Holistic College Admission

Excelling Holistic College Admissions Process: A Guide

  • Dec 27, 2021

If you've taken a look at the undergraduate admissions site for any of the top colleges/universities, chances are high that you've come across the term 'holistic' admissions process. In this article, we shall discuss the meaning of holistic in a college context and guide you towards excelling in a holistic college admissions process.


The Meaning of Holistic in a College Context

Simply stated, a holistic admissions process is simply one that tries to look at the whole applicant and not reduce them to a mere test score or GPA. If a college has holistic admissions, the school's admissions officers consider the whole applicant, not just select pieces that make up the whole person. Colleges with a holistic admissions policy are not simply looking for students with good grades. They want to admit interesting students who will contribute to the campus community in meaningful ways.

Under a holistic admissions policy, a student with a 3.9 GPA might be turned down while an award-winning guitarist with a 3.0 GPA might get accepted. The student who wrote a stellar essay might get preference over the student who had higher ACT scores but a bland essay. In general, holistic admissions take into account a student's interests, passions, special talents, personality, college essays, and recommendations, among others.

The admission officers are far more interested in who the student is and what he/she can bring to the campus community rather than how they scored in a standardized test. 


Factors Considered Under Holistic Admissions

Most of us would agree that it's preferable to be treated as a person rather than a number. 

However, with top schools rejecting 80-95% of qualified applicants (as determined by GPA and SAT/ACT scores), there is enough credible basis to be uncomfortable with the process. To make you more acquainted with the holistic admission process, and help you prepare better, here are some factors to keep in mind.


  1. GPA and Test Scores: They may not be the only thing colleges look at, but GPA and test scores do matter. It’s important to note that unless you’ve faced significant adversity or other circumstances that may have prevented top performance in these areas, your chances of admissions will be significantly hurt by poor grades or scores. That being said, the great part about holistic admissions is that it does take into account things like illness or exceptional personal situations that would harm academic performance, and does not punish otherwise strong candidates for circumstances outside their control.
  2. Academic Record: Your record should show that you're the type of student who takes on a challenge rather than shies away from it. To be a competitive applicant, it’s important to take challenging courses throughout high school, including AP, IB, and Honors classes when available. It will portray you as a student capable of rising to challenges and managing a rigorous course load.
  3. Extracurriculars: Admission officers tend to look for students who have passion or talent in an area and have dedicated large amounts of time or held leadership positions in extracurricular activities pertinent to their interests. It displays qualities of leadership, dedication, and intellectual curiosity, all the qualities that will be advantageous to any student. An important rule to remember with extracurriculars is quality over quantity.
  4. Letters of Recommendation: Recommendations are very important in the admissions process as they provide not only evidence of exemplary academic performance, but exemplary character and a desire to learn as well. Also, because recommendations are written by outside parties and students are not officially allowed to view them (at least through the Common App). For this reason, it’s necessary to form strong relationships with faculty at your school or leaders of organizations you’ve worked with in order to ensure your recommendations are highly favorable and convincing.
  5. Essays: Personal essays are an enormously important facet of admissions because they are inherently the most personal part of the application. Make sure your essay presents your personality, your sharp mind, and your writing skills. Essays are the best way to show the admission officers who you are and what you care about, and why you’re an excellent fit for their school. So it's crucial to write effective essays to be a competitive applicant at your top choice school.
  6. Interview: Many colleges and universities require students to interview, often with an alumnus of the school. Interviews are given relatively little weight in considering a student’s application, although a disastrous interview can hold significant consequences for your chances. It’s important to demonstrate strong communication skills and interest in the school in your interview, so it’s recommended that you research the school and plan answers to possible questions beforehand. 
  7. Other Factors: In addition to the factors mentioned above, there are also a few holistic measures that are not under your control. Most colleges work to enroll a group of students whose diversity will enrich the campus community. "Diversity" here is defined in broad terms: socio-economic background, race, religion, gender identity, nationality, geographic location, and so on. Legacy status can also play a role in the admissions process, and you obviously have no control over whether or not your parents or a sibling attended a school to which you are applying. 


The Importance of "Tag"

Since extracurriculars and/or specific diversity characteristics may not be enough to distinguish a student during the application process, it's important to have a "tag". Distinguishing students by personality is the answer to giving them the best possible chance of being admitted to even the best schools. 

The best tags are those that are genuine and unique and display the personality of the students. For example, she is the one who pulled that kid out of a burning train, or he is the boy who got a standing ovation on American Idol.

So think out of the box and do something outside of the mainstream to earn a tag that can help you with the holistic admissions process!


The Pros and Cons of a Holistic Review

Just like there are two sides to a coin, there are both pros and cons of the holistic college admissions process. 

The upside is that all students have a chance at the admissions, no matter what their GPA or test score is. Students who contribute to the overall health and vitality of campus are selected and allowed to excel in what they're best at. 

However, the holistic review can also promote bias, secretiveness, and distrust because it is easy to hide the real reason for rejections behind the word holistic, which raises questions about the fairness of the process. 

Do you want to know more about making the right choice for your college and career?
Book a Free One-on-One consultation with a career expert.

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