What Are Holistic Admissions?

By:  Stuart Nachbar *

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Families of college-bound seniors have no doubt heard the term “holistic admissions” many times. Families of sophomores and juniors will be hearing it more and more often as they build their lists of schools and plan college visits.

Holistic admissions means that admissions officers consider the “whole picture” of a student’s application. This includes not only grades and test scores, but also essays, recommendations, academic and extracurricular interests–and often times financial need. Admissions officers tell prospective applicants that admissions are holistic to encourage them to apply, even if a number, especially standardized test scores, might fall short. At a less selective school, holistic admissions can be used not only to admit a student, but also to ready that student for their academic program.

What else, besides a desire to attract applicants, has made admissions holistic?

An exceptionally selective school attracts more applicants with high grades and test scores than they can possibly admit. The numbers may be only the first cut. The next consideration is: what can this person add to our community? Does s/he have a special talent? Does s/he help the academic, cultural or geographic diversity of the class? Did s/he show something in their essay that demonstrates that this school is an ideal fit? Holistic admissions helps to whittle down a very strong applicant pool.

Another concern is that colleges do not want to be known as institutions driven by numbers. Numbers do not provide a complete picture of a student’s abilities and tell nothing of a student’s personality. Then there are the questions of the predictive values of high school grades (especially at a poor-performing high school) and standardized test scores.

How does an applicant succeed within a holistic admissions process?

Through academic achievements and well-written essays that show an authentic voice (as opposed to those that try to guess what an admissions officer would like to read). Students can be proud of their achievements in the essays that ask for a discussion of them, though they should not use the written word to proclaim superiority.

How is this process likely to change in the future?

The very good to excellent schools will continue to be selective. More and more flagship state schools are becoming more selective as well. So holistic admissions is likely to continue, although essay questions and interview requirements (if any) may change.

The greatest change, will be that more schools will be “need aware.” They will be more likely to deny admission to students who rank in the lower half of their applicant pool if their financial needs are substantial, greater than the college will be able to meet. This will have the following  impacts:

Students in the lower half of a class are likely to be students whose families can pay close to the full sticker price.

Students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds will need to present academic credentials closer to those of their more advantaged classmates. Admissions officers face a tough question: admit on potential or on the likelihood that a student will succeed based on past performance? Since they will be under more pressure to admit a class that is more likely to graduate, they are likely to lean more towards proven success.

Is the holistic admissions process fair?

There are different ways to look at this. One is that yes, it’s fairer to consider candidates based on more than just grades and test scores, especially when you cannot admit everyone who wants to come to your school.

The other way to look at this is: why do applicants need to do the extra work to apply to such schools? There’s a point when an admissions office realizes that there is one essay too many, or the questions that are become hard enough to scare prospective applicants away.

The process is also fair when the data is used to help admitted students. Imagine a school that offers admission and sufficient aid that also sends invitations to accepted students take part in extracurricular activities they mention on their application. Or invites them to live in a learning community around their intended major. The more personal the approach taken by the admissions office, the more likely it will fill the class.

Holistic admissions have their pluses and minus. But they are here to stay.

* As founder of Educated Quest, Stuart Nachbar provides personalized college, transfer and graduate/professional school admissions advisory services to help students and parents make the best-informed decisions their future education. Having worked around higher education for over three decades as an admissions advisor, author, urban economic development professional and senior-level software marketing executive, he knows the “inside baseball” about how colleges do business. Stuart holds a BA and MBA from Rutgers University, a Master of Urban Planning for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Certificate in College Admissions Counseling (with Distinction) from UCLA. He and his wife, Carol, live in Central New Jersey.