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Articles / Applying to College / Test-Optional Admissions Bring Holistic Reviews to Center Stage

June 25, 2020

Test-Optional Admissions Bring Holistic Reviews to Center Stage

Test-Optional Admissions Bring Holistic Reviews to Center Stage

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Many rising high school seniors are going to find a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic when they apply to college this fall: an increased emphasis on holistic admissions. This is a result of the growing movement by colleges of all competitive levels — yes, even the entire Ivy League — to incorporate a test-optional policy with their admission requirements.


Dropping their stipulations that applicants submit standardized test scores from the SAT or ACT means that now students who choose to eschew them will be evaluated on their overall demonstrated academic and extracurricular performance alone. Standardized tests have grown increasingly controversial over the years, alleged to be biased against certain demographic minorities, plus recent scoring issues and pandemic-related administration snafus have cast further shade upon them.

Referring to applicants' "demonstrated performance," former university president Michael T. Nietzel comments on the momentum:

These decisions show that the test-optional movement continues to pick up steam, as had been predicted after the role fraudulent standardized testing was proven to play in last year's college admissions cheating scandal.

That scandal reignited the test-optional fire by revealing the outsized role of standardized tests in competitive admissions and by revisiting data that question the added predictive validity provided by such tests compared to student's high school performance.

More Colleges Adopt Test-Optional Policies

The test-optional trend is sweeping the nation. Fairtest.org reports that currently, almost 1,300 colleges and universities no longer require the SAT or ACT as part of their application process. Thus, that silver lining shines on those pending college applicants who are otherwise superb college candidates but not world-class standardized test takers. These students will be the beneficiaries of holistic evaluation during their admission processes.

Quoted in Spreading the Word on Test Optional, Holistic Admissions, Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Kristin Tichenor commented on the benefits of allowing high school students to decide whether to include SAT and ACT scores in college applications. She noted how WPI's faculty made the bold decision to support a test-optional admissions policy after three years of intensive study and data analysis. WPI then became the first nationally ranked science and engineering school to make SAT and ACT scores optional. This decision greatly enhanced the value of holistic assessment.

Tichenor explained that admissions professionals at WPI and other universities consider a student's success in high school, the rigor of their course of study, their extracurricular accomplishments, their recommendations, and their personal statement. She said WPI admissions officials look at the qualitative elements of an application before looking at the quantitative elements like test scores so the scores do not bias their review. "This is what is referred to as holistic admissions," she explained ...

One of the better-kept secrets in higher education was the high degree of influence standardized test scores had on admission decisions. Before the test-optional era, admission staffers meeting with students and parents at the end of campus tours would proudly tout their "overall" approach to evaluating applications when, in fact, their "overall" (a.k.a. holistic) approach was much more skewed toward test scores than they would admit. How things have changed.

The Basics of Holistic Admissions

For the benefit of rising seniors who will be entering this fall's college admissions arena, let's take a closer look at what a holistic evaluation process involves. Google defines the term "holistic" as being characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole. Merriam-Webster more clearly explains it as relating to or concerned with complete systems rather than with individual parts.

As it applies to college admissions, then, "holistic" means that admission committees look at the overall applicant, not just their individual components (GPA, class rank, test scores, high school schedule, etc.). It's a kind of big-picture assessment of what an applicant might bring to a college's student body.

In an op-ed piece from the Los Angeles Times, former admissions officer Sara Harberson tells "The truth about 'holistic' college admissions," which could possibly diminish the brightness of that silver lining:

" … has holistic admissions become a guise for allowing cultural and even racial biases to dictate the admissions process?" Plus:

"Without more transparency, holistic admissions can become an excuse for cultural bias to dictate a process that is supposed to open doors."

While perhaps somewhat provocative, Harberson's contentions are still fair, in my view, especially in light of the court battles and strong debates happening today regarding affirmative action and diversity. While the holistic approach to admission offers definite advantages to a large segment of applicant pools, it does, like almost every enterprise, have a potential for corruption. Think Varsity Blues, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.

In the realm of holistic admissions, probably the boldest example comes from Bennington College with its Dimensional Application, which represents a new realm of flexibility for students. It has no required documents. Instead, it asks applicants to build a portfolio that demonstrates their academic achievement, including their creation and revision processes, classroom and community involvement, and writing skills

Here are some excerpts from the booklet Bennington applicants use to guide them through the creation of their portfolios:

We invite you to share with us a collection of your work that reflects your capacities and creates a portrait of what you might bring to the Bennington community. We invite you to be deeply thoughtful. We invite you to be bold. We invite you to bring your own dimension to the college application. And we look forward to receiving it.

A DIMENSIONAL APPLICATION demonstrates your readiness to meet the demands of a Bennington education, including:

The capacity to design an inquiry, to perform research, to create and revise work, to engage with others, and to communicate your work to the world.

Intrinsic motivation: The wherewithal to continue when things are hard. A tolerance for ambiguity and a facility for collaboration. Aesthetic sensibility and cultural sensitivity.

- SELF-DIRECTION

- SELF-REFLECTION

- SELF-RESTRAINT

TELL US WHAT MATTERS

Consider how you wish to demonstrate your academic achievement over time, your writing ability, your contribution to your classrooms and your community, and your capacity to make and revise work. Portfolios, research you designed or experiments you engineered, reflective and analytical writing, transcripts, letters of recommendation — all and more are welcome

Bennington's Dimensional Application is for students who want to do more than respond to a set of given prompts. It is an opportunity for you to individually curate an application for Bennington, to create a compelling portrait of your academic achievement, and to demonstrate, in your own way, your potential to enrich, and be enriched by, the Bennington community.

Applications should demonstrate your academic achievement, writing ability, contributions to the classroom and community, and your capacity to make and revise work. While students may choose to do this in very different ways, standard elements of a college application — portfolios, original research, reflective and analytical writing, transcripts, letters of recommendation — are all acceptable and welcome

How I wish that I'd had the chance to apply to college like this. The Dimensional Application may be the ultimate holistic approach to college admissions. Even the Common Application lends itself to holistic review, thanks to the test-optional status, which is a true advantage for applicants.

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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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