This post summarizes what we know about the Academic Rating used by the Williams Admissions Office as the single most important input to their decision making process. (Previous posts that have touched on this topic here, here and here.)

“Students Choosing Colleges: Understanding the Matriculation Decision at a Highly Selective Private Institution” (pdf) by Peter Nurnberg ’09, Morton Schapiro and David Zimmerman provides the inside scoop on the definition of academic rating.

While the academic reader ratings are somewhat subjective, they are strongly influenced by the following guidelines.

  • Academic 1: at top or close to top of HS class / A record / exceptional academic program / 1520 – 1600 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 2: top 5% of HS class / mostly A record / extremely demanding academic program / 1450 – 1520 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 3: top 10% of HS class / many A grades / very demanding academic program / 1390 – 1450 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 4: top 15% of HS class / A – B record / very demanding academic program / 1310 – 1400 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 5: top 20% of HS class / B record / demanding academic program / 1260 – 1320 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 6: top 20% of HS class / B record / average academic program / 1210 – 1280 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 7: top 25% of HS class / mostly B record / less than demanding program / 1140 – 1220 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 8: top 33% of HS class / mostly B record or below / concern about academic program / 1000 – 1180 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 9: everyone else.

(See here and here for previous discussion of this article, which is largely based on Nurnberg’s senior thesis.)

Never before has Williams revealed the exact details of the Academic Rating, abbreviated as AR by the cognoscenti. Nurnberg’s thesis, which College policy prevents me from directly quoting, includes a copy of “Class of 2009 Folder Reading Guide, Academic Ratings,” a Williams College document. Here (pdf) are some details.


      verbal   math   composite SAT II   ACT    AP
AR 1: 770-800 750-800 1520-1600 750-800 35-36 mostly 5s
AR 2: 730-770 720-750 1450-1520 720-770 33-34 4s and 5s
AR 3: 700-730 690-720 1390-1450 690-730 32-33 4s


1) AR takes account of high school quality. It is common for a student in just the top 10% of an elite high school like Bronx Science or Andover to be an AR 1, assuming she has the test scores to match.

2) According to Nurnberg’s thesis, each file is rated by two admissions officers. If their ratings differ by no more than 1 point, the ratings are averaged. If they differ by 2 or more, there is an adjudication process. Any applicant with a score of 1.5 or 2.5, get a third reader whose score is then incorporated in the average.

3) Incorporating essay strength and teacher recommendations into the overall AR is hard. Reasonable admissions officers will often disagree about whether a given essay is “exceptional” or merely “outstanding.”

4) The vast majority of applicants come from high schools that send multiple applications to Williams, either this year or in past years. So, many judgments are made by comparing students within the same high school against each other. This allows the Admissions Office to compare students high school grades even at schools which do not officially rank their students.

How much does Academic Rating matter? Consider the Alumni Review’s own overview (pdf).

The full-time admission staffers, plus a handful of helpers like Phil Smith ’55 (Nesbitt’s predecessor as director), pore over the folders. Two readers examine each folder independently, without seeing each other’s comments, and assess them in three major ways. 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.

If the first and second readers’ academic ratings differ by more than a point, they put their heads together to try to reach a consensus rating. 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.

The reason that the admissions office assigns a third reader to applicants rated 2.5 is that there is a huge difference between a 2 and a 3. If you are a typical 3 (1400 SAT, 700 achievement tests, 4s on your AP exams), you will be rejected unless you have a specific attribute or hook.

And this is where Williams, and other elite schools, can become a bit dishonest. They sometimes like to pretend that it is common for such hooks to include things like “being a great kid” or “significant concern for the environment” or “wonderful musician.” This is not a lie in so much as, every once in a while, such a hook might make a difference. But 90% of the time or more, the students who are accepted to Williams without being an AR 1 or 2 fall into just a few special buckets: recruited athlete (Williams coach knows your name and wants you), under-represented minority (checked the black and/or Hispanic box on the Common Application), socio-economic (neither parent has a BA and you check the financial aid box) or legacy (parent or grand-parent went to Williams). Other attributes (development, employee child, local resident) can matter too, but athlete/URM/socio-ec/legacy are by far the four largest drivers of admissions for applicants with an academic rating below 2.

Contrary opinions and questions are welcome!

UPDATE: This post has been slightly edited after conversations with Sylvia Brown, Williams Archivist. As a result, the comment thread below will not make much sense. Sorry! In its current form, the post is consistent with Williams policies with regard to the use of senior theses. Later discussion here and here.

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