What Are Holistic Admissions?

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Most — but not all — American colleges and universities use what is called a holistic admissions process to decide which students to accept. The trend toward using this type of admissions review began only around 15 years ago, and it has been gaining ground since then.

The goal of this method is to assess each applicant as a whole, instead of just a collection of grades and test scores. Of course these grades and tests are still vital parts of the application, but most universities want to see beyond this snapshot and take a better look at the whole picture of who applicants are.

Factors that may be considered in holistic admissions, but are not immediately revealed through your grades, courses, scores, and so on, include:

  • Motivation and overall achievement (including in extracurricular activities)
  • The scope and variety of intellectual interests
  • Background and life experiences
  • Creativity and originality
  • Community-mindedness (as revealed through volunteering, community service, etc.)
  • Special circumstances

For some students, holistic admissions may be incredibly helpful. In a sea of people with perfect GPAs and great test scores, knowing that your other strengths can contribute to the admissions decisions at most colleges may be reassuring. In an ideal situation, a holistic perspective would mean that receiving a couple of less-than-ideal grades may not be a deal breaker, especially if you have special circumstances to explain why you struggled during a particular class or semester.

Unfortunately, nothing is quite as simple or ideal as that. There has been increasing controversy and skepticism surrounding the holistic admissions process — not so much because of what it’s intended to do, but because of its shortcomings and potential for misuse. 

In theory, holistic admissions should contribute to student body diversity, because they take experience and background into account, as well as considering what an applicant may be able to contribute to the college community.

In practice, however, the effect may be the opposite. Sara Harberson, who worked in admissions at two colleges, explores the dark side of the practice in an op-ed for the LA Times, specifically as it relates to Asian Americans. She suggests that holistic admissions may actually lead to less diversity, not more.

Another problem with holistic admissions is that the process doesn’t live up to its own promises, as Jason Willick points out in the Daily Californian. It suggests that the college admissions boards are capable of truly understanding each applicant’s personality — and, just as problematically, that they’re rejecting or accepting you based on who you are. Try to remember that any rejections aren’t based on who you are, even under the holistic system. After all, there’s no way for a college to truly know your personality through your application, regardless of what the trend toward holistic admissions may suggest.

Questions? Let us know!