What are Holistic Admissions?

At Selective Colleges, Admission Is Based on More than Grades and Test Scores

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A holistic admissions process considers the whole applicant, not just grades and test scores. Donald Iain Smith / Getty Images

Most top colleges and universities in the United States have holistic admissions. Grades and test scores matter (often a lot), but the school wants to get to know you as a whole person. The final admission decision will be based on a combination of numerical and non-numerical information.

What are Holistic Admissions?

You'll frequently hear admissions folks talk about how their admission process is "holistic," but what exactly does this mean for an applicant?

"Holistic" can be defined as an emphasis on the whole person, not just select pieces that make up the whole person.

If a college has holistic admissions, the school's admissions officers consider the whole applicant, not just empirical data like one's GPA or SAT scores. Colleges with a holistic admissions policy are not simply looking for students with good grades. They want to admit interesting students who will contribute to the campus community in meaningful ways.

Under a holistic admissions policy, a student with a 3.8 GPA might be turned down while an award-winning trumpet player with a 3.0 GPA might get accepted. The student who wrote a stellar essay might get preference over the student who had higher ACT scores but a bland essay. In general, holistic admissions take into account a student's interests, passions, special talents, and personality.

For an example, the admissions folks at the University of Maine at Farmington describe their holistic policy well:

We're far more interested in who you are and what you can bring to our campus community than how you happened to score on a high-pressure, high-stakes standardized test.

We look at your high school achievements, your extracurricular activities, your work and life experiences, community service activities, artistic and creative talents, and more. All the unique, personal traits that make you ... you.

When we review your application we take the time and care to get to know you as an individual, not as a number on a score sheet.

Factors Considered Under Holistic Admissions:

Most of us would agree that it's preferable to be treated as a person rather than a number. The challenge, of course, is conveying to a college what it is that makes you ... you. At a college with holistic admissions, all of the following are most likely important:

  • A strong academic record with challenging courses. Your record should show that you're the type of student who takes on a challenge rather than shies away from it. Your GPA tells only part of the story. Have you taken advantage of AP, IB, Honors, and/or dual enrollment courses when they were an option for you?
  • Glowing letters of recommendation. What do your teachers and mentors say about you? What do they see as your defining characteristics? Often a teacher can describe your potential in a way that is useful to colleges considering admitting you.
  • Interesting extracurricular activities. It doesn't matter so much what you do, but that you have a passion for something outside of the classroom. Depth and leadership in an extracurricular area will be more impressive than a smattering of involvement in numerous activities.
  • A winning application essay. Make sure your essay presents your personality, your sharp mind, and your writing skills. If you are asked to write supplemental essays, make sure they are carefully tailored for the school, not generic.
  • Demonstrated interest. Not all schools take this into consideration, but in general colleges want to admit students who will accept the offer of admission. Campus visits, applying early, and crafting supplemental essays thoughtfully can all play into demonstrated interest.
  • A strong college interview. Try to do an interview even if it is optional. The interview is one of the best ways for the college to get to know you as a person.

There are also a few holistic measures that are not under your control. Most colleges work to enroll a group of students whose diversity will enrich the campus community. "Diversity" here is defined in broad terms: socio-economic background, race, religion, gender identity, nationality, geographic location, and so on. It's not unusual, for example, for a Northeast college to admit a student from Wyoming or Hawaii over an equally qualified student from Massachusetts in an effort to diversity the student body.

A Final Word About Holistic Admissions

Keep in mind that even with holistic admissions, colleges will admit just those students who they think will succeed academically. Your grades in college preparatory classes will be the most important piece of your application at nearly every college. No extracurricular activities or essay will make up for an academic record that fails to show that you are prepared for college-level work. The SAT and ACT are typically a bit less important than your academic record, but there also it will be hard to gain admission to the country's top colleges if your scores are significantly below the norm.