While colleges say that they consider each applicant holistically, it’s hard not to stress about the quantifiable aspects of the application, such as the GPA and standardized test scores.

Though the GPA represents your child’s average performance across all of their classes, it also serves as a base of comparison to other kids.

So, how much does a GPA really matter when it comes to college admissions?

As usual, it really depends on which schools your child plans to apply to.

Students applying to ivy league schools and other “top tier” universities likely have very high GPAs. In order to compete against those students, your child will need to have a strong GPA as well.  On the other hand, there are many terrific colleges and universities in which the GPA carries less significance when it comes to admissions. At these schools, extracurricular activities and essays play an even important role.

Do colleges require a minimum GPA in order to offer acceptance?

Most colleges will not outright say that they have a minimum GPA requirement. However, some of the larger schools (or universities that receive more applications than they can reasonably read through) may consider a minimum GPA requirement. For example, a pretty competitive school may only look at students who have a GPA above a 3.0, while the top tier universities may primarily consider students with only a 3.5 or above. That being said, the rules are not usually so cut and dry, and it’s important to note that there are always exceptions.

First, let’s take a look at the difference between a weighted and an unweighted GPA.

Simply put, a weighted GPA takes into consideration the difficulty of the class, while an unweighted GPA purely reflects the letter grades that your child receives in their classes. For example, if a student received an A+ in AP Chemistry class, her unweighted GPA might be 4.0 while her weighted GPA might be 5.0. Not all high schools keep track of weighted GPAs, but colleges do look at the transcript and take into account the difficulty of coursework that your child takes. Colleges prefer to see students taking more difficult courses whenever possible.

So how do you know if your child’s GPA is “good enough?” 

This is where we like to use the “+/- 0.15” rule.

What does that mean exactly? Universities almost always release statistics that show the average GPA of previously admitted students. You can use this information to see how your child compares, and identify if that particular school is a “reach, target or safety” school. Schools with GPA averages within +/- 0.15 of your child’s GPA are likely a good target school, meaning that your child will be a competitive applicant at this school. If your child’s GPA is more than 0.15 points above or below the average, the school should be considered a reach or safety school, respectively.

 For example, let’s say your child’s GPA is a 3.55.

If the average GPA at College X is a 3.75, then College X would fall into the reach category, meaning that it will be difficult (but not necessarily impossible!) for your child to get accepted to that school. If the average GPA at College Y is a 3.50, then it would fall into the target range, since your child’s GPA and the college’s average GPA align. Finally, if the average GPA at College Z is a 3.35, then this college would be considered a safety school, since your child’s GPA is well above the average and chances of getting in are pretty good.

How do you find the average GPA of admitted students for each school?

If you go to the official website for any college or university and search for “admitted student statistics,” this information is usually listed for anybody to see. Alternatively, you can search the same phrase in Google + the college name (for example : “Northwestern University admitted student statistics”) and you’ll likely find the numbers quite quickly through the search results.

And what if your child is planning on playing a college sport? 

If your child is planning on attending a college to play a sport, then the application process is a whole different ball game. The average GPA for student athletes is often lower than the average of all admitted students listed on the school website. It’s always important for your child to strive to get the best grades that they can, but it’s a good idea to talk directly to the athletic department to understand required GPAs for student athletes.

So how can you help your child stand out as more than just a GPA number in the face of college admissions?

There are many ways to stand out beyond the numbers. Extracurricular activities and leadership are extremely important. Additionally, it’s always a good idea for your child to build a personal relationship with the regional college admissions officer for your child’s goal schools. Do some research to find the email address or phone number for this admissions contact for the area in which you live, and have your child reach out with a brief introduction and a few questions. Slowly begin crafting a more personal relationship and always let this person know when you apply. 

The take-aways:

In the end, high school GPA does matter, since it’s created to predict how well your child will succeed in the college classroom. And colleges care about this. While the GPA is more important at some schools than others, minimum GPA requirements do sometimes exist and having a strong GPA will only help your child. Though this does put a lot of pressure on high school students to perform well in the classroom, it’s important to realize that there are many other components to a college application for a reason (i.e. essays, letters of recommendations, resumes, and more). Even though weighted and unweighted GPA’s can be submitted to colleges, your child’s official transcript will speak louder than an arbitrary number scale.

GPA and test scores don’t define the abilities of your child, nor do they limit the schools they should apply to! Your child could very well be the exception if they have a strong and interesting story to tell on their application.