Weighted grades are number or letter grades that are assigned a numerical advantage when calculating a grade point average, or GPA. In some schools, primarily public high schools, weighted-grade systems give students a numerical advantage for grades earned in higher-level courses or more challenging learning experiences, such as honors courses, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate courses. In many cases, the terms quality points or honor points may be used in reference to the additional weight given to weighted grades. In the case of students who have completed courses considered to be more challenging than regular courses, the general purpose of a weighted grade is to give these students a numerical advantage when determining relative academic performance and related honors such as honor roll or class rank.
In some weighted-grade systems, for example, a grade in a higher-level course may have a “weight” of 1.05, while the same grade in a lower-level course has a weight of 1.0. In this system, a grade of 90 in an honors course would be recorded as a 94.5 or 95, while a 90 in a similar “college-prep” course would be recorded as a 90. An alternate system might add five “quality points” to grades earned in honors courses (90 + 5 = 95) and eight quality points to all grades earned in Advanced Placement courses (90 + 8 = 98). In another variation, an A in a higher-level course may be awarded a 5.0, for example, while an A in a lower-level course is awarded a 4.0. Lower grades in weighted courses would also receive the same one-point advantage—a grade of C, for example, would be assigned a 3.0, while a C in a regular course would be assigned a 2.0. In yet another variation, .33 may be added to all grades earned in Advance Placement courses, so that an A (4.0) would be recorded as a 4.33. While the examples above represent a few common formulations, grading systems and GPA scales may vary significantly from one school or school district to the next.
Given that weighted-grade systems may be calculated in dramatically different ways from school to school, reporters should investigate how weighted grades are calculated, what rationale is being used to support them, and what advantages or disadvantages may result for students.
While the term weighted grades typically refers to the practices described above, it is important to note that weighting may also refer to different levels of “weight” given to particular assignments within a course. For example, a final test may be given more “weight” in determining a course grade—say, 20 percent of the final grade—than an individual homework assignment, which may reflect only a small percentage of the final grade
In addition, some colleges and universities may ask high schools to provide both weighted and unweighted GPAs on student transcripts so that admissions offices can evaluate the differential effect of weighted grades—i.e., how certain course selections and weighted grades affected the GPA calculation.
The fundamental rationale for weighting grades is that the practice provides an incentive for students to challenge themselves academically. By assigning greater value to grades earned in more challenging courses, weighted grades remove a potential disincentive posed by tougher courses—i.e., students worrying that a lower grade in a tougher course might adversely affect their GPA or class rank. In addition to providing incentives to students, advocates may argue that weighted grades deservedly reward students who take tougher courses, recognize higher levels of academic accomplishment, and provide a more fair or balanced system of grading in schools with multiple academic tracks.
Critics of the practice tend to make the following arguments:
- Weighted grades discourage students from taking certain classes that may be educationally valuable but that may present a numerical disadvantage when calculating GPA and class rank. Art and music classes are rarely weighted, for example, so students may not consider art and music courses out of fear that such courses will adversely affect their GPA and class standing.
- Weighted grades are not academically meaningful unless the grades are based on a single set of learning standards that are evaluated consistently from course to course. In other words, unless schools can verify that a grade of A in one course actually represents greater academic accomplishment than an A earned in another course, the use of weighted grades can be misleading. For example, it’s possible that a course labeled “college prep” may actually be more challenging than a course labeled “honors.”
- Weighted grades may actually act as disincentives, rather than incentives, for students. While weighted grades may make challenging courses seem less “risky” to students, it’s also possible that students, once enrolled in the course, may not work as hard because they know that a lower grade is worth as much as a higher grade in another course. In addition, students enrolled in lower-level courses know that their efforts are being assigned less value by the grading system, so even if a student works hard and earns a good grade in a college-prep course, that effort will still be assigned a lower value than grades earned by students in higher-level courses.
- Weighted grades can devalue certain courses and reinforce cultural divisions within a school. Because both teachers and students know that lower-level courses are assigned a lower value, the practice of weighting grades reinforces the prestige associated with higher-level courses and the stigma associated with lower-level courses—for both teachers and students. Consequently, teachers may not want to teach lower-level courses, and students may feel embarrassed or ashamed to take them.
- Weighted grades create opportunities for students to manipulate the grading process. In this view, weighted grades focus students on superficial outcomes—peer completion and higher numerical scores—rather than on more substantive outcomes, such as mastering new skills, exploring new ideas, learning from failure, or enjoying and appreciating the learning process, for example.
