What Is Holistic College Admissions and Why Is It Important?

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    Colleges with holistic admissions try their best to evaluate each applicant as a complex individual. Rather than focus exclusively on SAT scores, class rank, and high school GPA, holistic college admissions consider additional factors, such as personal statements, supplemental essays, extracurricular activities, student potential, and college letters of recommendation.

    While high school GPA and standardized test scores still play a large factor in the admissions process, it is also important to note that — given the rising popularity of test-optional colleges — holistic admissions are now more important than ever. 

    Colleges want to curate an interesting, diverse student body. This is why college admissions officers are interested in what you have to say about your passions and hobbies. Ultimately, colleges want to admit unique, capable students who will be active, both inside and outside of the classroom. That said, be sure to highlight your interests and personality in your college applications.

    What are holistic admission factors?

    So what do college admissions officers look for in an applicant at holistic admissions colleges? Or, in other words, what does a holistic admissions process take into account? There are lots of factors to consider. Most notably, these factors include:

    As you can see, some of these factors are hard factors (such as grades and test scores) and some are soft factors (such as passions and interest). 

    It’s important to note that all factors are not considered equal. Whether or not you receive admission will depend a lot on the specific school and its goals and mission statement. 

    Tips for assembling a holistic college application

    Grades and test scores are not the only factors considered at holistic colleges. There are lots of other factors to consider. This is why it is important to complete your college applications carefully and thoroughly. Commit yourself fully to each aspect of the application.

    Personal statements and supplemental essays

    Take extra time to polish your personal statement and supplemental essays. Overall, these essays are your best chance to communicate who you are and what you care about. 

    When you write your college essays, try to infuse your language with a greater sense of your personality. In other words, write the way you speak. Now is not the time to show off your SAT vocabulary. Instead, focus on showing college admissions committees who you are, what you care about, and how you think. 

    It’s also important to avoid overused college essay topics. Again, your personal statement is your best opportunity to stand out and leave a lasting impression. So try your best to be creative and authentic.

    Letters of recommendation

    Carefully consider who to ask to write your college letters of recommendation. Ideally, you want to submit personal, highly-detailed letters. Ask someone who knows you well, both inside and outside of the classroom. While teachers are often an obvious choice, it’s okay to think outside the box. You could ask a coach, a mentor, or an internship supervisor.

    Letters of recommendation help increase the credibility of your application. In other words, admissions officers want to see that you have people willing to recommend and endorse you as a candidate. They add another dimension to your overall application and help communicate how you are perceived by others. This is especially important when trying to assemble a harmonious incoming class.

    Extracurricular activities

    Colleges want to admit students who pursue their passions outside of the classroom. They want to admit students who will be involved and engaged in their community. This is why your extracurricular activities list is so important.

    Perhaps the most important factor to consider in regards to extracurricular activities is consistency. In other words, college admissions officers want to admit students who fully invest themselves in their passions. Therefore, a student who has participated all four years in an extracurricular activity and holds a leadership role in the club or organization will stand out more than a student who has been involved in a handful of clubs but hasn’t really committed to any one of them. 

    The importance of cultural diversity

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    Cultural diversity must be properly represented in our colleges and universities. In the case of college admissions, diversity may refer to racial background, socioeconomic status, life experiences, personal identities, cultural influences, and more. 

    Colleges want their students to learn and grow alongside one another. By fostering greater cultural awareness, colleges aim to promote tolerance, provide more balanced access to higher education, as well as help enact social change. After all, education is an equalizer. But only if it can be accessed by all. 

    Holistic admissions help admit capable students who may otherwise be overlooked, largely due to their low-income or minority status.

    What is holistic college admission?

    At this point you may be wondering, what does “holistic admissions” mean? Or perhaps more specifically, what is “holistic review”? While the general concept may seem straightforward, let’s look at a formal holistic admissions definition. 


    The Supreme Court defined the term “holistic review” during the 2003 court case Grutter v. Bollinger as a “highly individualized review of each applicant’s file, giving serious consideration to the ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational environment.”

    In short, holistic review allows colleges to consciously admit diverse students without fear of legal repercussions.

    What does a holistic review look like?

    Colleges are eager to assemble diverse, vibrant student bodies. This is easier said than done, however. Schools with holistic admissions admit students according to their individual college mission statements; often these include a desire to foster a greater sense of cultural diversity.

    While grades and test scores are hard factors, soft factors — such as student potential and passion — are very subjective. Therefore, to standardize the holistic review process, colleges often employ various models regarding how they review applications. That said, what is a holistic admissions process and what does it look like?

    In the past, one college admissions officer may have reviewed a student’s application by themself. The holistic review admissions process, however, often involves several college admissions officers. For example, one admissions officer may review the application and then offer a recommendation, while a second admissions officer makes the final decision. Another process may involve two admissions officers making a recommendation and if their recommendations match, a decision is made; if not, a third admissions officer makes the final decision.

    Successfully practicing holistic admissions policies often involves employing diverse admissions panels and offering cultural awareness training. While some colleges have proudly been practicing holistic admissions for over a decade, some colleges are just starting.

    Who benefits from holistic admission?

    The holistic admission process primarily benefits two types of students: students applying to highly-selective colleges such as the Ivy Leagues and students who — for any number of reasons — do not necessarily test well or otherwise have a strong academic background.

    Students applying to selective colleges often compete with other equally-qualified students. If the majority of applicants have impressive GPAs and SAT/ACT test scores, how do colleges decide who to admit? The answer is through holistic admissions. Personal statements, supplemental essays, student interviews, college letters of recommendation, and more help students stand out from their peers when applying to Ivy League colleges. 

    Holistic admissions also benefit low-income and minority students because they consider passion and potential. In other words, a college admissions committee may ask: If this student had access to the right resources, would they be successful? If the answer is yes, college admissions committees may choose to offer this student admission. 

    The rising popularity of test-optional colleges

    The rising popularity of test-optional admissions has reignited an ongoing debate over the fairness of standardized testing. It has also, in many ways, increased the importance of holistic admissions and the many factors they take into account. Many believe that the SAT test and ACT tests give preference to students with privileged backgrounds while discriminating against low-income and minority students. 

    The reasoning behind this is two-fold: Many claim that the actual test material — i.e. the topics, reading passages, questions, etc. — is biased towards privileged students. The other factor is financial. While wealthier students often have the opportunity to retake exams, employ a tutor, and purchase SAT and ACT study guides, many low-income students do not have these luxuries. In fact, for many, taking the SATs or ACTs once may be a financial burden.

    One of the primary objectives of holistic colleges and holistic review is to create more access to higher education. Cultural diversity is not only academically enriching, but it is also necessary. Students need to be presented with diverse values, opinions, and lifestyles to become responsible, globally-minded citizens entering the workforce.

    Moving forward and key takeaways

    If you began reading this article wondering what is holistic admissions? hopefully, you’ve gathered some insight. Basically, as you assemble your college applications, do your best to complete each section carefully and thoughtfully. Additionally, keep in mind the various factors considered by holistic review colleges. 

    If you are struggling with any part of the college application process, or feel you could benefit from professional attention, reach out to learn more about our services. Similarly, if you are set on attending an Ivy League college, many students work carefully alongside a college counselor as they prepare their college application materials.

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