What are Holistic Admissions?

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

What are Holistic Admissions?

Most of the country's highly selective colleges and universities have holistic admissions, 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 a GPA or SAT scores.

Colleges with holistic admissions 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.

The admissions folks at the University of Maine at Farmington describe their holistic policy well, so I'll share their words here:

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.

Keep in mind that even with holistic admissions, colleges will admit just those students who they think will succeed academically. At the most selective colleges, admissions officers will be looking for interesting applicants who also have high grades and standardized test scores.