A little arithmetic goes a long way when it comes to law school grades. Calculate your GPA now as grades roll in. Use a GPA calculator to define target grades to motivate yourself for future classes. Keep reading for tips to maximize your law school GPA.
The Most Important Line on Your Résumé?
It is true that success in law school is measured by more than just your grade point average (GPA). And while law school grades aren’t a good measure of lawyering skills, grades are, for better or worse, the most quantifiable measure of law school success. For many students, grades may be the only concrete feedback received for most classes.
Imagine perusing a résumé. What stands out to you most? The school attended? Summer experience? Or those few digits signifying the average value of three years’ worth of endless academic toil? At least one study indicates that GPA is a better predictor of career success than attending an elite school.
Because grades are so important, a little work on the front end, to maximize your GPA, can pay off big in the end. Start by figuring out your GPA based on every class.
Simple Math = Know Where You Stand
Law students (and lawyers), according to conventional Internet wisdom, are notoriously bad at math. However, a lack of basic math skills is no excuse when it comes to calculating your GPA. Most students know their GPA, but may struggle when end-of-semester grades roll in. Here’s the basic arithmetic needed to calculate your GPA, presuming each hour of academic credit you’ve earned has been assigned a numeric grade, and that classes are weighted based on number of credit hours.
Let’s walk through the equation.
First, some assumptions for the sake of illustration: let’s say you’re in the fall of 2L year, so you’ve got two graded semesters under your belt, and grades posted for the third. Let’s assume your current law school GPA, before this term’s grades, is 3.32, for, let’s say, 26 hours of credit. (Yay, you’re average!)
Now the math:
- Take your GPA, and multiply it by the number of graded credit hours: 3.32 x 26 = 86.32. Note this number.
- Take each class and multiply the grade (real or anticipated) by the number of credit hours:
Negotiations: 3.4 x 3 hours = 10.2
Basic Federal Income Tax: 2.7 x 4 hours = 10.8
Business Associations: 3.5 x 3 hours = 10.5
Trademarks: 3.6 x 3 hours = 10.8
Total for 13 hours: 41.7
- Add the total from this semester to the number you figured in step 1. Here: 41.7 + 86.32 = 128.02.
- Divide that sum by the total number of graded credits you have to date. This is your current GPA! 128.02 / (26+13) = 3.28.
Good news is, you’re still pretty average. Bad news is, your overall GPA went down, despite doing better in three of your four classes. This shows how one bad grade can drag you down. There are good ways to cope with bad law school grades, but the hit to your GPA is real. (If even this level of arithmetic is tough, you can always use an online GPA calculator to see where you stand.)
Plan to Get Ahead: Excel in the Middle, Work at What You Know
In the realm of the mandated grading curve, mere hundredths of a point will differentiate the top dozen or so students (depending on class size). Knowing how each class you’ve taken affects your GPA means better planning for future grade point maximization. Reflect on your best classes: what did you do right? Could you have done better? Ask your professor. In fact, ask all of your professors about your grades. If the professor can’t spare the time to speak individually about your score, ask if you might be able to review a top-scoring exam (expect to get off your rear end and do this in the secretary’s office—don’t ask the professor to send you exam results!).
Think about the bell curve and realize that most students are bunched in the middle. Edging up at the upper end is tougher than moving a tenth of a point in the middle, so your plan of attack should be to focus on classes where you know you can do at least average and excel a bit more in those. See also Fearfully Optimistic’s series on the law school grading curve.
Finally, besides focusing on creeping up in the middle of the curve, use the simple math above to set target grades for your upcoming classes. How will you know where you can excel? Here are some tips:
- Ask upperclass students and law school alums about particular professors’ grading habits. Consider choosing classes with a less strict curve, or those in which your previous work or undergraduate experience may give you an edge. For me, a former anthropology student, international law classes with heavy focus on cultural influences helped pad my GPA.
- Attending smaller intersession classes, which might be graded loosely, or occur at a time when you can devote all of your attention to a single class, can also boost your grade point average.
- Many schools also allow independent study. If you are passionate about a particular topic, and can connect with a professor who’s willing to shepherd that effort in writing something for credit, the lack of anonymity in grading such an assignment can work in your favor as well.
Last updated December 29th, 2017.