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Academic Ratings

Thousands of words on the Business Week article on Amherst’s increased preference for “poor” students (here, here, here and here) were not enough. There is more good stuff to blog about!

Consider this handy chart on academic ratings used by the Amherst admissions office.



1) This seems consistent with Williams admissions. See the Taylor ’05 and Doleac ’03 theses for more detail, as well as the Alumni Review article on the admissions process.

Each applicant gets an academic rating from 1 to 9 that focuses heavily on his or her high school grades, standardized test scores, the rigor of his or her academic program within the context of the school setting and the strength of teacher recommendations.

Now 9 categories is different from 7, of course, but I think that the bottom 2 for Williams are essentially irrelevant. Recall Barnard’s report that “it seems clear that we are not going to put the Jeannie back in the bottle in terms of admitting 7’s as athletic tips (SAT scores of 1150-1250).” These SAT scores map to the Amherst category 6, but, apparently, such applicants are no longer admitted, and this is a recent change at both schools.

2) This discussion is obviously connected to recent changes at Williams. Note the rise in the academic qualifications of tipped athletes. Recall the decrease in the percentage of students with low SAT scores. Dozens of students who would have been admitted to Williams 10 years ago are being rejected today.

3) These ranks are high-school-quality adjusted. At an elite school like Boston Latin or Exeter, you can be in the top 5% or even lower and still be a 1. At a weaker high school, you need to be the valedictorian. At the weakest high schools (botton 25%?), even the valedictorian is not considered smart enough to go to Williams.

4) Unstated in the article is the important role played by course selection. You must take the most rigorous courses (AP, honors and the like) that your school offers in order to be a 1 or 2. Again, this is school-quality adjusted. A student who takes two AP classes at a high school that only offers two such classes can be a 1. An Exeter student with only 2 AP classes can’t be.

5) The Amherst article notes:

Right now, Amherst ranks each of the thousands of applications it receives every fall on an academic scale of one (outstanding) to seven (inadmissible). Most students admitted for academic reasons alone are ones, meaning they were at or near the top of their high-school class and scored 1520 or higher on the SAT.

But are (almost) all 1s admitted? I had thought that they were (and many/most attended H/Y/P/S instead). But the Williams article claimed that:

The admission staff wait-listed or rejected nearly 300 of the 675 applicants to whom they had given their top “Academic 1” rating–a pool of students that, on average, ranked in the top 3 percent of their high school classes and had SAT scores of 1545.

Really? I am deeply suspicious. My guess is that the vast majority of the rejects were international students, forced out by the international quota. I bet that the admissions rate for US citizen academic rank 1s is much higher than 50%.

6) Amherst Admissions Dean Tom Parker ’69 was Admissions Dean at Williams for years, so one would think that the ranking systems would be quite similar.

7) For context on the trade-offs involved, note that, at Williams:

In general, all applicants with a combined academic rating of 3 or higher are rejected at this point, unless the first and second readers have identified one or more “attributes” that warrant additional consideration.

I am not certain that a 3 at Williams is the same as a 3 as described above at Amherst, but I think they are fairly close. At Amherst:

Bringing in more low-income kids would require added compromise. To meet Marx’s 25% goal, Amherst would have to take more threes, says Parker, meaning those who may have straight As but SATs as low as 1360. Even though Amherst already does so for minorities, legacies, and athletes, faculty members are worried. “This could be a radical departure that fundamentally changes the character of our institution,” warns physics professor David Hall, who heads the Faculty Committee on Admissions & Financial Aid.

And that is the trade-off. See my prior screeds for arguments against this policy.

But the main purpose of this post is to document the details of the process, how the academic ranks are constructed and what they mean. Anyone with further information should provide it in the comments.

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#1 Comment By Alexander Woo On June 8, 2006 @ 7:24 am

I am absolutely in favor of Williams taking a significant number of students who were at the top of their class in a poor high school, with exceptional recommendations from their teachers, and “only” 1250 or 1300 SATs. Certainly, such a student might struggle, especially academically. But he or she has much more potential to be one of the handful of people in a class who significantly contribute to almost everyone’s education.
Unlike most activities in life, college admissions is a process where in which one should welcome risk. A college is much better off with one exceptional and two mediocre students than three solidly good students.
This is one advantage a larger school has; they can safely take more risks in admissions as the law of large numbers works for them.
For the record, I believe (but have no proof) I was one of the people my graduate program took a gamble on.

