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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brooks, Ph.D.


Understand that the Academic Index is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient - Post #8 of 21

Elementary Kids Playing Chess

When I began considering the possibility that my kids might apply to elite colleges, both everything I read and everything I heard was a maddening, nebulous jumble of contradictory opinions. But I did have an advantage. My kids were not born yet and I had time to formulate a plan! I had another advantage as well: as a high school teacher of both English and History honors classes, every single year during December I was privileged to be visited by a variety of my former students, Christmas visitors fresh back from the promised land.

I got to hear all about how their freshman college fall had gone at their elite university. These returners were taking a victory lap among the unwashed masses--which disappointingly includes me--at their old, passe high school. Over time these visits morphed into a systematic learning opportunity. I began interviewing these triumphant returners. Eventually a pattern emerged: my victory-lap students who had been admitted to top-30 schools had unanimously found the experience definitely worth all the trouble. These returning students who came to visit around Christmastime during my free period would regale me with stories of their new block of amazing, certainly-lifelong friends, with academic experiences so wonderful they were almost surreal, and sometimes with news of their engagements to amazing people they had met at college. And man, the job offers seemed to come to these elite students from every direction. Playing chess daily in our fun chess club for kids against monstrously talented kids keeps my brain eternally overactive in a very good way. Attending a top-30 institution may do something of the same sort. The business and social and marital connections made while slogging together as a team through their sometimes amazing, sometimes brutally-challenging elite courses could last a lifetime.

So how to get in? If all the prerequisites described in the earlier seven posts of this blog--such as participation in fun afterschool chess or other highly intellectually stimulating programs--are firmly in place, you are ready to launch into the freshman year of high school. The first thing to understand is the humbling, cold reality that regarding every, single, top-30 institution, a computer will heartlessly slice 94% of the applicants off during the first pass. The sheer numbers of applicants necessitate this. Unless your mom is a Czech oligarch or your dad is a Saudi sheik, you, my friend, are destined for the scrap pile of applicants who never understood the odds. That is, unless you have a plan.

These days, elite colleges hire admission consulting firms who do all this algorithmic dirty work for them. Interestingly, these companies are categorized as college employees in order to comply with federal privacy laws. I am going to oversimply this process and generate made-up numbers to make my point. I will allow myself to approximate and generalize because you and I both know I am no expert, only a two-time Georgetown dad who taught honors English and honors History for twenty years. All I have to offer are my personal observations. Moreover, I can only approximate the specifics because every college is slightly different, every applying class is different, and every year’s economy and global health status varies widely. Mainly, the demographic needs of each of the top 30 universities fluctuate from year to year: if last year’s admitted students were light on women or Arizonans or Iranians, that is relevant to who they admit this year. Basically, these consulting companies take the 30,000 applicants and apply an algorithm that spits out a digestible, manageable number of applicants to be considered by their respective college admissions committee. Each elite college dictates to the consulting company how many applicants they actually want to scrutinize. For example, if the college wants 5000 new students, it will request from the consulting company the top 7000 applicants, and within this smaller pool, the more detailed selecting will occur.

So that means that for my oldest and middle kids who applied to Georgetown, I understood that the first step toward gaining admission was simply to get them in the door. Becoming a top-7000-applicant finalist is job one, and frankly it is very different from job two—personal charisma—which will be treated later in this blog. Job one, or phase one of admission, basically pits a score that I will call the “Academic Index Score” (AIS) against the AIS of all other applicants in a given year’s applicant pool. You literally have to beat out tens of thousands of kids at this stage. And never forget, the AIS is, sadly, simply a number, an academic index score that combines your GPA with your ACT/SAT score and your AP scores and your class rank and the reputation/track record of your high school.

The posts to follow will detail exactly how to get these important numbers as high as possible, but for now, in this blog post that simply introduces the very concept of the Academic Index Score, let’s dwell for a moment on the big picture. Here it is: Mother Theresa, Albert Einstein, and Claude Monet would stand no shot today getting into an elite college. None whatsoever. Mother Theresa’s amazing essay about her work with the poor and her documented miracles would never get read. Einstein’s amazing recommendations from his high school physics teacher who raved about how Albert taught the class as a student would never be seen. Monet’s attached portfolio of tearfully-exquisite artwork would never get viewed. Without a nosebleed-high GPA and a far higher ACT score, they would be relegated to the gargantuan scrapheap of rejected candidates.

