ll be a total asset to whichever college you choose to attend. Good luck!

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