We've all heard of grade inflation, but how about grade forgiveness and grade distortion? Read more about those practices in this piece in The Atlantic called "The Rise of College Grade Forgiveness."
Colleges are finding all kinds of ways to help students bump those GPAs up, and in part that phenomenon is driven by student demand to look better in graduate school applications. A's have become the most common grade given on US college campuses, and in 2012, they made up a whopping 42% of college grades. And while the Ivies and some other private colleges are the most egregious offenders, GPAs are creeping up at state colleges too.
Here's why that matters for you.
One of the techniques we try to teach applicants at Ivey Consulting is how to think like an admissions officer, because understanding their task and their challenges is key to your success as an applicant. So put on your admissions officer hat and ask yourself:
How do you evaluate applicant GPAs in universe of grade inflation, grade forgiveness, and grade distortion?
Those grading practices force admissions officers to pay more attention to things like recommendations (mostly positive, bland, and also hard to distinguish) and standardized test scores (the bane of many applicants' existence). So it's not some kind of "win" for applicants that GPAs have become inflated currency, and in particular it obscures the performance of the strongest students and dilutes the value of their top grades.
So admissions officers look for other indicators — did you graduate magna cum laude? If so, what does that mean at your college? Does that put you in the top 20% of your graduating class, or does it mean you're just in the top half of your class, as is the case at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Middlebury? ("You Graduated Cum Laude? So Did Everyone Else," Wall Street Journal).
A 4.0 does signal something significant, that that student is good,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor who has studied grade inflation for years. “A 3.7, however, doesn’t. That’s just a run-of-the-mill student at any of these schools.
So let's use that as an example. Say magna does mean top 20% at your college. PUT THAT ON YOUR RESUME and in your application forms, because admissions officers won't necessarily know what it means at your college, and they might just assume inflation. The most transparent schools will tie graduating honors to a percentile (Georgetown) rather than to a fixed GPA (Tufts).
And if your GPA isn't great because you had other obligations, make sure admissions officers know that. For example, if you were putting yourself through college by working 40 hours a week as a manager at a fast foot restaurant, or you've been stocking shelves during the night shift while carrying a full class load, that's important context for them to have. That makes you very much NOT run-of-the-mill as a college student. (That's the reality for many college students, especially first-generation. Thanks to Sara Goldrick-Rab for putting some hard data around that.)
Ditto for any awards that are meaningful in their selectivity and that you can quantify in some way ("Recipient of Rosenberg Award, granted to one student for the best thesis in the graduating class").
In the law school context, admissions officers will also carefully scrutinize your Academic Summary Report, which compares your GPA to the GPAs of other students who have applied to law school from your college in the last several years. Your 3.7 might put you in the top 25% of your peers, or it might put you in the top 50%. The ASR will tell them, and you can see a copy of your ASR once LSAC has processed your transcripts.
Bottom line: Educate yourself about what your grades mean in the context of your college, and give admissions officers as much context as possible if your GPA actually means something. And don't forget that admissions officers want to see evidence that you have challenged yourself academically.
Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago and founder of Ivey Consulting. She is the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions and co-author of How to Prepare a Standout College Application.