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A Rare Glimpse Inside the Ivy League’s Academic Index

By Bill Pennington | Published on: January 10, 2012 | Source: New York Times

A Rare Glimpse Inside the Ivy League’s Academic Index

In an article published on Christmas Day in The New York Times, I described specific elements of the mysterious Academic Index, a tool used by Ivy League institutions – and increasingly other colleges and universities – to measure the basic academic qualifications of recruited athletes. The Academic Index, created in the 1980s and never disclosed publicly by the institutions themselves, uses a formula that assigns each recruit a number based on his or her standardized tests scores and high school grade point average.

But what does the Academic Index mean to a non-athlete applying to one of the eight Ivies?

Let’s start with some background. The Ivy League institutions have each agreed to accept athletic recruits with an Academic Index no lower than 176, which roughly translates to a B average and 1140 on the first two parts of the three-part SAT exam. There are exceptions made, but they represent a small number of the approximately 1,500 applicants chosen from preferred recruit lists compiled by hundreds of coaches. A vast majority of recruited athletes have index numbers well above 200 (A-minus average and 1300 on two-part SAT) although there is plenty of room for negotiation in individual cases.

The primary purpose of the Academic Index, known as the AI, is to compare the academic qualifications of athletes as a group to the academic qualifications of the student body over all at each institution. Ivy League universities have committed to having a cohort of recruited athletes that calculates to no more than one standard deviation below the overall student body.

So what about those applicants with Ivy dreams but no athletic aspirations?

Applicants should know that the index is not intended to be used as a yardstick to determine whether an aspiring high school student is Ivy League material – or more to the point, someone who is going to survive the intricate admissions processes of some of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities.

But just as some coaches use the index early in the recruiting process to assess a recruit’s likely chance of admission – someone with a 185 AI might have a more difficult road to acceptance than someone with an AI of 220 – there is increasing temptation for admissions officers to at least be aware of an applicant’s Academic Index.

These days, applicants and their high school guidance counselors can even go online to try to calculate their own Academic Index, or a close approximation in most cases, and try to use it as a predictor of admissibility. (As it turns out, most online calculators that purport to simulate the Academic Index are wrong; a chart that accompanied my article draws on some elements of the League’s current calculator spreadsheet.)

But in light of the so-called holistic side of highly selective admissions — in which “softer” variables like essays and interviews and teacher recommendations are weighed alongside scores and grades — admissions professionals strongly caution applicants and their families against using such formulas to handicap their chances of, say, getting into Princeton.

“More and more people are going to look at those numbers as having more meaning than they should,” said Michael Goldberger, the Brown University athletic director who also spent 10 years as the university’s admissions director. “I don’t think any admissions officer is going to look at an application and say, ‘This person has a 223 AI and we need more people in that category.’ ”

That said, he added: “I do think that high school counselors are now going to call up admissions officers and say, ‘This person had a 235 AI, how could you possibly turn him down?’ Having the formula widely known is going to make life a little harder in some places.”

Which leads to another caution: Mr. Goldberger said the Academic Index is not accurate enough to be a reliable forecast of admissibility.

“G.P.A.’s are so different from high school to high school and that’s something that admissions departments work hard to determine and evaluate,” he said. “And with SAT prep courses so prevalent, those numbers are open to more debate. It’s impossible to make admissions a metric system, and it’s healthy that it is not.”

Mr. Goldberger instead described the pieces of a college application that can have greater impact than an Academic Index number.

“When a teacher says on a recommendation, ‘This person is the brightest student I’ve ever taught,’ that jumps off the page,” Mr. Goldberger said. “Or if the teacher writes that a particular student was more inventive at problem-solving than any student in the school for the last four years, that kind of thing sky-rockets an applicant beyond any number.

“There is always the human element. Some things don’t translate into numbers.”

Link to Article: A Rare Glimpse Inside the Ivy League’s Academic Index