The US college grading system can be hard to understand for any new freshman, especially one from another country.
If you are an international student that is new to the academic system used in US colleges (or even a US native who’s confused!), read below to find out what US grades mean.
US Grading System Basics
Virtually all colleges in the US use letter grades.
An A is considered outstanding and a B is very good, while a C is average and a D is barely passing. An F is a failing grade that awards no credit.
Some colleges in the US use pluses and minuses to more closely describe grades.
For example, an A+ is the best possible grade, followed by A and then A-. Receiving a B+ is nearly as good as an A-, and so on (though you should note that D- and F+ do not exist).
Keep in mind that this is a general framework, and individual colleges may have slightly different policies. The A+, for example, is not always used: Many colleges consider an A to be the highest grade; some colleges weigh an A+ and an A equally; and some colleges, such as Cornell, attribute extra weight to an A+ on a 4.0 scale (see below).
The use of letter grades is just one aspect of the US college grading system. Letter grades are calculated into numbers to form your grade point average, or GPA.
The typical college uses a 4.0 scale, which means 4.0 is the highest GPA you can usually get (though some colleges award 4.3 points for an A+). Generally, however:
- A = 4 points
- B = 3 points
- C = 2 points
- D = 1 point
- F = 0 points
To calculate your GPA, you must multiply your grade points by the amount of credits taken, and then divide by the total amount of credits.
For example, if you get A’s for nine credits (usually three classes) and B’s for six credits (two classes), this adds up to 54 points that you need to divide by 15. The result is a GPA of 3.6, which tends to be above average in college. In fact, a GPA of 3.0 or more is considered good for most US college students.
Grading On a Curve
Some professors have their own way of grading, and they usually explain this to students on the first day of class.
For instance, grading on a curve means adjusting grades according to the highest grade in the class. If the highest grade on a test is a B, for example, professors who grade on a curve will consider that an A. Students who have a C will then get a B instead, and so on.
There are other ways to grade on a curve, such as by adjusting grades based on the average score in the class.
Either way, this method usually boosts students’ grades. But don’t expect every professor to do this — it’s an exception rather than a rule.
The Pass/Fail Option
Most colleges also offer the option to take a class as a “pass/fail.” Under this option, you do not receive a letter grade for the class. Instead, you either pass it or fail it. In most cases, you need the equivalent of a D to pass.
If you do pass, your GPA is not affected, but if you fail, your overall GPA is negatively affected. You can usually only choose to take a few college classes on a pass/fail basis.
Help for International Students
Depending on where you are from, a new grading system can be confusing. Since the US grading system has a lot of specific terminology, you should always use a professional for translation of your academic documents when applying to US colleges.
Once you go to class, make sure you pay attention to the syllabus which your professor hands out. This is a guide that lets students know how the grades are calculated, including how much importance is placed on tests, essays, homework and participation in class. For most classes, the final grade incorporates all of these aspects, with scores on exams and essays often making up the bulk up the grade.
Whether you are used to the top grade being High Distinction, such as in the UK, or Excellent as it is in Israel, you may need some help comprehending your final grades at a US college. If so, you can always ask your advisor for clarification.