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Your “Academic Score:” College Admission Data Shows Even Great Academics Aren’t Enough to Get You In

The College Essay
Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller
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As college application coaches we’ve noticed two mistaken beliefs among high-achieving students:

  1. Mistakenly feeling that you’re academically strong compared to other applicants. In fact, because students self-select where they apply to based on academics, they’re likely to be academically similar to other applicants. 
  2. Mistakenly feeling that being slightly better academically than other applicants will give you the edge. In fact, colleges view many high-achievers as indistinguishable, placing tens of thousands of applicants in the same Academic Score category.

This article will dig into admissions data to look at how selective colleges evaluate applicants’ academics. It’s a follow-up of sorts to our article that sifted through admissions data to find that strong essays increase an applicant’s chance of getting admitted by a whopping 10x.

TL;DR — Great academics matter. But they’re usually more of a floor that you must achieve than a distinguisher that gets you in. The distinguisher, in fact, is generally "non-academics" – what you write about and how you write about it. 

This is not based on wishful thinking (or, we promise, a love of metaphors and fine language). It’s based on cold, hard math, as we’ll show below. (For help with any aspect of your college application, head to our College Essay Help Center.)

Your Academic Score is a single number reflecting your grades, curriculum, and test scores;Colleges use the academic score to see if you’re at or above their “academic bar” - can you succeed at their school?;Harvard academic admissions data — understanding just how excellent you need to be (see next section for more cheerful news);Harvard “personal score” data — or, how most applicants trip up on their essays, and this is how you can get into your academically “reach” schools
Your Academic Score is a single number reflecting your grades, curriculum, and test scores;Colleges use the academic score to see if you’re at or above their “academic bar” - can you succeed at their school?;Harvard academic admissions data — understanding just how excellent you need to be (see next section for more cheerful news);Harvard “personal score” data — or, how most applicants trip up on their essays, and this is how you can get into your academically “reach” schools

    Your Academic Score is a single number reflecting your grades, curriculum, test scores, and situation

    Colleges typically combine all academic information into a single Academic Score. It helps them identify which students they believe are most likely to succeed academically at their college. 

    This is a rigorous process: many colleges have refined their academic scoring system over the years based on how accepted students performed academically in college and whether they graduated. Many schools even look at how students from your high school performed academically. 

    The simple way to look at the Academic Score is as a combination of grades, strength of curriculum, test scores (SAT/ACT, APs), and high school strength. There are two components:

    1. The Academic Index. This is an algorithm that takes your data (grades, courses, test scores) and calculates a single score. The systems tend to:
    • Remove grades in non-academic courses (e.g., gym, drivers ed, band)
    • Remove freshman year grades (many colleges consider freshman year transitional and freshman grades are far less predictive of college academic success) 
    • Weight grades (or AP scores) more heavily in more difficult courses (ex: Calculus) 
    • Weight more recent grades more heavily
    • Not consider SAT/ACT scores if the student is applying test-optional 
    1. Academic Context. Colleges know every applicant is different. Different applicants have varying opportunities available to them. And admissions officers consider the context surrounding their academics, such as:
    • Your high school and how your high school’s alumni performed  academically at their college
    • The strength of curriculum you took compared to the curriculum available to you through your high school (i.e., taking all of the most challenging classes available in your high school is helpful)
    • The context of your situation and surroundings (e.g., your family’s or your classmates’ socioeconomic status, family situation, community). Applicants facing more challenges or having fewer opportunities may receive additional consideration.
    • Any concerns about your academics. Some students may have lower grades for a period of time due to challenging life situations (e.g., a death of a family member or close friend). Others may have hard-to-evaluate academics due to switching high schools or being from a high school that the college is less familiar with. Admissions officers may use pieces of information (e.g., SAT/ACT score, AP scores, grades in challenging courses, or courses related to the student’s intended major) to get a better evaluation of a student’s true academic ability (i.e., the admissions officers need to believe the student will succeed academically at their college).

    Admissions officers combine the Academic Index (an algorithm) with the Academic Context (qualitative evaluation) to formulate an overall Academic Score. For most students, the Academic Score will closely mirror the score they received on the Academic Index. But for others, the Academic Score may be higher than what it would have been by just considering the Academic Index.

    Colleges use the academic score to see if you’re at or above their “academic bar” - can you succeed at their school?

    For highly selective colleges, determining if you can hack it is the main purpose of the academic score. Colleges still care if you’re an academic superstar or not. They will use your academic score to understand how strong you are compared to other applicants. But, for most applicants who aren’t truly academically exceptional (e.g., 5s on nearly every AP, perfect SAT/ACT scores, straight A+’s, state or national-level academic awards), how far above the rest you are is generally a secondary consideration. 

    Most applicants have similar academic profiles. This is because students self-select where they apply based on their grades and test scores. As a good rule of thumb, about 4 in 5 applicants are above the academic bar at highly selective colleges. So these colleges could technically admit about 80% of their applicants and be sure they’d graduate and do well. 

    Moreover, selective colleges consider about 2 in 5 applicants to have “strong” academics. It’s not easy to do so well in high school that a place like Harvard considers you academically “strong.” It’s not easy … but many, many, many students pull it off. And if they’ve worked hard in high school and gotten great scores to show for it, chances are they’ll apply to a highly selective school when senior year rolls around. That’s called “self-selection.”

