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An Insider Look at Holistic College Admission

by
Recruitment and Admission Operations Coordinator, Willamette University

Last Updated: May 27, 2020

As you painstakingly complete your university applications—filling out the paperwork, collecting letters of recommendation, documenting your extracurricular activities, and more—you may be wondering how admission officers evaluate these pieces of information. Here, an admission insider explains what goes on behind holistic college application reviews.

Students and parents often ask me as a college admission professional, “What are colleges looking for these days?” I can hardly go to a doctor’s office or dinner without someone saying, “I have a daughter in high school, but it is so hard to get into college; what can we do?” So many students apply to colleges and universities now that some postsecondary institutions must reduce applicants to a GPA and a test score just to manage the number of applications. This can make admittance tough for a student who is stronger in less quantifiable areas, like community service or leadership.

But there are many postsecondary institutions that do not need to and do not want to distill students to a number. These colleges and universities use what is called a holistic approach to application review because they look at all parts of an application, not just GPA and test score.

How the holistic review process works

Holistic application reviews will differ slightly at each institution, but, in general, admission counselors consider six different facets of a student’s profile:

  • High school curriculum
  • GPA
  • Recommendations
  • Standardized test option
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Personal statement/college application essay

High school curriculum review

The first part, curriculum, has two components, the first of which encompasses the courses offered at your high school. Admission professionals have a variety of tools to use when considering the strength of courses, like school profiles that school offices provide, Internet listings, personal experiences from visiting schools, and powerful data analysis programs that determine how strong a school’s curriculum is when compared to others.

Before we go on, I bet I know what you’re thinking right now: “What if my school is not as strong as another high school? Will I be penalized for that?” This is where the second component of curriculum comes into play: admission professionals look at the courses you have chosen relative to the courses offered at your school, not necessarily relative to other schools. If you have taken one honors-level course, but that is the only honors-level course taught in your entire school, you have already made a strong choice for yourself. If you have not taken that one honors-level course, an admission professional may wonder why.

Weighing your GPA

The second part of the holistic review process is how well you did in those courses, represented by your GPA. Again, every postsecondary institution is going to have a slightly different process. Admission professionals will likely start by recalculating your GPA on a 4.0 scale. Some may look at all of your courses, and some may look only at your core academic courses such as your English, math, science, social sciences, and foreign language classes.

You can guess the question I almost always get next: “What GPA do I need to earn in order to get into your college?” Some colleges and universities are looking for a specific number; others may not. Also, in a holistic application review, an admission professional will likely look for trends in your grades, like an upward or downward trajectory, not just the final GPA. GPA will likely still be considered heavily, because success in secondary school is often seen as the best indicator for success in college, but GPA may not be the only factor considered by a university or college using a holistic review of applications.

Related: 10 Tips to Improve Your High School GPA

Standardized tests and your scores

The third part of the holistic review of applications is the standardized test option. This area is similar to GPA in that it is an objective number that a postsecondary institution using holistic review will likely put in context with the other parts of the application. I say standardized test "option” instead of SAT or ACT because there are some colleges and universities in the United States that do not even require a test score. This is a relatively new development and is used to take emphasis off a single test score. Some colleges may have three or four test options. The two most common test options are the SAT and the ACT—standardized tests that determine a student’s ability to think critically and analytically and answer questions in a variety of subjects. The SAT and ACT are the test options still used by most students in the United States.

There are at least two other test "options" that colleges and universities may use, including an interview conducted with an admission professional or a writing sample. Choosing one of these alternative test options allows the student to choose a greater strength if standardized testing is not one of them. Choosing an alternative test option can also be helpful if there is not a nearby SAT or ACT testing center in a student’s city.

Related: All of the Tests! How to Prepare for the ACT, SAT, and More

Your recommendations and what they say about you

The fourth part of holistic review of applications is the recommendation. Most colleges and universities will require a recommendation from a student’s school counselor and at least one recommendation from a teacher in an academic subject. This part of the application can demonstrate a great deal of context. Admission professionals can read about any outlier grades a student may have earned, any awards that a student received but forgot to mention, and any character-informing personal anecdotes that the writer chooses to share about a student. This section also can be useful when a student looks less stunning by the numbers but is an incredibly hard worker or has faced great adversity.

Your extracurricular activities

The fifth part of the holistic review of applications is the extracurricular activities portion, which is a section where a student can showcase what he or she is passionate about. Colleges and universities that take the holistic approach to applications appreciate this section because they can see what a student might get involved with on their own campuses. There are at least four subsections to extracurricular activities on college applications, including in-school activities like clubs, honor societies, elected positions, and leadership roles; out-of-school activities like community service or outside clubs and organizations; sports and fine arts groups; and, finally, paid or unpaid employment or internships. Colleges usually look for the following: consistent involvement with activities over a span of time, a variety of activities, and leadership responsibility with the activities most important to the student.

Related: How Extracurriculars Benefit Your College Applications

Your essay or personal statement

A holistic review of applications could not be complete without considering the essay or personal statement. Here is another area where students can distinguish themselves as more than a collection of numbers and scores. In the application essay, a student can display creativity, clarity, motivations, and goals. Like in the extracurricular activity section, a student can sometimes make up for a marginal deficit in GPA or test scores with the essay. Admission professionals really read applicants’ essays—every single one—so you want yours to truly reflect your own individual personality. Write about what you love, what makes you special and unique. Take a facet of yourself and bring it to life. And you want to make your English teachers proud, because not only are admission professionals reading for content, but they are also reading for grammar.

Remember: Every school has different expectations

Each postsecondary institution that uses a holistic review of applications will associate different relative weights to the parts of the application. Some may even have a few extra sections, such as one for special awards and honors earned by a student or one for any affinity toward the school a student has shown, like requesting information (which you can do through CollegeXpress!) or visiting the campus.

Whether the holistic review of applications is new to you or not, you now have a task in front of you: start thinking about your individual strengths and find colleges that value those strengths. When you apply to colleges that employ a holistic review of applications, where admission counselors look at you as more than just a GPA and a test score, you have a greater chance of being recognized for your strengths rather than any shortcomings.

Need help writing your essay before you send it off? Or maybe you need advice on who and how to ask for your recommendations? We’ve got it all in our College Admission section!

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