I read internet sources and blithe, flippant blogs all the time that contradict this, but in my opinion, these articles are simply writers writing what readers want to hear. No one wants to read about how a robot will soon cut their daughter out of Berkeley. Yet that is the cold reality. So “absolutely necessary, but not at all sufficient” is how to view grades and test scores. And that being said, the following posts will dissect exactly how to engineer a path toward elevating each element of the Academic Index Score.

For now, let’s do a fun exercise to flesh this out. The University of California system is one of the most prestigious college networks in the world. Getting into UC Davis, Riverside, UCLA, etc., and, especially Berkeley are all very, very challenging. I know this from personal experience because both my college kids applied to UC Berkeley, and one was offered admission to be a Cal Bear among the sequoias overlooking the bay, and one was not offered admission. What was the difference? What was the process? Below is a (really quite rare) statement by the UC system explaining the thirteen characteristics they look for in applicants. The University of California statement is in green, and my reaction is in white. Let’s begin this fun exercise:

UC statement: The following criteria provide a comprehensive list of factors campuses may use to select their admitted class. Based on campus-specific institutional goals and needs, admissions decisions will be based on a broad variety of factors:

1) Academic grade point average in all completed A-G courses, including additional points for completed UC-certified honors courses.

Translation: A-G means UC rigidly demands courses in all academic fields, not just some; my middle child took an online AP Art History course during his senior year simply to satisfy the UC “G” requirement for art, which he had not been able to take in an AP format at his own high school because they offered no honors art courses to kids with no art talent, and honor courses are all he ever took. Such determination and extra-curricular high school academics is impressive to colleges, and this additional senior-year AP course on my middle child’s college application helped him receive his full scholarship plus travel to NYU and also admission into Georgetown. Note that right off the bat UC declares the value of honors courses and their absolute centrality and primacy to any successful application.

2) Number of, content of, and performance in academic courses beyond the minimum A-G requirements.

Translation: What do they mean by “number of?" They are saying not to take early dismissal or late arrival or study halls or anything that reduces the sheer number of academic courses. What do they mean by “content of?” They are saying never, ever take a non-academic course like “Basket Weaving,” “Home Economics,” or “Shop.” Take impressive, challenging honors and AP courses and honors or AP electives, and nothing but challenging courses. What do they mean by “performance in?” They mean: make “A”s. And remember that transcripts these days show the alphabetical AND the numerical grade, so the higher the “A,” the better, for sure. All 99s in all-honors courses over four years would get you into Harvard, no doubt.

Smart Elementary Chess Friends

3) Number of and performance in UC-approved honors and Advanced Placement courses.

Translation: They are saying, for the second time, that the more honors and AP courses you take, the better chance your Academic Index Score will beat out your 20,000 competitors. In other words, only take AP and honors courses, and only ace them, period. I had one child who did this and was admitted to Berkeley, and I had another who also did all this, just the same, ranked 1/492 at the end of their freshman year, with 14 AP courses and 9 additional honors courses on their transcript, and they were still not admitted to Berkeley. That is how selective this process is.

4) Identification by UC as being ranked in the top 9 percent of their high school class ("eligible in the local context," or ELC).

Translation: Class rank matters. Interesting factoid: because weighing class rank in the admissions formula radically penalizes the scholar-athlete who, like my middle child, spent four years in non-honors courses like “Varsity Soccer,” top-tier colleges these days have moved to viewing class rank by deciles. Decile rank simply means whether your child is in the top 10%, top 30%, or whatever. Being in the top decile is an absolute requirement. An interesting note here is that while both students and colleges cannot determine the exact class rank of an applicant these days, taking all honors courses makes it clear as day to colleges that if class rank were still displayed on transcripts, then your child’s rank would be very high.

5) Quality of a student's senior-year program, as measured by the type and number of academic courses in progress or planned.

Translation: 95% of seniors phone in the senior year and this is very telling to colleges that the student is not intellectually curious. Deeper translation: Do not take “early dismissal” or “late arrival,” no matter how many credits you have already earned over the number required for graduation. Do not take easy courses in the senior year. Do not take non-honors courses in the senior year. Both my kids had a six-course wall-to-wall block of impressive AP courses in each of their respective senior years, and I believe this was a major determinant in them being Georgetown Hoyas today. The UC system is point-blank warning you about this right here on their website. Do not ignore them. Interesting note: Once you secure an offer of admission from your dream school, you are fine to make one or two “B”s that senior year. Relax and live a little, but DO NOT drop a class once admitted, because all colleges do a final check and they will ask for a reason if your pattern of excellence alters too much.

