The Academic Index (AI)

Thirteen years ago, Michelle Hernandez, a former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College, wrote her groundbreaking work on the selective school admission process, A is for Admission.  The book contained a revelation about the existence of the academic index that is used prominently by seven of the eight Ivy League schools to rate applicants. The Academic Index factors in:

  1. The average of your highest SAT math, critical reading, and writing scores (or your ACT score, which can be easily converted into an SAT score.)
  2. The average of your 3 highest SAT Subject tests
  3. Your Converted Rank Score (CRS), which is your class ranking (rarely available); percentile (top 10% or 5% of class); or by GPA.

If you’re feeling up to the task, you can calculate your AI at: and gain a sense of where you stand.

 The highest score is 240. A candidate would attain this score if she scored a perfect SAT (or ACT) 80 (each section of the SAT is given an 80 and then divided by 3); the average of her 3 highest SAT subject tests was 800-80; and her class rank was either first in a class of 300, or a GPA of 4.3+. A score of 230+ would translate to the highest level of any of the scales used below.  To give you a sampling of how various schools index:

  • Dartmouth uses a 1-9 scale, with “9” being the highest score
  • Harvard uses a 1-6 Scale, with “1” being the highest
  • Yale uses 1-4 scale with “1” being the highest
  • Cornell does not use an AI, rather it has professors evaluate the candidate’s application

Every student admitted by an Ivy college receives an AI (or in Cornell’s case, something comparable). These admission offices particularly like to use it as a tool to ensure recruited athletes are reasonably close to the league’s median AI. The Ivy League wants assurance that no member of its athletic conference is bringing in candidates that cannot navigate the league’s academic demands.

Now, what do these index numbers actually mean to an admissions office? Taking Dartmouth’s Scale of 1-9 (the highest) as an example, an applicant with an AI of the following might be described as follows:

9 (the highest) top 1% of applicants in the country; characterized with an ‘extreme love of learning’; strong intellectual pursuits both in and out of the classroom; many of these students will become leaders in an academic or intellectual field of their choosing; (Compose 2% of applicants; 94% admitted)

7 ranking: some of the strongest applicants as well, though their motivation is more from competitive energy than a real love of learning.  Though these students are often in the top 2-5%, their motivation might lag when not given proper encouragement by a teacher or class.  (Compose 5% of applicants; 75% admitted)

5 ranking:  impressive performers and strong on paper; rank in top 10% of class; might lack initiative in exploration of subjects outside of class; usually a good student with a solid work ethic; get a sense that their record of achievement is more geared toward getting into the right school.  They’re usually capable of doing college work and contributing to the college (Compose 12% of applicants; 25% admitted)

Below “5”, applicants quickly lose appeal: “1’s,” for example,  are found in the top 40% of their high school class and show little real interest in academic work—not a propitious identity within the Ivy League candidate pool. 

With tens of thousands of applications pouring in each year to many of the most selective schools, there has to be a means to winnow the chaff and quickly compare admission pools. The academic index is such a tool; it distills an academic performance down to a single number, and its days are far from numbered.