#2 Comment By David On June 8, 2006 @ 7:38 am

Taking risks in graduate programs is very different, I think, than doing so at Williams. Most graduate programs don’t really care if you fail out. If they let in 5 “risk” candidates, and 2 drop out while 3 do well, the experiment is a success.

But, at Williams, applicants with 1250 SATs from weak high schools are much more likely to do very poorly and/or drop out. Such students do much better at the weaker colleges to which they now go (since places like Williams reject them). Are you sure that you would be doing such students a favor by accepting them?

And, as always, read the Williams article and pick out the students in your own Williams class most like “Jennifer Johnson.”

Meanwhile, on paper, Jennifer Johnson’s credentials meet or exceed Arun’s. She scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT and had another perfect score on one of her four achievement tests. But while she won regional honors for her school’s swim team, her extracurricular record is otherwise a little thin, and her essay leaves many of the reviewers cold. Most important, as the admission team weighs her application, one member offers this assessment: Despite her high grades and test scores, “I can’t discern any real intellectual spark.” The verdict: wait-list.

For every student that you accept who is currently rejected, you need to pick a currently accepted student to reject.

More yelping on the “intellectual spark” nonsense here.

#3 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On June 8, 2006 @ 10:46 am

I have been told that Williams could create an entire entering class from (1) valedictorians, (2) students with 1600 SATs, or (3) class presidents. In short, the riches are overwhelming. So having that “intellectual spark” oftentimes becomes the tie-breaker.

#4 Comment By Bill ’04 On June 8, 2006 @ 11:21 am

This only relates as it has to do with admissions, but the Supreme Court is going to hear two new affirmative action cases in the fall session. With the current makeup of the court, it is very likely that the terrible Grutter v. Bollinger decision will be overturned or clarified. It will be very interesting to see where the new court fall on this. Maybe Williams will be able to let in a few more “Jennifer Johnsons” in the near future.

Also in some total hypocracy, Bollinger who was fighting for affirmative action as the president of Michigan law can now be found as the president of Columbia threatening to use eminent domain on a few poor neighboorhoods north of 125th st. in his efforts to expand Columbia.

#5 Comment By frank uible On June 8, 2006 @ 1:12 pm

Please define “intellectual spark” without using a Potter Stewart definition.

#6 Comment By Alexander Woo On June 8, 2006 @ 8:44 pm

I am thinking about the fellow students I knew well personally at Williams, and I would say of roughly 20% that I had the privilege of being educated by them, and the other 80% it wouldn’t matter much if Williams rejected all of them and took in some almost as excellent applicants.
Interestingly, although I certainly have no statistics, I’m pretty sure this 20% had a lower GPA than the other 80%. Some of them actually left for a year or two, partly for academic reasons.
As to whether Williams would do applicants a disservice by taking a chance on them, I suggest Williams simply let them know the relevant facts and let them decide whether to come or not. Failing to make it academically at Williams is hardly so shattering an experience that students need to be protected from themselves.

#7 Comment By Anonymous On June 8, 2006 @ 8:58 pm

There is not a college in this country that could fill an entire class with students who score 800’s on math and critical reading. Harvard might be able to fill an entire class with valedictorians, but aside from the mighty crimson, I’m skeptical that any college can boast an applicant pool that would yield a class full of valedictorians.

#8 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On June 9, 2006 @ 9:57 am

Anonymous, feel free to be skeptical, but it flies in the face of (1) what I’ve been told and (2) patterns at other colleges.

For the Class of 2004 at Brown, “More than 90 percent of those accepted are in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Thirty-two percent are valedictorians; 26 percent are salutatorians. However, only 32 percent of the valedictorians who applied were accepted.” This then means that all of the valedictorians who applied could have made up the entire acceptance list.

For the Class of 2008 at Duke, “…Duke admitted only 42 percent of the nearly 1,500 valedictorians who applied for admission this year.” 1,500 is one hundred shy of Duke’s class size, although a little less than half of the 3,679 that Duke admitted.

