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Articles / Applying to College / How Colleges View Applicants

Dec. 20, 2018

How Colleges View Applicants

How Colleges View Applicants
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As December comes to a close, most college-bound high school seniors are pondering their collegiate futures. They're wondering where they will ultimately set foot on campus next fall. They're also wondering what kinds of choices they will have after all admission decisions have been rendered. Juniors are also thinking about college, or at least they should be. Their college processes are already underway, even though they might not realize it, in the form of their academic progress, activities and other aspects as they look toward next year, when they'll be applicants.

Of course, some high school seniors already have the answers to those questions. They're the fortunate ones who have received the green light from their Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) applications. For those who got a thumbs-up from their ED applications, the college process is over. They have committed to enroll if accepted.


The situation is a bit different for EA applicants who got a “Yes!" They have options, if they want to see which other colleges may accept them in the spring. Accepted EA applicants may also be playing the financial aid game, where before May 1 (the traditional deadline for enrollment decisions) they lay out all of their acceptances and see which one has the best combination of aid, academics and other criteria. At that point, they will make their enrollment choices. I think this is a very balanced and reasonable approach.

There is one other question that applicants think about during their pursuit of college. It may be one of the more important questions to consider as you create your applications.

How Will Colleges View Me, Overall, As An Applicant?

Let me generalize (a sometimes dangerous approach) about college admissions. I see two types of colleges: (1) those that take a predominantly objective, numerical -- or quantitative -- approach to evaluating their applicants, and (2) those that seek more subjective qualities by looking at the whole applicant, rather than just a set of impersonal numbers. Large state universities tend toward objective numerical evaluation (test scores, class rank, GPA, etc.) while smaller colleges and more highly competitive universities support their numerical evaluations with “softer" criteria presented by prospects.

I used the phrase “the whole applicant" above. This, then, brings me to my topic for today: “holistic" admissions. Think of it as whole-istic. If you have applied (or will be applying) to one of those smaller schools or competitive universities, then you will most likely be subjected to some level of holistic evaluation. Understanding what that is can be a significant help to you as you put together your applications. In other words, you'll need to put forth the “whole you" for admission committees to see.

I started a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum entitled “3 Holistic College Admissions Trends to Watch," which has gathered over 300 comments and has inspired some spirited parsing among forum members. I thought that today I might inform those of you unfamiliar with holistic admissions about this evaluation approach used by certain colleges to select their incoming classes.

First of all, as you will see from the forum posters' quotes that I cite below, there are varying definitions of the holistic admissions approach. Here's 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 benchmarks. In other words, applicants who, in the view of their holistic evaluators, have more going for them than just sheer numbers, 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. That, in turn, leads to more denied applicants and, thus, increases the colleges' selectivity, and hopefully raises their position in those subjective rankings. Granted, this is a cynical view and may or may not reflect the true intentions of the “holisticians," as I call them.

To further enlighten (or confuse) you about holistic admissions, here's a selection of 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. ...

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. ...

It all comes down to the American 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 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....

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....

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

The details of the Academic Rating System are here...

>>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? ...

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. 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.

Consider Your Place in Holistic Admissions

And so it goes. Make up your own mind about holistic admissions and how it may affect your chances. It can be a controversial concept, and no two colleges are likely to have an identical holistic approach.

I often use the phrase “student profile marketing." In short, that means making an accurate assessment of your best scholastic and personal qualities and then presenting those qualities in your applications. Even if you're applying to one of those large state universities that focus mainly on numbers, it certainly won't hurt to highlight your application with some of those “holistic" personal qualities that other schools appreciate.

The fact is: There's no one else exactly like you, so don't be afraid to tell colleges why you are unique. If you don't do it, no one else will!

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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