Holistic College Admissions

Have you heard of the term “holistic college admissions"? First of all, let's ask Google to define the term “holistic":

… characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.

Huh? Say what? Let's try again by asking Merriam-Webster:

… relating to or concerned with complete systems rather than with individual parts

Ah, now we're getting closer.

As it applies to college admissions, then, “holistic" means that admission committees look at the overall applicant, not just his or her individual components (GPA, class rank, rest scores, high school schedule, etc.). It's a kind of Big-Picture assessment of what an applicant might bring to a college's student body.

An analogy of holistic admissions might be looking at a mountain. We see peaks and valleys, maybe even snow and glistening ice, in one magnificent vista. What impresses us less acutely might be the bare, brown spots on the lower slopes that were hit by a forest fire. Or, perhaps, we don't pay too much attention to the surrounding landscape, which might not contribute to the appealing image before us.

You may have a decent grasp on holistic admissions by now. So what's the big deal, you want to know. Well, I started a thread on the College Confidential (CC) discussion forum entitled The truth about 'holistic' college admissions, and so far it has generated almost 500 responses. Obviously, this is a hot-button topic for more than a few people.

I'd like to give you the thrust of the article that started my thread and then sample some comments from the highly active (and opinionated) CC forum audience …

The article is an op-ed piece from the Los Angeles Times by former admissions officer, Sara Harberson: “The truth about 'holistic' college admissions." Here's its provocative thesis:

" … has holistic admissions become a guise for allowing cultural and even racial biases to dictate the admissions process?" Plus:

“Without more transparency, holistic admissions can become an excuse for cultural bias to dictate a process that is supposed to open doors."

Those are the matches that lit the firestorm on my thread. For your consideration and information, here are some of the informed (and perhaps not-so-informed) comments from CC posters:

– Absolutely yes.

– A well balanced, truthful article from an admissions personnel at UofP. I agree completely with her. Transparency is key. Schools need to publish % accepted for each applicant pool and their test scores and GPAs, not just by race but also by tag – athletic, legacy, development etc. …

– The trouble with holistic admission, whatever the rationale, is that it is all fuzzy logic, too much subjectivity. It puts too much power and control in the hands of a few admissions officers and leaves most applicants feeling completely powerless. Most people don't like to feel powerless and not in control of their destiny, no matter how hard they work. If the schools do not become more transparent in their process, they will always face this kind of discrimination suits, and these suits will not go away, they will only intensify. …

– I see some supporters of HA here who continue to dismiss any claims of bias, but at the same time are opposed to greater transparency. Seems if there were no bias, Harvard wouldn't hesitate to show us the data. The fact that they wouldnt give the impression they are hiding bias, that perhaps it's as bad if not worse than what many already thought. Can't have it both ways.

– Not assuming anything about As-Ams; I've defended their strengths and bemoaned the way they refer to their group(s.) I find nothing wrong with tennis, violin, research, and Saturday Chinese school. Nor with an essay about granddad immigrating. As long as it's made relevant to a college app review at a highly competitive college.

– I think too much of the attention is on the kids but in reality it is a parenting issue and not certainly every parent is at fault. This grooming for Stanford, MIT, Caltech and the Ivy League schools minus Cornell starts way before high school. In my area we have 4 STEM public high schools, one of which is normally ranked in the top ten of all high schools in the country. All of middle school is dedicated to getting in those schools. In certain communities the kids are vacuumed into this process of nothing but school for years and years.

– Admissions should be about ***the individual,*** always. I thought this is what “holistic" was– allowing for an individual whose profile is lopsided, does not fit a mold, etc. to be offered admission. Some day, I too have a dream: we will be judged by the nature of our character, as the Rev. Martin Luther King had said. Not today, but we can dream. …

– In favor of race blind admissions!!!

– I would like to stress the concept of “Perhaps the people who run these elite schools that everyone is so anxious to get into actually know more about what they are doing than you when it comes to admissions."

– Asian-American admissions officers seem to make up just over 20% of the admissions staff at Stanford, where the percentage of Asian-American students is just under 20%. How is that out of whack?

– … You don't get in because you're first in line, have dreamed of the school since you were 4 (yeah, right,) your parents want it, because you studied and studied for the SAT, or even because you claim a certain “passion." You increase your chances when they see you are the whole picture they want and need. That's not rocket science and shouldn't be treated as such. …

– This thread is interesting in so many ways. Two factions emerge, one couching protectionism of the status quo under various guises, such as too many of one race focused on too few colleges, scores and GPA's not being the be all, end all, etc. etc, while the other having the misguided notion that college admissions should reflect the American ideal of a true meritocracy. Elite colleges have no such noble intentions, They are instead focused on the democratization of the pathways to influence and power.

– Re: standardized tests … The standardized tests are basically checks against excessive grade inflation or lack of rigor in high schools. Colleges that are test optional can free ride on the use of the tests by most applicants and colleges, particularly if the high schools are known. …

– Here's a little unscientific data review. I took a look at the CC results threads for Yale this year. I counted up the reporting applicants who identified as Asian, and then categorized them as STEM or non-STEM (mostly based on intended major, but on ECs if major wasn't listed). There were 26 Asian applicants, and 16 of them appeared to me to be STEM students. Interestingly, the ratio of admitted/rejected (or waitlisted or deferred if there was no RD report was different depending on intended major: Admitted: 7 STEM/6 non-STEM Not admitted: 9 STEM/4 non-STEM. Obviously, it's too small a sample to say anything definitive, and the group could also be self-selecting in some way (obviously, people who are admitted are way more likely to report than those who are not).


I did some further research on holistic admissions and found an interesting article on the U.S. News site: 3 Holistic College Admissions Trends to Watch. The sub-heading states: “At some schools, getting into college is about more than just high school GPA and test scores."

Here are some excerpts:

1. Tasks that highlight skills that are crucial in college: While the revised SAT intends to more closely align its content with the realities of high school and university classrooms, institutions like Bard College have redesigned their entire application to the same end. The Bard Entrance Examination requires four 2,500-word essays, a letter of recommendation and an official transcript. …

2. Application portfolios that mold themselves to the uniqueness of students: Holistic admissions practices have previously allowed applicants to opt out of tests like the ACT and SAT. Bennington College's dimensional application, however, represents a new realm of flexibility for students.

The Dimensional Application has no required documents. Instead, it asks applicants to build a portfolio that demonstrates their academic achievement including their creation and revision processes, classroom and community involvement and their writing skills. …

3. Videos that expand communication options: The ability to write well is critical to success in higher education, but so is strong verbal communication, as well as a sense of initiative and purpose. If you find writing to be challenging but you excel in other areas, trends like Goucher College's video application are for you. …

Interesting material. I encourage you to read the entire article for some key insights on holistic admissions.


Well, you've heard from a bevy of CC posters and sampled some trending aspects of HA. What's your opinion? Feel free to rant, pontificate, or inform in the comments box below. I'd love to hear what's on your mind.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.