#9 Comment By BHC On June 9, 2006 @ 11:21 am

Interesting to compare the Amherst SAT “floor” with the corresponding values at Harvard, which are discussed at http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=349217

Amherst will no longer admit athletes with SATs below 1250. The Harvard football program, in contrast, is allowed to recruit two players with sub-1250 scores.

#10 Comment By frank uible On June 9, 2006 @ 12:04 pm

About 20 years ago (I don’t know whether it continues to apply) Stanford’s self-imposed SAT floor for football players was 900 (old scale), of course, with no limit on the number of admittees at any place above the floor. That’s what it took for Stanford to have, what I would call, mediocre success in the Pac-10. I was told that at the time Notre Dame’s floor was considerably lower. I believe that in the 1988 season (Notre Dame’s last consensus national championship year) there were 4 or 5 players among the seniors alone who were in the 800 neighborhood.

#11 Comment By Anonymous On June 10, 2006 @ 12:10 am

Quoting the original post: “At the weakest high schools (botton 25%?), even the valedictorian is not considered smart enough to go to Williams.”i think this sentence perhaps unintentionally supports the idea that a student with all As and 1600 SATs who happens to attend a weak school cannot get in to Williams. Admissions in the end is based on the individual, not the institution.

#12 Comment By hwc On June 10, 2006 @ 12:55 am

a) The term “valedictorian” no longer has any meaning. Many high schools have multiple “valedictorians”, sometimes dozens. Typically, anyone above a certain GPA is deemed to be a “valedictorian”. The colleges know this and are playing along with the semantics game in their admissions press releases.

b) Claiming that a college could enroll a whole class of 1600 SATs or “valedictorians” is also a bit of a semantic shell game as it assumes that they could actually yield this class. The reality is that yields at most colleges like Williams are in the 40% range, declining as the quality of the applicant increases, since the best applicants tend to have the most attractive options. If you want to see what the college actually believes it can get, look at the Early Decision acceptances.

c) Focusing too heavily on SATs is a big mistake. Of course, colleges reject a lot of 1600s. There are 1600s who are notably unattractive applicants — either because they underperformed on GPA (slacker) or demonstrated no discernable interest in anything on their application. It doesn’t appear to matter much to Williams (no Why Williams? essay, no interviews), but many colleges place considerable weight on demonstrated “fit” and “interest”.

d) This so-called 1250 SAT floor is nonsense. According to the Common Data Set, 5% of Williams freshman class last year scored below 600 on the Verbal SAT and 6% scored below 600 on the Math SAT. That’s 27 and 32 students respectively.

#13 Comment By nMo On June 10, 2006 @ 1:46 am


No reason to think the floor is nonsense. As I am sure you recognize, someone could have below a 600 in math or verbal, yet still score over 1250.

Perhaps a couple are admitted below 1250, but I would be surprised if it were more than that – surely not the 27 and 32 you noted (IMO….).


#14 Comment By BHC On June 10, 2006 @ 2:42 am

OK, let’s look at the “floor” from the standpoint of Verbal or Math scores alone. As noted by hwc, the Williams Common Data Set shows a small percentage of students with Verbal or Math scores in the 500-599 range.

Now compare with the Common Data Sets for Dartmouth and Yale (doesn’t seem to be one available for Harvard). Both schools, like Williams, have a small percentage of students in the 500-599 range.

But Dartmouth and Yale also report a very small number of students (less than 1%) with Verbal or Math SATs in the 400-499 range. Williams doesn’t appear to go that low. So even by this measure, there is reason to suspect that the Ivies may have lower “floors”.

#15 Comment By hwc On June 10, 2006 @ 3:19 am

Precisely my point. Colleges selectively talk about stats for a reason. They could say that they won’t go below 500 on SAT Verbal or Math. That would give a true indication of the typical “floor”. But, that wouldn’t sound quite as impressive when the point is to convince people that they don’t compromise admissions standards for “hooked” applicants.

#16 Comment By frank uible On June 10, 2006 @ 6:46 am

To what reasonable purpose are youse SAT wonks going to put all this priceless information?

#17 Comment By hwc On June 10, 2006 @ 11:48 am

Reasonable purpose? I dunno. Probably as reasonable as pondering Tom Brady’s completion percentages. It’s just fun for the sake of fun.

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