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The grading system in the US demystified (everything you want to know)

Talya Honebeek
Last Updated: 22 July 2021 • 4 min read

From the average course length and higher tuition fees to the importance of college football, there’s a lot that sets universities in America apart from those in other countries.

But for a student hoping to study abroad in the US, one of the more confusing things to understand is the US grading system.

You may have heard that American universities use letter grades when marking assignments, or you might already be familiar with the term ‘GPA,’ but how does it all fit together to give you a grade at the end of your studies?

Don’t worry, because we’ve got you covered. From how individual assignments are graded to how to calculate your GPA, here’s everything you need to know about the grading system in the USA.

The grading system in the US demystified

  1. How are individual assessments graded in America?
  2. What are quality points and how do they affect your grade?
  3. What is a GPA and why is it important?
  4. How is your GPA calculated?
  5. What degree classifications are there in the US?

1. How are individual assessments graded in America?

Every time you complete an individual assignment, your lecturer or instructor will give you a letter grade to tell you how well you performed.

The letter grading system ranges from A to F, and which letter you get depends on what percentage you score in the assignment, either by answering questions correctly or demonstrating that you’ve met the course requirements.

But what are the percentages for grades?

  • A = 90-100%
  • B = 80-89%
  • C = 70-79%
  • D = 60-69%
  • F = <60%

Anything between A and D is a pass, while F marks a failed assignment. You can also break each grade down even further if you wish, meaning you could class a B grade as a B+, B= or B-.

One thing to point out is that there has been no E grade in the American grading system since the 19th century, when parents and students would sometimes wrongly presume that the E stood for ‘excellent.’

2. What are quality points and how do they affect your grade?

Though individual assignments are mostly marked using the letter grade system, your grades aren’t the only thing used to determine your overall qualification.

This is where the US grading system gets a little more complicated. At most US universities, your grades will often correspond to something called a quality point, which is then calculated towards your GPA (more on this next).

Though every school, college and higher education institution uses a different scale, most use a 4.0 scale — referred to as a four point scale — that accompany your letter grades. 

For example, if you receive an A grade, this will correspond to four points, while a B will get you three points, and so on until you reach F, which gives you no points.

3. What is a GPA and why is it important?

Your overall grades then provide a Grade Point Average (GPA), which is the standard way of measuring academic achievement in the US.

The purpose of a GPA is to paint a picture of what kind of student you are, based on your performance throughout your degree.

If you passed all of your classes with high grades, you will most likely have a GPA that’s close to a 4.0. Alternatively, if you struggled with some classes but excelled in others, you may have a GPA of 2.5 to 3.0.

Getting a good GPA is really important if you want to apply for scholarships, enroll in a master’s degree or find a graduate job, as one of the first things admissions tutors or potential employers will do is look at your GPA.

4. is your GPA calculated?

So now you know what a GPA is, the next step is to figure out how it’s calculated.

Each course you take has a set number of ‘units’ or ‘credits’ depending on the content and the set number of hours needed to complete weekly classes and homework.

Your average GPA is calculated by adding all the quality points achieved in each unit together and then dividing this by overall the number of course credits or units (credit hours) you attempted.

This number represents your GPA.

So for example, say you take one three-unit class and receive an A grade and then also get a C in a four-unit class. 

For the first class, you need to times the three units by the four quality points for an A, giving you a total of 12 grade points.

For the second class, times the four units by two (the number of points you get for a C grade) to get eight points. Now, if you add these two numbers together you have accumulated 20 points over seven units. 

Divide the total points by the total number of units to find your GPA, which in this case is 2.86, which falls just short of a 3.0 (B) average.

5. What degree classifications are there in the US?

At the end of the average undergraduate degree in the UK, students either graduate with First-Class Honours (70%+), an Upper Second-Class Honours or 2:1 (60-70%), a Lower Second-Class Honours or 2:2 (50-60%) or Third-Class Honours (40-50%).

If you achieve anything above 40%, you will pass your degree, while scoring higher than 70% will get you a first, the highest possible classification.

In America, the grading system in education is set up completely differently.

Instead of being awarded an honours classification, your GPA is your final grade, and is calculated using the method we explained above, by taking all your individual grades for each class into consideration.

The highest GPA you can graduate with is a 4.0, which is the equivalent to scoring 90-100%, or a first in the UK. A score of 80-89% overall provides a GPA of 3.0, while 70-79% is equivalent to a 2.0.

At the bottom end of the scale, the lowest GPA you are allowed to graduate with is 1.0, which is equivalent to scoring 60-69% in the UK. In America, anything less than 60% is counted as a fail.

Interested in studying abroad in the US? Learn more about all the top universities in America on our website and let us help you find your perfect course and university today!

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Talya Honebeek
Written By
Talya Honebeek

Talya is a part-time journalism master's student living in North Yorkshire.

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