What is a 3.5 GPA?
Grade point average — better known as GPA — is one of the most influential factors universities and colleges use to determine which students will be invited to join their next incoming freshman class.
The higher students’ grades in their courses are, the higher their overall GPAs. Many students consider a GPA of 3.5 equivalent to being “good enough” for most colleges. Are they right? Is a 3.5 GPA good? What is a 3.5 GPA, anyway?
How Far Can a 3.5 GPA Get You?
Your grade point average, or GPA, is a number that represents your average grades for your entire span of combined classes. There are generally GPAs for your entire quarter, trimester, or semester and a cumulative GPA score, which includes your averages of grades for every class you’ve taken in high school.
The GPA 3.5 equivalent is between an A- and a B+ if you translate the GPA into letter grades A-F. It’s considered to be a fairly strong average that can help strengthen your college application. However, depending on the colleges you plan on applying to, it may not be quite high enough.
You might be competing against students who want to attend the same college as you who have higher GPAs. But while grade point average is a key factor that is considered “very important” in many colleges’ admissions processes, it is by no means the only one!
So what is a 3.5 GPA good for, in terms of college choice? It depends on who you ask.
What Factors Determine College Admissions?
If you have a GPA of 3.5 or equivalent and hope to get into some of the country’s most elite colleges, other parts of your application may shine bright enough to make up for the little bit that’s lacking in the GPA department. Therefore, you shouldn’t automatically count yourself out of the running of any school solely based on your GPA.
When colleges look at a wide variety of factors to make admissions decisions instead of focusing on just one or two, they are said to use a holistic admissions process. Some of the other factors that can be considered in a holistic admissions process include:
- Class rank
- The rigor of your high school courses
- Your extracurricular activities
- Demonstrated interest in the school
- Whether you’re a first-generation student
- How you answer the application essays
- Where you live
- Alumni interviews
- Whether you’re a legacy student
- Your SAT or ACT scores
- Volunteer work
- Work experience
A holistic review process means that no single factor guarantees admission — several factors influence the decision. Just how much weight is given to each factor varies considerably depending on the individual school.
For example, while some colleges consider class rank extremely important and essay answers unimportant, others will value SAT and ACT scores above all other factors.
Is a 3.5 GPA Good?
The average GPA of high school students in the U.S. is 3.0, but the average GPA students need to get into college, while it varies, is about 3.15. Many universities and colleges do not maintain a “GPA cutoff,” but sometimes have a “recommended GPA” for students to maintain to remain competitive with their applications.
For example, the University of Pennsylvania has a recommended GPA of 3.86, Columbia recommends a 4.14 GPA, and Morehouse College recommends a GPA of 3.24. The average GPAs of students admitted to both Yale and Harvard are quite a bit above 4.0.
So the answer to the question “Is a 3.5 GPA good?” depends on where you plan to apply to college and the GPAs of competing applicants.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to answer that question because GPA isn’t standardized. Some schools use a different scale than others. GPA scores can be weighted or not, and some courses weigh more than others in different schools. It’s beneficial to determine the strength of your GPA by considering three factors:
- The rigor (difficulty level) of your classes
- The average GPAs of students admitted to the college you want to go to
- How your GPA compares to others at your school
How you stack up against your high school classmates can best be determined by class rank, which many colleges consider a better indicator of academic strength than GPA. It’s also why so many colleges consider the difficulty level of your classes to be extremely important.
How Do Colleges Evaluate Grade Point Averages for Applicants?
Not every student has the same opportunities as others, so colleges try to critique students according to what was available to them during high school. This is known as evaluating applicants within context.
Colleges know that different high schools use different means of calculating GPAs, so sometimes, they will recalculate those GPAs using systems of their own.
Some colleges put more weight on AP, IB, and honors classes, and others consider only core classes as part of their GPAs. Some high schools are notorious for grade deflation or inflation, and colleges also consider this.
Even though most colleges take a holistic approach to admissions, some colleges receive so many applications each term that they use academic statistics to screen out applicants with GPAs below a certain level. That level varies depending on the individual college.
Regardless of your GPA, know that some colleges will prefer applicants with stronger leadership histories or strong work ethics, even if their GPAs are lower than many other applicants. This is especially true for students from historically underrepresented groups or lower-than-average socioeconomic backgrounds.
Which Colleges Have Incoming Freshman with 3.5 GPAs?
Most colleges maintain an average freshman class GPA that is relatively the same from year to year, making it a bit easier to understand which ones may be most “in range” for students with similar GPAs. Some of the best colleges in the nation that have incoming freshman GPAs of about 3.5 are:
- The University of Rhode Island
- Oklahoma State University
- The University of California, Merced
- The University of Kentucky
- Ohio University
- The University of New Hampshire
- Kansas State University
- Bucknell University
- The University of Miami
- The Tulane University of Louisiana
- Arizona State University, Tempe
- St. Lawrence University
- Biola University
While this isn’t a complete list, it will give you an idea of the wide range of diverse colleges and universities with incoming students who have GPAs that average 3.5. You’ll find large universities, small colleges, public institutions, and private schools on the list. A 3.5 GPA will still open doors to many universities, so your options are wide.
Do You Need to Improve Your GPA?
It’s easier to achieve your academic goals if you begin high school with a high GPA and simply need to maintain it. On the other hand, it is significantly more challenging if you begin with a low GPA and later, must try to bring it up. However, bringing it up is certainly not impossible!
Remember That Your Weighted GPA Can Be Higher than You Think
A weighted GPA awards extra points toward grade point averages for International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and some other types of classes. This is why some students can have a 4.3 GPA on a 4.0 scale — they’ve taken these rigorous courses and were awarded bonus points.
Don’t panic about your GPA before you understand how you fare; some colleges typically use an unweighted GPA when they are considering admission applicants, but not all do. If you are taking rigorous courses, those colleges will take them into account.
Take Classes That Complement Your Talents, Passions, and Strengths
The rigor of your classes is so important in the college admissions determination process that it’s better to challenge yourself in strong areas than go too far in weaker ones.
In other words, if you excel in math but struggle with foreign languages, take pre-calculus and calculus but don’t stress out over taking the hardest available language courses.
A little-known fact is that most schools appreciate specialization. For decades, admissions counselors emphasized the importance of being a “well-rounded” student—to the point that students were stressing themselves out trying to excel in everything and participate in every activity possible. This is not the way to go.
Colleges appreciate the fact that not every person excels at every single thing, so you must play up the things you’re good at.
What If There’s Not Enough Time to Improve Your GPA?
If you’re a senior in high school and don’t have several semesters left to boost your GPA, don’t panic. Spend a good deal of time perusing the websites of colleges you are most interested in attending and find out how much emphasis they place on GPA. It may not be as much as you think.
If extenuating circumstances played a role in your high school grades, explaining those circumstances in the college application would be advantageous. For example, most colleges want to know if a parent was ill and you had to step in and help with the household or get a job to help financially.
Your 3.5 GPA Matters
Remember that GPA means different things to different colleges; some consider it a very important indicator of the type of student you are while others do not. Some, like Caltech, do require a high GPA to be considered for admissions, but most don’t.
Colleges also pay attention to whether you’ve challenged yourself and how your GPA fares compared to your classmates. If you need more information about how GPA impacts your chances for college, admissions consultants can help.