What Does Holistic Admissions Really Mean?

What Does Holistic Admissions Really Mean?

The face of college admissions is changing. In this article, Jen Roberts breaks down the holistic admissions process.

If you went to college in the late 90s or early 2000s, the sage advice of “when I was in school” might not be as applicable as it once was. So much has changed about the college experience, especially the admissions process. There are more students applying, and they are sending applications to more schools. The cost of college has drastically increased, but there are also more scholarships and financial aid available to students.

With more students applying to universities, acceptance rates at elite institutions have drastically fallen, so much so that some ivy league universities have stopped publicizing this data. Each year schools are reaching all-time lows in acceptance rates. In 2012, Cornell’s acceptance rate was 15.6%, compared to 8.7% in 2022. In 2012, Harvard accepted 5.8%. In 2022, that number was just 3.2%.

Stanford stopped releasing data in 2018. When this decision was announced, Provost Persis Drell said, “The main result we observe is stories that aim to identify which universities experience the most demand and have the lowest admit rates. That is not a race we are interested in being a part of.”

Cornell received just under 20,000 applications in 1999. In 2020, that number hovered around 68,000. Similarly, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) received 36,000 applications in 1999, compared to today’s 135,000.

With more students sending out applications–many of whom meet the admissions criteria of the schools to which they are applying–schools are changing their admissions process to more holistic ones.

According to Michael Bastedo, a professor of education at University of Michigan, “Holistic review evaluates an applicant’s credentials in light of the opportunities available to the applicant through their family, neighborhood, and high school contexts. He also notes that in the U.S., there is a wide range of “varying institutionalized practices that are constantly in flux.”

Having a more holistic process is not a complete departure from what was done previously. Elite institutions have been requiring essays, letters of recommendations, and lists of extra curriculars for years. Today, 95% of selective universities in the United States incorporate a holistic review in their admissions process.

In more simple terms, a holistic admissions process is one that “tries to look at the whole applicant and not reduce them to a mere test score of GPA–all factors are considered in an effort to view young people as more than just the sum of their parts.”

This shift in practice allows universities to better understand students, while making the admissions process a bit more nuanced and complex for applicants, especially as some schools are dropping standardized tests completely.

A holistic process considers the following:


While schools will look at your overall GPA, they will also consider outside factors that could have impacted your grades. For instance, if you had a hardship during your sophomore year that caused your grades to drop lower than your normal average, this would be considered.


Universities are interested in the rigor of the courses you took. They can also get a sense of your interests from the electives you choose. If you took four years of Spanish but also added two years of French, that demonstrates a true love of language.

Extracurricular activities

Colleges can tell a lot about you from your list of extracurricular activities. Your involvement shows that you are engaged in your school community and that you can commit to activities outside your expected academic schedule. Your activities can help a university know more about your interests. For instance, if you’ve been active in the school’s Spanish club for four years, while taking Spanish, it shows a true commitment to understanding the language and culture that goes beyond just taking the recommended courses. If you participate in sports, it shows you understand teamwork.

You don’t have to have a range in the types of activities you’re involved in. I once had a high school senior in my AP English class (who later went to an elite school) who was extremely passionate about music, specifically the viola. He played with the school’s symphony, the city’s youth orchestra, he taught lessons to younger children, and often played with his church.

Volunteer work and community activities

While these activities are similar in nature to extracurriculars provided at your school, involvement outside of school, demonstrates your commitment to causes that are important to you, values, and beliefs.

Letters of recommendation

Letters from your counselors, teachers, and coaches help universities understand your applicant profile. They often go beyond grades (and should go beyond grades) to talk about who you are as a person. For instance, a teacher might share how determined you were to understand a complicated math equation after you initially experienced difficulty. A coach might share examples of how you were instrumental in team moral during a difficult season.

Essays and short response answers

The common application, which is used by many universities, asks applicants several short response questions in addition to the essay prompts. This is an opportunity for universities to really understand applicants. At top universities, the essay accounts for 25% of your application.

Special circumstances

If you are the first person in your family to go to college, universities need to know this. If you had to work to support your family while going to school, this is also important information. There are many difficult circumstances that students have to overcome while in high school, and these are important to share in your essays or short responses. It’s important that universities know how your high school experience was unique and how overcame obstacles or hardships you may have encountered.

Test scores (ACT/SAT/AP)

While some schools are no longer requiring students submit test scores, others still require them, though they are receiving less weight than they once did.

The holistic admissions process isn’t as clear cut as the previous process that looked exclusively at scores and grades, but it is important to know that universities want to make their decisions based on the whole applicant, not just numbers.