Ivy League Athletes, Admissions, and the Academic Index

How do Ivy League athletes perform in the classroom? Get the lowdown on how some of the best college athletes compete for grades at some of the nation's best universities ...

The Ivy League Academic Index

This past Christmas, the New York Times published an article on the Ivy League Academic Index, the formula used by the Ivy League admissions offices to calculate the academic suitability of prospective student-athletes.

Ever quick to get on top of a story, the NYT was reporting on a development first made public by college counselor and former Dartmouth admissions officer Michele Hernandez in her 1997 book "A Is For Admission". Nearly fifteen years later, the NYT article and a follow-up piece prompted some discussion in admissions circles about what Ivy League schools look for in successful applicants.

How Does It Work?

The academic index ranks applicants on a scale from 60 to 240, with each of three categories counting for one third of the total. Grades are worth 20 points for a GPA of zero, up to 80 points for a perfect 4.0. SAT scores, as determined by the average of the math and reading test scores, are worth 20 points for a 200 on that test, and up to 80 points for a perfect 800.

SAT Subject Test scores, as the average of the best two (or three) submitted scores, are given 20 points for a 200, up to 80 points for an 800. Students who want to see where they would rank from 60 to 240 on the index can use any number of online Ivy League Academic Index calculators, including this one from College Confidential. (A score of about 220 overall puts students into the mix of Ivy League admissions.)

What does it mean?

What's always been striking to me about the academic index, and what seems to have been underreported, or perhaps insufficiently commented upon, is the way it reveals that, for athletes at least, Ivy League schools use test scores for two-thirds of the academic qualifications for admission. For all the high-minded talk about looking beyond test scores alone in order to see the total applicant, when the rubber hits the road and college presidents want to be sure that their schools' athletes can compete in the classroom, they rely on a mathematical formula that values test scores twice as much as grades.

How could this be? Do standardized test scores really mean something, despite so much informed opinion to the contrary? Is the SAT actually a valid predictor of college success? Will the SAT always be with us?

As a tutor who teaches high school students to improve their SAT and SAT Subject Test scores, I suppose that nothing should please me more. And yes, a continued reliance on test scores by some of the nation's most prestigious colleges cannot be bad for business in my line of work.

But as a parent, and as someone who advises and cares about many overstressed students and parents, I say let's remember that while strong test scores may be (nearly) necessary for admission to a top college, they are most certainly not sufficient. Colleges really do look at an applicant's complete file. I have many times seen students, and not just athletes, admitted to elite schools with less than perfect scores, provided that they are fascinating, compelling people with valuable contributions to make.

Are test scores all that matter?

On my Twitter feed, I linked to a sobering piece by William Deresiewicz, a skeptic on the value of an elite American education. He argues that the Ivy League members, and similar schools, do not teach a great deal of what you need to know about life. In fact, he believes that rarefied universities look mostly for analytical skill, to the exclusion of other forms of intelligence.

The result, he argues, is a technocratic leadership class that is at times woefully out of touch with most of the people it purports to lead. (David Brooks has also covered this issue in the New York Times.)

Although I believe that both Deresiewicz and Brooks overstate the case, I agree that an outsize dependence on the SAT in elite college admissions has led schools to select more for smarts than for wisdom. It all reminds me of a wonderful quote I came across recently in "To End All Wars", an account by Adam Hochschild of the tragic debacle that was World War I.

"The great thing about the French governing elite, it was said at the time, was that they knew everything. The problem, however, was that that was all they knew."

So go ahead, have fun, calculate your score on the academic index. If you are in high school, that number won't tell you whether you will get in to Penn or Brown. If you are an adult, it undoubtedly does not tell you much about your current self — except maybe that you are silly and vain for having run the numbers at all. No number can do any such thing.

People are not numbers. Information is not wisdom. School is not life. And admission may be acceptance, but it is not self-worth.