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(USA TODAY) -- Parents and their high school students are fascinated by the grade pointaverage and what it means in college admissions, but the truth is that anumber of colleges and universities are not all that interested.

Admissions officers at some of the nation's most selective colleges,who are now sending acceptance letters for their fall freshman classes,say they barely look at an applicant's GPA.

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"It's meaningless,"says Greg Roberts, admissions dean at the University of Virginia, rankedas the top public university in this year's 150 Best Value Colleges,published by The Princeton Review and based on academics andaffordability.

"It's artificial," says Jim Bock, admissions deanat Swarthmore College, the top private college in The Princeton Review'sBest Value rankings. So unimportant is the GPA that Swarthmore doesn'tbother calculating it for guidebook publishers.

Some confusion among families is understandable, especially becauseGPAs can confer bragging rights during high school commencement season.At an Arizona high school last May, a dispute over which of twograduates with the same GPA -- 4.82 -- should be named classvaledictorian prompted the school district to scrap the title.

Researchconsistently shows that a student's high school grades are the bestpredictor of their likelihood of success in college. Annual surveys bythe National Association for College Admission Counseling show that mostadmissions officials put a high priority on grades -- particularlygrades in college-prep courses.

"It's very hard for parents," says Janet Rosier, an independentcounselor in Woodbridge, Conn. "They know what they know. They knowtheir student and they know their high school. But they don't reallyhave an understanding of the bigger picture."

She tells them thateach college scours high school grades and transcripts according to itsown criteria. Swarthmore's Bock, for example, says he looks for evidencethat students have taken the most challenging classes they can.University of Florida's admissions staff recalculates student gradepoint averages based on five academic areas: English, math socialscience, natural science and foreign language, says Zina Evans, vicepresident for enrollment management.

Neither The Princeton Review nor U.S. News & World Report factorhigh school GPAs into their college rankings formulas. The PrincetonReview publishes GPAs if schools provide the information, says DavidSoto, director of content development.

In this year's guide,nearly a third -- 49 -- didn't, including Brown, Columbia, Cornell andYale. No school listed a high school GPA for its freshman class below a3.0, or B, average. An even dozen schools list GPAs of 4.0 or higher.

And the number makes a difference for some of them.

"TheGPA is very important in our decision-making process," says RobertBennett, senior associate director of admissions at Clemson, where theaverage high school GPAs for new freshman catapulted from 3.59 to 4.10over five years. The range on math scores remained the same, 580-680out of a possible 800.

A number of factors likely contribute tothe increase, he says, including greater access to Advanced Placementcourses, which can be weighted more heavily by high schools, and agrowing number of applicants. "We're kind of a hot school," Bennettsays.

Grade inflation may also play a role, but it matterslittle, he says. High schools "present their students in the bestlight," Bennett says. "We want to see their students in the bestacademic light."

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