Holistic Review

Brown University

Since COVID-19 appeared in North America, some 200 universities abandoned the requirement for standardized test scores.  Among the schools introducing the change are highly selective institutions such as Amherst and Williams colleges, and Cornell University. In such cases, the change – for now – applies to high school juniors, recognizing the chaotic effect of lockdowns on test plans. More long-lasting is the University of California system’s announcement that it would suspend its testing requirement until at least 2024.

Waiving standardized tests is a significant change. For schools that required these, tests scores served as a tool to narrow the applicant pool.  The change comes at a time when many high schools switched to credit/no credit for the final grading period of this academic year. The result is that a part of the student’s academic record is essentially blurred out. Universities that dropped the test requirement will have even less information with which to make decisions.

Selecting among applicants without access test results creates more work for admissions officers. They will need to more closely review other aspects of the application, like academic achievement, reference letters, demonstrated interest, and personal statements. In cases where schools are waiving the requirement, admission offices stress they will conduct holistic review.

What is “holistic review”?

Holistic review refers to a mission-aligned selection process that considers a broad range of factors – academic achievement, personal qualities, experiences, etc. – when reviewing applications. The process allows admission committees to consider the “whole” applicant rather focusing on one or two factors, like standardized test scores.

The holistic admissions process is mission-based.  Therefore, the selection criteria and outcomes vary from institution to institution. The aim, however, is the same for all institutions: a diverse student body reflective of institutional priorities. 

The following are some factors that may be considered when making admission decisions:

Rigour of academic coursework: Course selection is an important indicator of a student’s academic motivation.

Achievement trend: Universities like to see an upward trend in grades as improvement is an important indicator of post-secondary success. Universities prefer students who are able to manage a challenging course load and attain strong grades.

Test scores: Students may choose to take either the SAT or ACT – universities don’t have a preference. Results enable admissions officers to evaluate a student’s potential.

Additional academic factors: Many high schools provide admissions offices a “school profile.” This is used to learn about curricular and co-curricular opportunities, and grading practices. They also provide context for the student’s course selection and achievement.

Personal statements: These are used to gain a better sense for the student’s academic motivation as well as to determine fit between the student and the institution.

Extracurricular activities/special talents: Admissions committees also consider student’s involvement outside the classroom as they are indicators of how they may contribute to the life of the campus. Students will also be considered for exceptional skills and talents in the fine and performing arts, athletics, or other activities that meet institutional needs.

Diversity: Varied experiences enhance learning. Racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic background as well as family educational history are among the many aspects of diversity that may be considered.

Special circumstances: Personal statements describing special circumstances, such as documented disabilities, serious illness, or other extenuating circumstances that affected a student’s academic performance are also taken into consideration.

The takeaway? Your application will be read in the context of your school and community.  First, you need to maximize available academic resources and opportunities. Then, look beyond the numbers. Invest time and energy in intellectual, artistic, and/or athletic pursuits, and also in opportunities to improve your community.

VerveSmith helps students find schools, universities and programs that match their aspirations, and to develop an admissions application strategy. For additional help, contact us.