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Articles / Applying to College / Holy Holistics, Batman!

Holy Holistics, Batman!

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 8, 2015

I started a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum entitled “3 Holistic College Admissions Trends to Watch.” It has inspired some spirited parsing among the regulars there. I thought that today’s post might inform those of you unfamiliar with so-called “holistic” admissions about a rather unusual approach used by some colleges to select their incoming classes.

First of all, as you will see from the forum posters’ quotes that I will cite below, there are varying definitions of the holistic admissions approach. For the sake of clarity, allow me to give you my definition.

I see holistic admissions as a willingness by the admissions committee to consider The Big Picture of its applicants and not just make decisions based on some stringent, fundamentally quantified benchmark(s). In other words, applicants who, in the view of their holistic evaluators,  have more going for them than just sheer numbers (SAT scores, class rank, GPA, etc.) stand generally as much chance for admission as those stellar “quantified” applicants do.

Of course, as you’ll see below, this leads to the argument that mostly “lesser” colleges market their holistic approach in order to inspire more applicants so that they can, in turn, deny more applicants and, thus, increase their selectivity, appearing to be more competitive and hopefully rise in those subjective rankings. Granted, this view is pretty much cynical and may or may not reflect the true intentions of the “holisticians,” as I call them.


So, to further enlighten (or confuse) you about holistic admissions, here’s a selection of sometimes-cogent comments from that CC forum thread:

– I think this is a wonderful trend. Surely the students who can do well on these type of applications are those that have skills to be successful in college and in life. (I’m probably a bit biased, though, as the parent of an incredibly intelligent student whose high school transcript did not really reflect her abilities or likely success at college… )

I do, however, see potential for this sort of application to get abused. I can just see affluent parents providing funds for services that write, direct, coach and polish a video application or portfolio.

All in all, though, I’m glad for the increasing trend towards holistic admissions. I realize it cost the colleges much more since each application requires so much more time to evaluate – but that seems so much better than just accepting/rejecting applicants by the numbers.  

– To me, “holistic” means — amazing stats, amazing rank….and then something extra and holisticticky on top of that.

But i’m feeling cynical these days.  

– I’m surprised that people are saying this isn’t a trend or even go as far to imply that it is a negative thing. Almost every college I visited in the college fair said “We use holistic admissions,” so I doubt it’s just a fad.

Comparatively, I would ask those who oppose holistic admissions how they would feel if we used a completely meritocratic system like China or most of Europe? In my opinion, the current system that we have is a good thing. In many of those other countries, students are not encouraged to explore extracurriculars because they take time away from studies. And things such as essays and recommendations can be a big indicator of one’s character and personality, which I think is just as important in forming a class.

Being CC users, I am sure you have come across those who have excellent grades and test scores, but have a self-entitled personality (ex: I came across a user who said “I will milk the system for all its worth”) and those who have come across incredible adversity to get to where they are, despite having slightly below average test scores. In my opinion, holistic admissions can help close the education gap by taking into consideration things such as first generation students, learning disabilities, low-income backgrounds, other talents, and important personality traits that are an indicator of success outside of just grades and test scores.

I have no doubt there are those out there that could still “play the game,” but from my experience, essays are much more difficult to “coach” and admissions officers are good at sniffing out whose work has been heavily edited. And if we switched to simply grades test scores, one could argue that test scores can be a result of heavy “coaching” as well. Holistic admissions, at least, takes into account multiple factors.

Going into college, I had very little appreciation for this, but now that I am in college I have a huge appreciation for how the admissions committee tries to bring in a class of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. I have met people who have had revolutionary impact on the communities they came from, people that are fluent in 4 or more languages, people who came from inner-city schools where the majority don’t even think about college, and those who have triumphed despite living with a learning disability and being raised by a single mother. I am constantly learning from them. All of that is worth more than grades and a test score, I think.

– It all comes down to the Amercan ideal of the well-rounded student. Personally, I sometimes wish schools wouldn’t be quite so holistic. I have a very quiet daughter who, while happy to participate, doesn’t want to be a leader and join clubs. Yet she feels compelled to because she knows that most competitive colleges view ECs as important. Meanwhile, she works her bottom off to do well in school and is very intelligent. She spends a lot of time reading and doing solitary things,,though she is active with her group of friends. Don’t colleges want quiet kids who listen? Does everyone have to be a leader? I am not trying to be negative, but the holistic thing doesn’t necessarily make life fairer for everyone. I know my D is in the minority, but no college would look twice if she wrote “book reading” and “coding as a hobby” on her application.  

