Preparing for College

Holistic Admission Trends

What's with this so-called "holistic" admissions process that colleges brag about? First of all, what the heck does holistic mean? Well, let's look for a dictionary explanation: The Free Dictionary (my go-to Web word-definition resource) describes holistic as "Emphasizing the importance of the whole and the interdependence of its parts. Concerned with wholes rather than analysis or separation into parts. As in holistic medicine and holistic ecology." Okay. Well then, how does this apply to college applications and the admissions process in general?

The key to understanding holistic evaluation of college applicants is to first ditch the concept that test scores are the Holy Grail of getting in. How often have you heard a high schooler say something along the lines of, "Oh, I could never get into X University because my SATs suck"? That kind of statement betrays a non-holistic understanding of what is becoming a more and more prominent trend in college admissions today: looking at the overall applicant, not just one leading aspect of his or her profile. To that, I say, "It's about time!"

Let's take a look at what some people in the know have to say about the holistic evaluation trend. There are few down sides.

First of all, here are some comments from "The National Center for Fair and Open Testing," as their tagline proclaims.

More Colleges, Universities Downplay Admissions Tests

As another college application season gets underway, five more schools have announced policies that deemphasize ACT and SAT scores in the admissions process. Ithaca College, the College of Saint Rose, Lees-McRae College, and William Jewell College all became test-optional. The University of Rochester is now test-flexible.

Ithaca College (IC) in upstate New York ranks among the top ten regional schools in the northeast. A statement on the test-optional decision explained, “[R]esearch on our past applicant pools and the performance of IC students demonstrates that a student's standardized test score adds little predictive accuracy in understanding his or her subsequent success at Ithaca College." Interestingly, Ithaca College President Tom Rochon, who approved the plan, previously led the Graduate Record Exam program at the Educational Testing Service . . .

So, as you will see from the additional examples cited in the Fair Test article, test scores aren't everything at every college. This should be good news for those of you who think that your scores "suck."

Scott Jaschik, writing in Inside Higher Education notes in regard to "How They Really Get In":

Most elite colleges and universities describe their admissions policies as "holistic," suggesting that they look at the totality of an applicant -- grades, test scores, essays, recommendations, activities and so forth.

But a new survey of admissions officials at the 75 most competitive colleges and universities (defined as those with the lowest admit rates) finds that there are distinct patterns, typically not known by applicants, that differentiate some holistic colleges from others. Most colleges focus entirely on academic qualifications first, and then consider other factors. But a minority of institutions focuses first on issues of "fit" between a college's needs and an applicant's needs.

This approach -- most common among liberal arts colleges and some of the most competitive private universities -- results in a focus on non-academic qualities of applicants, and tends to favor those who are members of minority groups underrepresented on campus and those who can afford to pay all costs of attending . . .

So, how do you see yourself holistically? Chris Peterson, in his MIT blog article, In Praise Of Holistic Admissions, offers these thoughts:

This leads me to another point I'd like to discuss, which is the importance of the idea of "holistic admissions." We have a holistic admissions process here at MIT, and we talk about it a lot. But what does it mean? Why do we have it? And what does it do for our class?

When we say that we have a holistic admissions process it essentially means that our admissions process takes into account many different factors, and that we understand that it is the interaction of these myriad factors which constitutes the applicant. We deploy "holistic" to differentiate against admissions systems which only consider so-called "objective academic data" (and I am air-quoting so hard I might sprain a knuckle) in their admissions process.

Sometimes, holistic academic processes are criticized as being misguided. "Academic merit", it is suggested, should be the sole dispositive factor controlling the admissions process . . .

. . . In fact, in a certain sense you could say that our job, as an admissions office, is emphatically not to admit the "best students" to MIT, but rather to admit those applicants who will become the best MIT students. We are selecting the right mix of ingredients from which MIT graduates will be produced. This is why, incidentally, David put so much emphasis on making the most of your opportunities. Because we don't care about what you've done so far as much as we care about what you're going to do at MIT.

As Booker T. Washington wrote:

"Success is to be measured not so much by the positions that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles one has overcome trying to succeed."

The idea is best understood with a metaphor drawn from my favorite sport of football:

MIT isn't the end zone.

It's where you get the ball when you start the next drive.

Finally, this poster in an interesting College Confidential discussion forum thread offers this insight regarding holisticism (I like that term, which I may have just coined):

If you're looking for a more holistic admissions process, I would suggest looking at liberal arts schools. They typically get fewer candidates and tend to spend more time reviewing each candidate's application. If you are not stellar when it comes to stats but have a lot to offer as a potential student, you would most likely benefit from a fourth or fifth reading of your app (which, again, if I'm not mistaken, happens frequently in admissions at liberal arts colleges) . . .

So, here's my bottom-line advice about seeing yourself as a prospective college applicant: Look at your global self. Try to see the whole you. Think whole-istically, so to speak. Don't let those imposing SAT/ACT scores intimidate you, assuming that you have other aspects to offer a college's student body.

Don't take a hit on your self-esteem just because your "numbers" aren't what you think they should be. So-so test scores don't make you a bad person!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.