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Holistic Admissions: The Meaning and Reasons

Attend any information session delivered by admissions employees at any competitive college or university and you’re almost guaranteed to hear that application review is a “holistic” process. That’s a fancy word, isn’t it? Welcome to college! The home of fancy words!

Holistic means emphasizing the whole big picture of a person instead of just a few factors. In theory, this definition feels like it would be a really positive thing. But what does that really mean in admissions? Isn’t admissions really just based on numbers and scores? You’ve been stressing out about grades and SAT scores for years. So how much do they really matter?

Despite the fact that most college search resources continue to post the average GPA and SAT scores of admitted students as key criteria, most colleges are actually saying that those two numbers are only a couple among many factors considered.

Shaping a Class

Something you may not know: Admissions offices are tasked with shaping a class. This job doesn’t always align with the assumption that applicants with the strongest academic record are offered. Depending on the institution, criteria varies and most certainly the weight of each factor varies too.

Some institutions may need to increase enrollment in certain majors. As such, they’ll make it “easier” for students to be offered if they request that major. Some institutions may really want to beef up their budding athletic program. As a result, those student athletes may get a boost in the admissions process. Similarly, other universities might be working towards a more balanced enrollment by gender or an increase in racial diversity.

For some, this is a tough pill to swallow. We desperately want to use a “if I get X GPA and Y SAT then I will be admitted” model. The process just doesn’t work that way. The UCLA Admissions website does a nice job with explaining how a holistic review process works in their office.

Other Kinds of Diversity and Variety

In addition to shaping a class to meet institutional needs, universities also want to create a class of students with varying backgrounds, interests, and talents. They want their campus filled with active and engaged learners. They want students to be able to learn, not just from their professors, but from each other.

RELATED: SAT Adversity Score Will Lead to Impersonal Admissions

The Center on Education and the Workforce recently conducted a study examining what would happen if the top 200 colleges began making admissions decisions based solely on SAT score. Surprisingly, the results indicated that 53% of students currently admitted would be excluded. That’s a huge number! It also reported that those institutions would become much less diverse — a valued characteristic.

Holistic Review Factors

These are some commonly cited “holistic review factors”:

  • High School GPA
  • Strength of Curriculum
  • SAT/ACT Scores
  • SAT II Scores
  • Essays
  • Teacher/Counselor Recommendations
  • Demonstrated Interest
  • Internships
  • Research Interests
  • Work Experience
  • Volunteerism
  • Class Rank
  • Interview
  • Geography
  • Race/Ethnicity
  • Athletic Ability
  • Leadership
  • Personal Qualities
  • Portfolios/Auditions
  • Veteran Status
  • First Generation Status
  • Legacy
  • Other Factors

The degree of importance for each factor will vary from school to school. To get an idea of which factors, in general, may be the most valued, check outa survey conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


Importantly, holistic admissions can be really frustrating. You want to be able to predict your chances of admission and a holistic process makes that much more difficult. It also makes it much easier for admissions offices to explain what may seem like outlying admission decisions. But here’s the catch: Admission is never a guarantee for anyone. And admissions offices don’t have to explain their decisions. Ultimately, the only thing guaranteed is that if you don’t apply for admission, you won’t be considered or offered.

So, finally, if an institution interests you, take the risk and apply. Above all, the holistic process allows colleges and universities to consider each applicant’s record as a whole. Your piece of the puzzle could help shape the desired class.

What do you think of schools using a holistic admissions review process? Would you rather it be based on just scores and grades? Do you feel it can help or harm your chances of admission at your dream school?