6) Quality of their academic performance relative to the educational opportunities available in their high school.

Translation: If your high school only offers two AP courses, take them both. If your high school offers twenty, take twenty. They want to see that you took a hard load relative to the other kids. An all-honors course selection for all four years checks this box and actually checks every single box. This also illuminates the fact that if you attend a high school that offers only a limited number of AP courses, then UC understands that you are attending a high school that is not one of the best in your state. My kids forwent opportunities for free prestigious Catholic private school and free Alabama School of Fine Arts so they could attend a high school that offered four times more AP courses than either of these did. Colleges will never admit to it, but my gut feeling is that attending a school with a vast array of AP courses is an important element in their calculus.

7) Outstanding performance in one or more academic subject areas.

Translation: IF AND ONLY IF your Academic Index Score allows to you move to phase 2 of their process, THEN AND ONLY THEN your expertise in physics or history as demonstrated by teacher recs and state championships will be a major plus.

8) Outstanding work in one or more special projects in any academic field of study.

Translation: IF AND ONLY IF your Academic Index Score allows to you move to phase 2 of their process, THEN AND ONLY THEN your outstanding work in physics or history as demonstrated by teacher recs and state championships will be a major plus.

9) Recent, marked improvement in academic performance, as demonstrated by academic GPA and the quality of coursework completed or in progress.

Translation: I am afraid I have to tell you that this is simply not true of top-30 universities like Berkeley. It would be true, however, of some of the less-competitive UC schools. Slacking for two years and then getting organized in your junior year of high school, if I am to be absolutely candid, is impossible to overcome if you are shooting for an elite school. My child who was not accepted to Berkeley had a final cumulative GPA of 4.65, which is astronomical, and they had all the other elements necessary as well, and they were still rejected. A GPA dashed in the freshman and/or sophomore year by a poor performance cannot be salvaged, and this fact needs to be emphasized to the child long before the freshman year. From a college’s perspective, the freshman year grades are as important as the eighth-grade year grades are completely meaningless. Moreover, statistically, regarding the cumulative GPA, low grades during the freshman year can never be mathematically reversed and will forever keep that GPA out of “stellar range,” so freshmen must take great care to baby that GPA. Berkeley has too many kids applying who never slacked at all to admit someone who at the eleventh hour got their act together.

10) Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student's promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus.

Translation: UC is referring to awards such as state chess championships earned based on earlier afterschool chess programs, but these help IF AND ONLY IF your Academic Index Score allows to you move to phase 2 of their process. THEN AND ONLY THEN your talents, achievements and awards in a particular field will be a major plus.

11) Completion of special projects undertaken in the context of a student's high school curriculum or in conjunction with special school events, projects or programs.

Translation: UC is referring to activities such as high-school interning in afterschool chess programs or some other such activity, but what they really mean is that IF AND ONLY IF your Academic Index Score allows to you move to phase 2 of their process, THEN AND ONLY THEN your special projects will be a major plus.

12) Academic accomplishments in light of a student's life experiences and special circumstances.

Translation: IF AND ONLY IF your Academic Index Score allows to you move to phase 2 of their process, THEN AND ONLY THEN your accomplishments in light of a student's life experiences and special circumstances will be a major plus.

13) Location of a student's secondary school and residence.

Translation: Demographics matter. Some years your dream school needs applicants from Connecticut, some years it needs applicants from Oregon. It depends on the applicant pool. Your zip code also matters. Since top-30 schools seek to admit a wide swath of people from all demographic groups, having a zip code that the IRS and U.S. Census Bureau designate as “less affluent” can, in some cases, significantly help your application.


So there you have it, my interpretation of what UC is actually saying when they describe what they are after. Now with an acknowledgement of the indispensability of a stratospheric Academic Index Score firmly in place, the upcoming posts will tackle the tough, real questions: how each of the individual constituent components of the AIS can be perfected. And one more time, I will repeat the obvious: always remember that the Academic Index Score—high grades, high ACT/SAT scores, high AP scores, high class rank—are absolutely, indispensably necessary, but they are far, far from sufficient; they are simply the first hurdle in an Olympic race with eight hurdles. Clear this first hurdle—raw numbers—or the whole thing is for naught.

See you soon for Post 9: Perfecting your Academic Index element one: How to get high grades throughout high school and beyond.


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