An Insider Look at Holistic College Applications

Editor, Carnegie Communications

If you couldn’t tell from our Ask the Experts section, here at CollegeXpress, we love hounding higher ed insiders for their admission insights. So when we heard about Doris Davis, a 30-year veteran of the admission game, we had to talk to her! She shared some of her top tips for making college applications stand out, because when it comes to the Common Application, you want to be anything but common. The key is thinking about the application they way admission counselors think about it: holistically.

Membership in the Common Application is only open to schools with a holistic application review policy, meaning they consider applications in a more comprehensive way, beyond test scores and GPA cutoffs, seeing them as a whole. Schools look at variety of factors to determine which students to admit, considering whether the student is a good overall fit for the university and, just as important, if the school is a good match for the student.

Schools take a broad approach to reading applications, Davis says, and the more students understand that, the better. It allows them to tailor their applications. Most students think about their application as a “technical” document with discrete parts: personal info, family education history, GPA, test scores, recommendations, etc. “But they really need to think about applications holistically,” Davis says. Admission counselors are “reading a book about you,” and students need to think about the kind of impression admission counselors are creating in their minds while doing so.

With each application question and each facet, ask yourself, “What do I want the admission officer to know about me?” Davis says. “That may help you to decide [what] to write about and how you want to present yourself.” For example, the Common App requires a writing sample and at least one recommendation; before picking which sample to submit and which person to ask, students should try to understand what the admission counselors might glean from that selection.

So think about your applications holistically, consider each section, and approach them with some of these additional insights from Doris Davis.

Slow and steady wins the race

You may be busy with classes, extracurriculars, and the like, and the college search and application process are like adding a part-time job to your schedule. But “don’t look at it as a race to the finish line,” Davis says. Take your time and have others review your applications before you send them.

The Common Application goes live on August 1, and students might wait until September or October to check it out, thinking they have sufficient time before November and January due dates. But to complete a more thoughtful and effective application—to consider it holistically—students need to start their applications well before those deadlines roll around, Davis says. “They don’t realize how much time it takes until they are deep into it,” and by then, it may be too late, she says. That harried dash to the end is then reflected in the final product.

Students should complete their applications seven to 10 days before they’re due, Davis says, giving them time to review the final product before letting it go. It should be your best work, not a rush job.

Write it right

A section of the application that is both required and terrifying to many applicants is the personal essay. How do you pick a topic that both honestly captures your personality and demonstrates how you’ll fit into the campus community? The essays that have stuck with Davis are the ones that felt “cathartic for the student,” she says. “You can tell in reading it that the student dug deep.” They confront personal issues that can be painful, tragic, funny, pertaining to everything from realizations to sexuality to religion to history.

Davis’s general recommendation is “write an essay that no one else can write” because no one else feels or has experienced this situation or topic. That will likely lead to a more effective personal essay. And for students who think they have nothing of merit to write about, that they’ve led a “normal” life: “That’s not true!” Davis says. “Give yourself time to think about your life.” Thoughtful essays demand more time of their writers, but the extra time and effort is worth it, as they also carve a space in admission counselors’ memories.

You must be mistaken...

Then, there’s the bane of every admission counselor to ever review a stack of applications: sloppy mistakes. Even though it’s a document, college applications represent an important first impression, and nothing spoils that impression like careless mistakes and grammatical errors. “Pay attention!” Davis says. “Take your time.” Set aside time to review your applications, and turn to people you trust (parents, older siblings, teachers, mentors, etc.) to get a second set of eyes. Don’t profess your love for the school in your application either, Davis advises. Not only does it reveal little about you as an applicant (other than perhaps your affinity for brownnosing), but too often students mistakenly send reused applications and personal essays to the wrong school. “That application is you,” Davis says. “It will be what speaks for you to admission officers.” And you want to portray intelligence, responsibility, and eloquence—not sheer laziness and thoughtlessness.

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