    As you can see, academics aren’t everything

    While strong academics are helpful, colleges are mostly fine accepting any student that is above their academic bar. Let’s use Harvard as an example (because they had to publicly release their admissions data as part of a court case): 

    • For an incoming class of about 2,000 acceptances, about 8,000 Harvard applicants per year received a perfect 80 out of 80 on their Academic Index (a calculated input to the final Academic Score).
    • These 8,000 applicants are the upper part of the approximately 24,000 applicants with “strong” academic scores.
    • The acceptance rate for applicants with “strong” academic scores was only 13% in 2019. The number of applications submitted is about 50% higher now than in 2019. So, the admit rate today for strong academic performers is probably around 9%.
    • Interestingly, admits with “strong” academic scores makeup only 75% of the student body. That means that roughly 25% of students at Harvard, while above the academic bar, got in without being “strong” academic candidates.

    The moral of this story is that it takes something else, on top of excellent grades, to get admitted to a highly selective school. (Spoiler: it’s non-academics, but let’s delve deeper into the academic data before we show you how to use this fact to your advantage.)

    Harvard academic admissions data — understanding just how excellent you need to be (see next section for more cheerful news)

    This table from the Harvard litigation shows how admitted vs. rejected applicants did on a range of academic metrics. (Note that these numbers don’t include students with special circumstances, such as legacies, athletes, children of faculty, and major donors.)

    The chart shows how hard it is to get admitted, with only about 1,500 applicants per year admitted out of a pool of over 32k applicants per year. That is, Harvard rejects over 31k applicants every year. 

    Now let’s look at how these groups (admitted vs. rejected) did on their APs.

    Admitted students:

    • took an average of 6 AP tests (at the time they applied; not including those from senior year), and
    • scored an average of 4.6 on those tests (out of a possible 5). 

    How did rejected students do? They:

    • took an average of “only” 4 AP tests (by the time they applied), and.
    • scored an average of “only” 4.3 on those tests.

    Our brilliant analysis: you need to take a lot of AP tests (we suggest 6!) and get basically all 5s on them for the best chance of getting into Harvard and other highly-selective schools.

    Note that APs are one place where the Academic Context piece comes into play. That is, if you could've taken far more than 6 APs at your school by this point, the college will note that you could have taken more. Alternatively, if you took fewer APs because those courses weren't available, colleges will consider that context.

    Next, let’s compare these AP results to how applicants scored on Harvard’s academic index. (Again, Harvard’s “academic index” is a calculated input to the final Academic Score. It reflects your GPA (and potentially class rank), SAT scores (if you submit scores), and Top two SAT2 scores (same). 

    We can also look at the academic index percentiles:

    This table shows that having stronger academics — while they tend to help students get admitted — aren’t the end-all-be-all. If Harvard only admitted those at the top of its academic index, then the “admit” number here would be 95%. That’s because 5% is 2,000 accepted of the 40k applicants in this case. But their actual admitted students are only, on average, at 72%. (But keep in mind that average here is the average of a lot of exceptional applicants.)

    Harvard “personal score” data — or, how most applicants trip up on their essays, and this is how you can get into your academically “reach” schools

    Assuming you’re reading this article as a junior or senior (or parent of), there’s not a ton you can do about your academic scores. (Though again, whatever you can do academically, do. Academics certainly matter, and the more recent a good score, the more it will help you.)

    That being said, there’s a lot you can still do at this point to get yourself into the admits, whether you’re an academic star or merely “pretty great” academically (ie: above the bar):

    • Academic stars: You need to increase your only ~9% chance of getting into Harvard; you need to distinguish yourself from all the other academic stars applying.
    • Academic “pretty greats”: You need to pull off a slightly bigger miracle and get into the group of 25% of admits who get in despite not having “strong” academics (by Harvard standards - to be clear, your academics still need to be “strong” by normal standards). 

    In either camp, what do you need? No surprise, it’s great essays. Or, to be more technically precise, a great personal score. 

    We’ve analyzed the Harvard data to show that strong essays can improve your chances of admission by a factor of 10. We highly suggest you read that article, as it shows you how much that’s not in any way an exaggeration, but a stark reveal from the Harvard admissions numbers.

    For our purposes here, though, we can summarize it: Essays aren’t about showing off pretty writing skills. They’re your chance to get a high “personal” score as admissions officers evaluate your application. 

    Your personal score roughly measures your grittiness, uniqueness, contributory tendencies, and/or intellectual curiosity. You could call it your character. We call it your ability to succeed in college and beyond.   

    The personal score is mostly assessed via essays (as well as the Activity List, interviews, and recommendations). 

    Most applicants don’t write essays with this view in mind — they think that they should “tell their story,” and let admissions officers get to know them in a friendly way. They’re not selling their character. 

    That’s why the Harvard data showed that, out of 3 categories (academics, extracurriculars, personal), a high score on “personal” was the rarest in the applicant pool: only 1 in 5 applicants earned a high personal score. However, almost 75% of admitted students had a high personal score. 

    In a nutshell, earning a high personal score is more important than earning a high academic score. And you can do it with the right essays.

    Feeling inspired? A great place to start is at our College Essay Help Center

    More articles on Prompt.com’s admissions-boosting methods:

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