Looking Under the Hood of “Holistic” College Admissions

Back in the day, many colleges made their admission decisions based largely on a calculation of GPAs and test scores – with a few letters of recommendation and a legacy or two thrown in. Today, most colleges boast about their “holistic” admissions process. The premise of holistic college admissions is that a university wants a range of students – not only in terms of ethnic diversity, but also geographic diversity and diversity in life experience. As a result, college admissions officers review a variety of applicant qualities to shape their freshman class. It’s why, for example, an elite school doesn’t have a class comprised of only 4.0 students or student body presidents – even though their applicant pool would likely make that possible.

A recent report by College Board found that there has been little research into how colleges use non-academic factors (the key to holistic college admissions) in their decision-making process. The report relied on a framework that considered five types of non-academic factors: personality (such as extroversion and conscientiousness), affective competencies (like creativity and confidence), performance (such as teamwork and discipline), attitudinal constructs (like values and adaptability), and learning skills (such as study habits and time management).

The College Board then examined the practices at ten universities, and found that, while academic fit was the most critical factor, almost all used nonacademic criteria in their admissions decisions. Of these, colleges placed the most importance on considering an applicant within the context of their high school and their background. For example, admissions committees took into account the number of AP courses offered, the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, and family income and education. When it came to non-academic factors, colleges most often considered performance factors and attitudinal constructs.

This is where the decision-making process can become problematic. When the qualities that a college seeks can’t or won’t be quantified, the process is subjective. And when the life experience of admissions officers doesn’t reflect the life experience of the applicant pool, implicit and explicit biases can play a role in holistic college admissions decisions. The New York Times reports that Students for Fair Admissions recently filed a lawsuit against Harvard alleging that the institution systematically discriminated against Asian-American students in the admissions process. According to the Times, Asian-American applicants were “consistently rated…lower on traits like ‘positive personality,’ likeability, courage, kindness and being ‘widely respected.’” These are among the key non-academic factors identified by the College Board report.

College applicants are certainly more than GPAs and test scores. The holistic college admissions process creates the potential for universities to build richly woven student bodies that promote tolerance, encourage dialogue, and challenge assumptions. But, in embracing holistic college admissions, universities must have a clear-eyed recognition that everyone has biases and then implement active measures to counteract those biases.

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About the Author:

Sally Smith is a college and scholarship coach who helps families navigate the path after high school. She facilitates in-person and online group workshops, and provides one-on-one coaching on a variety of topics. Sally can help families gain an understanding of the college selection, application, and decision process; pinpoint scholarship opportunities; write effective college admission and scholarship essays; decipher the FAFSA and CSS Profile; gather stellar letters of recommendation; and develop strategies for college entrance testing and test preparation. To learn more about the services she provides and to schedule a free 30-minute consultation, visit https://www.pathwayscollegecoach.com.

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