How good is a 3.7 GPA anyway? A Tale of Academic Standing Systems from Canada and the U.K.

NatashaTinkling
Jun 4, 2019 · 6 min read

Warning: this post may sound unfriendly with its grades-and-GPA focus. But it is hoped that it ultimately shows that grades are NOT the be-all and end-all. Opinion is author’s own.

Our previous post illustrate a general formula to calculate your GPA, a measure primarily used in Canada and America. A quick recap:

If you have a 1x B+, 3x A- ’s, 1 x A from five 3-credit courses from a term, in many North-American university grading systems on a 4.0 scale, it would mean:

((1 * 3) * (3.3)) + ((3*3) * (3.7)) + ((3*1) * (4.0)) / ((3 * 3 + (3 * 1) + (3 * 1)))= 3.68 GPA. 

In plain English, this is just the sum of your individual course grade multiplied by respective grade points, divided by total course weight of the semester.

All good?

Good.


Now let’s take things up a notch. We round the number to 1-significant digit, making it 3.7. We wonder:

How good is a 3.7 GPA anyway?

That is the North American point of view. What does this mean across borders?

In the United Kingdom, a 3.7 GPA can be very roughly translated to “upper-second class honours”. For example, the USA-UK Fullbright Commission classes it as upper-second class honours¹ (denoted II:i). Meaning, if you get an average of 3.7 GPA in all your semesters, from a UK perspective this would mean being able to graduate with upper second class honours.

And what does it mean in a raw UK-module mark?

66.7 % .

Because obtaining 70% and above is an A-class achievement in the UK grading system. It is classified as an A or A+ grade. Whereas in North America, getting 66.7% in a senior-level course will land you as a B or B-, which means“at or below average” in terms of senior class standing. If you are going to Canada or the US for university from abroad, and is used to getting a hit rate of 68–75% in the exams and already getting an A, get this straight now. You’ll be sorry if you don’t. No-one would tell you that you’re falling behind, because privacy around class mark is strictly upheld and is the most important thing in the world. You will not know that you need to keep up until you receive your grade at the end of the term.


OK, so 3.7 GPA is an upper second class honours. Right. We then ask:

What good is an upper second class honours degree anyway?

An honours degree is a separate program within a major, desiged for futher studies in the field.

Some requirements e.g. time limit to finishing program, year-to-year GPA requirement, compulsory honours classes, graudation thesis, and a higher minimum in-major credit hours, are involved. The program is designed for those preparing for further studies, or looking for a more condensed learning experience within a field.

For departments requiring a minor this means that if you don’t also maintain a minor, and fail to meet honours requirements in your last year, you have to drop out of the program and stay for another semester to complete your minor, so that you can graduate with an ordinary degree. Due to the all-academic nature, most people don’t find it appetizing or its job prospects encouraging. Therefore, the percentage of honours enrolment is usually low. In my department for example, it is 20 out of 1,000 of students in the major.

An honours degree puts you in the race to graduating with honours. For example, if you maintain a 3.7 GPA for all senior-level in-major courses and a 3.5 overall GPA in your final year, you can graduate with a first class honours. If your grades fall short, you can get a second class honours or an ordinary honours degree provided all other requirements are met.

Let’s view it from the U.K. lens, where

An honours degree is a graded degree.

An honours degree means that your degree will be graded with class standings, instead of a pass/fail. You don’t necessarily have to complete a thesis. Subsequently, most students opt for the route — 97% of them, in 2017/18³.

The honours class standings are :

  1. First Class Honours (I, typically ≥ 70%)
  2. Upper Division Second Class Honours (II:i, typically between 60% and 69%)
  3. Lower Division Second Class Honours (II:ii, typically between 50% and 59%)
  4. Third Class Honours (III, typically between 40% and 49%)

Over 25% of pupils nowadays graduate with a U.K. first class honours. However, this is different across institutions. Imperial College London, for example, awards just under half of their graduates (44.7%) a first class honours standing. University of Oxford awards it to a third of their graduates² . In 2017/18, 76% of all full-time bachelor’s degree graduates in the U.K. obtained a first class or upper second class honours degree³.

Although the issue of grade inflation has been raised and debated for a few years now, there seems no curb to this race-to-the-top nash equilibrium. But who knows? A non-indicative grading scheme may actually incentivize students to develop other interests and skills rather than focusing on the transcript.


Whoa. Do they know this?

This also means that a 3.7 GPA is viewed in the UK as a standing lower than 1/3 of the campus fulltime undergraduate population. Probably not how one would interpret it in Canada!

OK. What is your point now?

But this post also hopes to highlight how grades are completely arbitrary. They can be defined differently across departments. They can be changed in a few meetings. They can be gamed. They can inflate. They are discounted across borders. On its own, a student’s 3.7 GPA may reflect very little other than their time management skills, their awareness of how the system work, or how well they stay within their comfort zone.

Getting an honours degree does not mean you are honourable, and a third class degree does not mean that you are any less intelligent than the first class folks.

Work hard, but realise that you are not your grades. You are a lot more.

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NatashaTinkling

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Studies economics part-time, everything else full time. Likes annoying questions.

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