– … yes, elite universities expressly DO want quiet kids who listen. She just needs to show her impact on her community in a quantifiable, objective way. If she is coding as a hobby and is very prolific or very detailed/deep, a portfolio of her hobby projects (especially one that has been judged by an outside authority, e.g. city-wide hack-a-thon, so that the AdComs don’t have to sift through it, but can trust an award or other outcome), and a list of books she has read and the impact they have on her thinking are explicitly acceptable (thinking “maker portfolio” for MIT and “List of books you have read” for Harvard). I do not think universities want ‘leaders’ per se; the elite, more ‘liberal’ ones want independent thinkers and people who make a difference and an impact on their community- the larger that community (and the better-verified the impact), the better.

If she is quiet, stays to herself, and does not impact the world around her, then she may not be as attractive to admissions officers.

I just don’t get how these new approaches will better tease out these traits than current methods.  

– I don’t think this is a new trend, either. I think candidates were viewed holistically even back when I applied in the Dark Ages. The test optional trend is new, but not holistic review. And as has been noted, it is a mixed bag. I don’t want colleges, at least not ALL colleges, to pick students based on test scores, but I do want to have an idea of what criteria they use. I don’t want it to be so mushy it can’t be analyzed, and I certainly don’t want it to be used to keep out racial and religious groups.  

– I’m opposed to “leadership” in the sense that most HS students try to demonstrate it. Getting elected president of a club is nothing more than a charisma/popularity contest; it doesn’t demonstrate you can actually DO anything, or get other people together to do anything. What, for example, does the captain of the varsity football team do to “lead” above and beyond what the coaches are already doing?

Real leadership is the ability to get people to contribute their efforts in a productive way to something that you simply cannot do by yourself. Roger Waters making The Wall, Terry Gilliam making Brazil, Bert Rutan making SpaceShip One, LBJ getting the Civil Rights Act passed – that’s real leadership, and it’s just not the size of project HS students can reasonably lead on.

Yet schools are asking our children what clubs they started, what leadership positions they held in them. “I was President of the Spanish Club.” So? What special qualities about your character is that supposed to convey to an admissions officer?

I think exploring your interests, and putting a lot of time and effort into developing yourself, is incredibly important – and if someone is doing that as a teen, great, and if they haven’t much of it yet by the time they graduate, THAT’S OKAY. What the * do we expect of teens anyway? They are not adults who simply have more recent birthdays, we should not hold them to such standards.  

– And look, you can say that relying purely on objective criteria isn’t the right approach either, but I think people should be aware that there are benefits and drawbacks to either method (and I’m speaking as someone who fared pretty well within the holistic framework).  

– Do people really believe that these policies are put in place to help applicants?

No, they are to help the colleges build the class they want. That’s no mystery and, sorry, but it’s no freaking hurdle to a savvy kid. What people miss, I think, is that with tens of thousands of qualified apps, (can you imagine days of reading solid 4.0?,) just being tops in your hs or your stats isn’t enough to distinguish you.

At the most selective schools, the holistic process seeks to identify competitive students who also bring a number of ANGULAR attributes that separate them from the pack of equally qualified applicants.

Unfortunately, not even angular. Many, many top stats/rigor kids never stretch in other ways. Sometimes what distinguishes one from another is ordinary stretching.

And there is nothing wrong with an Asian kid playing violin. C’mon.

– FWIW, Williams College also uses a 2 part academic and non-academic rating system:

The details of the Academic Rating System are here:


The details of the non-Academic Rating System are included in

the published paper:

Students choosing colleges: Understanding the matriculation decision

at a highly selective private institution

Economics of Education Review, 2012  

– >>And there is nothing wrong with an Asian kid playing violin. C’mon.<<

There is nothing wrong with an Asian kid, or any other kid, playing the violin. However, what people don’t seem to get, even though it’s explained lots of times, is that many kids (and many Asian kids, in particular) play the violin. If you want a highly selective school to be impressed by your violin playing, you have to be a very impressive violin player. Being first chair in your high school orchestra doesn’t cut it. Being first chair in your county honors orchestra probably doesn’t cut it. How much time you practice and what you sacrifice to your practicing time is irrelevant. Did you win a major violin award? Were you on “From the Top?” Something like that might get you noticed. Just being a good violin player won’t, because there are plenty of them.

I will add that if you are a poor kid who played a crummy violin from a pawn shop, and still became a good player, that might get noticed, too–but it’s not really because of your violin-playing, but because of your ability to overcome obstacles.

And a point about leadership. While I think selective colleges like demonstrated leadership, what I think they are really looking for is demonstrated personal achievement, especially outside the high school (as xiggi notes). There is no reason an introverted kid can’t have plenty of personal achievements. For example, if you are an artist or writer, you can enter your work into competitions–winning some will be an achievement.  


And so it goes. Take holistic admissions or leave it. You make the call.


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

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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