What Does “Holistic” College Admission Really Mean?

November 15, 2021

In 1999, Cornell University received just shy of 20,000 applications for a chance to set foot on the Ithaca-based Ivy’s campus at the dawn of the new millennium. Two decades later, nearly 68,000 applicants formally apply each year to the university. UCLA followed a similar pattern, having processed fewer than 36,000 applications in the waning days of the Clinton presidency and by 2021, “enjoying” well in excess of 135,000 applications per year.

Now, if you encountered a graph of this data on an social sciences exam, and were asked to formulate a hypothesis, you might assume that a) there was a population explosion in the United States or b) there was sharp increase in the number of college bound teens; yet, both of these assumptions would be incorrect. Instead, the proliferation of the Common App has streamlined the process of applying to a large number of institutions and the admissions-obsessed mindset that permeates modern life drives students to apply to a dozen or more universities. To quantify this, the percentage of students applying to seven or more schools has more than tripled since the early 90s.

All of this college admissions history is intended to help contextualize the changing meaning of a “holistic” admissions process as we work through the 2021-22 cycle.

The meaning of “holistic” in a college context

There is something about the word “holistic” that triggers curmudgeonly older folks to start grumbling about “participation trophies” and no one understanding the value of hard work anymore. In reality, a “holistic” admissions process is simply one that tries to look at the whole applicant and not reduce them a mere test score or GPA—all factors are considered in an effort to view young people as more than just the sum of their parts. That said, “holistic” does not mean that every component of one’s application is treated equally—there are indeed factors in any holistic process that still carry more weight than others. For example, the fact that you play the ukulele and participated in an oceanography camp in Costa Rica is not going to make up for your 2.1 GPA and poor test scores.

In general, a “holistic” process is going to place tremendous emphasis on your four years’ worth of academic achievement and less on a standardized test you took over four hours. A holistic review usually involves reviewing all of the following:

  • Rigor of academic coursework
  • Any trends (up or down) over the course of your academic career
  • Test scores including SAT/ACT or AP/IB exams
  • How your performance compared to others from your high school (i.e. class rank)
  • What your counselor and teacher recommendations reveal
  • Essays and short response answers
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Special talents and/or passions you possess
  • Special circumstances like disabilities, illness, or family/financial situation

Of course, reviewing all of these factors takes time—time that admissions officers rarely have in sufficient quantities…

How long will an admissions committee spend on my application?

The Wall Street Journal recently spoke with admissions staff at three elite schools – Georgia Tech, Rice, and Bucknell – who discussed how they are dealing with the annual deluge of applications. They shared how many reviews take place in eight minutes or less, with admissions officers working in teams, allowing these popular institutions to process up to 500 total applications per day. Some prestigious schools like University of Pennsylvania can now process an application in 4-6 minutes. It is, however, important to note that rapid speed does preclude an admissions process from being holistic. While a school that spends 20-30 minutes on a single application may end up with a more complete picture of the nuances of what makes a given applicant tick, even time-strapped schools like those mentioned above do their best to touch on all of the aforementioned bullet points.

How much do “soft” factors like recommendations, essays, and activity lists matter?

In a truly holistic admissions process, your recommendations, essays, and activity lists will be given a very thorough read and can even be the deciding factors in the committee’s decision. A holistically-oriented process is critical for two groups of people:

1) Those applying to highly-competitive schools

At uber-selective colleges, where everyone applying has sterling credentials but only 3-20% can ultimately gain acceptance, your Common App essays, supplemental essays, recommendations, and achievements outside of the classroom take center stage. This is simply the only way to differentiate between piles of applicants all boasting 1500+ SAT scores and flawless GPAs in an endless stream of AP courses.

2) Those with low test scores or a blemished transcript

Applicants who have a story to tell need an admissions committee who is willing to lend them an ear rather than just process them through an admissions algorithm. If you had awful freshman year grades, dealt with a difficult parental divorce, or bombed the SAT, you’ll want to apply to colleges more likely to give you a holistic review. Typically, you are more likely to receive this type of consideration at a small liberal arts school rather than a massive state university that is forced to wade through tens of thousands of applications each year.

Test-optional schools

A college’s adoption of a test-optional policy is a telling sign that your application will receive a review that can accurately be classified as “holistic.” Elite institutions such as Bates, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, the University of Chicago, Wake Forest, and Wesleyan all allow for applications to be submitted sans SAT/ACT scores. While these schools may grab the headlines, there are another 900+ colleges in the United States that extend this same offer, even in a non-pandemic year. Of course, during the pandemic, the vast majority of schools have temporarily adopted such policies. As you consider whether or not to submit your scores, you may want to read our blog entitled Should I Apply Test-Optional to College?

Why it’s important to understand holistic admissions

When caught in the storm of the admissions rush, it is easy to think about cutting corners on certain aspects of your application. Some decide not to proofread their activities list a second time and end up with multiple glaring typos in the final version. Others may recycle slight variations of the same “Why this College?” essay over and over, settling for a generic product in order to avoid having to thoroughly research each school and provide unique reasons for why they truly want to attend.

At the end of the day, an increasing number of selective colleges are now rewarding those who go the extra mile as the line between those who are admitted and rejected grows ever more razor-thin.