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PLAYING THE GPA GAME

Xi Yu graduated from King High last year with an 8.16. That's right: Eight. One. Six. Here's how she did it.

It was 8.16, okay? Sure, it seems impossible, even ridiculous, but that was my weighted GPA. Eight. One. Six. - I didn't exactly plan on my grade point average being so high, but it wasn't an accident, either. I probably put more thought into it than I want to admit. Either way, everyone keeps asking me the same thing. How? - So whether you aspire to break the 8.0 barrier or just to get a little boost, here's how it's done.

Step 1: Recognize it's a game, and decide to play.

The race to be in the top of one's graduating class is like running the quiet stretches of an endless marathon, blindfolded. You can't see the finish line. You can't see the competitors. You just keep running until someone calls time.

I did not know who the top contenders were until late in the game. We all hit the finish line Feb. 13 of senior year - after first semester grades had been calculated and county rankings froze. I had stayed home Feb. 11 to finish my last online course, and others did the same Feb. 12-13.

To run like we did for almost four years, you have to know the rules:

You may not remove your blindfold: Your guidance counselor may tell you your GPA and rank but not anyone else's.

You must take one step at a time: You can take dual enrollment classes, but not during school hours.

You may not cut corners: You must take the Advanced Placement exam to receive AP credit.

With each stride, you will make friends and enemies. Some will help you and push you. Others will challenge you head on. A few will play unfairly.

Having finished my race, I can report that the old cliche still applies. In the end, it's all about how you played.

Step 2: Know your limits.

Let's get technical. There are two factors to success: personal and political.

Personally, you must be able to write, think and communicate effectively. You must have a thirst for knowledge and be motivated from within.

Politically, you're limited by the district's policies and the school's course availability. Hillsborough County uses an adding system. "Bonus weights" of 0.08 for each AP semester and 0.04 for each Honors, International Baccalaureate or Dual Enrollment semester are added to the unweighted GPA.

Pinellas County uses an averaging system where the value of an A, B or C in those courses is increased by one quality point and then averaged. As a result, a 5.0 would be common in Hillsborough, but it would be the upper limit in Pinellas.

Not all schools offer IB classes or the same number of AP classes. Differences in scheduling - such as traditional, block or float periods - affect the number of slots available for bonus courses. Block scheduling at King IB allowed me eight classes per semester.

Online courses through Florida Virtual School and dual enrollment courses are available to everyone and help level the playing field.

Step 3: Make a plan, then endure it.

The rest of the game is strategy. Do you choose courses for interest or for points? How will you balance extra courses with extracurriculars? What about friends and a life outside of your academic haul?

Fortunately, the course load is within your control. In four years, I completed 14 online courses, including regular Chinese and Latin for fun. I also took five dual enrollment classes over two summers.

But I definitely wasn't perfect. I earned B's in social studies three different semesters. (My 8.1677 GPA would have been a cleaner and higher decimal if I'd gotten A's.)

However, I can proudly say that I trusted myself enough to choose the interesting courses, drop the time-consuming ones and avoid AP Art History at all costs.

More costly were the social side effects. From the beginning, I heard only rumors about possible contenders, so it was hard to trust new people. The run was almost, dare I say, lonely.

Eventually, word leaked out. In January of my junior year, a parent who was a teacher at another school accessed records revealing the Top 10 students in the county. In a blatant rule violation, she relayed them to her daughter, also a top-tier competitor, and the game restarted itself on a disturbingly transparent platform. From then on, we tacitly acknowledged each other's stride.

Only discipline could keep me going. The GPA game will make you consistently question yourself. Why am I doing this?

Even today, I have mixed feelings about it. Sure the eclectic knowledge I gained, the interesting people I met and the eccentric speech I gave at graduation made the experience somewhat worthwhile. But the trust I lost or the friends I avoided? What was the number worth anyway?

My GPA proved something primarily to me. It proved that I could set a goal and attain it.

Xi Yu is a freshman at Harvard University. She graduated from King High last year with the highest grade point average in Hillsborough County.

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