Differences Between a GED & High School Diploma

What separates a GED from a high school diploma? Find out how each of these awards are regarded, what is unique about each, and more by reading below.

What Are High School Diplomas and the GED?

After students in the US complete four years of high school education, typically from grades 9-12, they are awarded a diploma to show they have passed all of their classes and fulfilled the necessary requirements. Most colleges look to see that students have this requirement before admitting them at the postsecondary level.

The General Educational Development, or GED, is a type of high school equivalency test for those who did not earn a diploma. Most US states offer the GED, but there are a handful that do not or have replaced it with other equivalency tests. Typically 18 is the minimum age to take the test, but some states may allow 16-year-olds to take the GED prior to applying for a job. Earning a passing score on the GED signifies the bearer is competent in the areas expected of a high school graduate and is ready to move to the next level of education or career track. While the GED exam is sometimes regarded as more difficult than simply completing high school exams, the GED can also carry a stigma about a worker's decision to complete their education. When facing certain personal or family situations in high school, the GED sometimes is looked at later on as an option.

Recipients Diploma: youth finishing high school; GED: those who did not complete high school
GED Components Standardized battery of tests on math, science, language arts, and social studies; minimum test scores required
High School Diploma Components Complete four years of schooling with passing grades; offers flexible education in areas beyond basic subjects
Comparison Diploma: universal respect and wide course options; GED: possible stigma but an alternative when high school not completed

What Goes Into Earning a GED?

The GED is based around an exam with four subject areas of focus, each with its own test: mathematical reasoning, language arts, social studies, and science. The GED is scored on a points scale up to 200, and a score of 145 is required per subject for high school equivalency in most states. Scoring higher can earn additional recognition, with a score between 165 and 174 being deemed college ready, and a score over 175 possibly earning college credit early. Each category's test can be taken individually or all at once, and should a passing score be obtained on some but not all categories, the examinee will not be required to retake those exams. GED prep courses are available, designed to help study material which will be covered on the exam, but are not required in most states and are only loosely regulated, so be careful when choosing which one to sign up for. Passage of the GED exam is often the only requirement for high school equivalency, making it much faster to complete than high school.

What Requirements Are There to Earning a High School Diploma?

Each state's department of education will have different standards for what is required for a high school diploma. Standardized tests used nationwide have helped to unify curriculum in high schools, and there are some requirements common to all states, such as education in science, math, history/social studies, and English/language arts. High schools also offer flexible opportunities for students to study electives and/or advanced subjects, like calculus, that would not be tested on the GED. Electives are required for graduation in almost all states and provide students education in a number of areas, such as foreign languages, art, music, or business, which also would not be available to those trying for a GED. Additional honors, endorsements on the diploma, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses which count for college credit are also options for high school students, helping them to be as prepared as possible for both the work force and study at universities.

Should I Pursue a GED or a High School Diploma?

If given the option, especially for those who are still young, a high school diploma is often the superior choice due to its flexibility and universal respect. A number of states have shifted away from the GED in recent years, and if the trend continues, it is possible that holding a GED may no longer measure up as an equivalent to a high school education relative to newer credentials. If you are in a state that does not offer completion of high school diplomas to adults, or are otherwise unable to earn a diploma, then the GED or other form of high school equivalency could still be far better than holding no proof of education at all. As an increasing number of jobs require higher and higher levels of education, both the GED and high school diploma may become more important, even if they serve as but a stepping stone on the path to the education you need.