5 Things to Know About Holistic College Admissions

Today’s article was written by Erica Cirino.

When you filled out your college applications this fall, were you required to write personal essays for some or all of the schools you applied to? If yes, then you can tell that college admissions officers are likely evaluating your application holistically rather than basing their decision on your test scores and grades alone.

While colleges aren’t required to evaluate students using this holistic form of admissions, many do. Test scores and grades still factor into their decisions, but so do your extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and personal essays. This type of admissions style, college admissions counselors say, allows them to best evaluate whether or not a student is a good fit for their college.

When evaluating college applications, admissions counselors are “reading a book about you,” says Doris Davis, a college admissions consultant. So, she adds, when crafting their college applications, students must think about the impression they’re trying to paint in admissions counselors’ minds.

What kind of impression are college admissions counselors looking for in applicants? In short, it depends on the college. But for the most part, there are a few general things to consider when applying to a school with holistic college admissions. Here are five things you need to know:

1. Take tests relevant to your interests and goals

Not every college requires applicants to take standardized admissions tests. In fact, there is a growing movement toward test-optional and no-test colleges.

Yet, a recent survey by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) found that students’ academic achievements—including high school GPA, strength of high school curriculum, and standardized test scores—are the top three factors that weigh most heavily in the college admissions process.

Indeed, there are advantages to sending your test scores to schools with holistic admissions. The most common standardized admissions tests are the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and ACT. All of these tests differ slightly in format and content, but are similar in many ways that can help you show schools your academic strengths. For instance, both the standard SAT and ACT offer an optional essay. This is a good option for students who are strong in reading and writing, and/or those who want to pursue a degree or career in those or related fields.

2. Include activities that highlight your skills

Test scores aren’t the only part of your college application that can help to highlight your skills. College experts recommend that students use the “activities” part of their applications wisely, listing extracurricular clubs and programs they’ve been involved in that best highlight their skills and interests. It’s not about listing the greatest number of activities, college experts say, but listing the activities that are most relevant.

“There are at least four subsections to activities, including in-school activities like clubs, honor societies, elected positions, and leadership roles; out-of-school activities like community service or outside clubs and organizations; sports and fine arts groups; and, finally, paid or unpaid employment or internships,” says Sarah Neal, assistant director of admission at Agnes Scott College. “Colleges usually look for the following: consistent involvement with activities over a span of time, a variety of activities, and leadership responsibility with the activities most important to the student.”

Activities really do matter. Colleges participating in the NACAC survey said that after academics, activities are among the most important factors when considering students’ applications.

3. Write a great essay

Also of high importance in the holistic college application process, according to the NACAC survey, is the personal essay. It’s a direct reflection of a student’s attitudes and values.

According to Davis, students need to “write an essay that no one else can write” in order to craft an essay that best reflects their personalities and also shows admissions counselors how they’ll fit into the campus community. This means being honest and confronting personal issues that might be sad or comical.

Students can cover topics as diverse as world history to religion—what’s most important is being thoughtful. College admissions counselors want to be able to tell “in reading it that the students dug deep,” says Davis.

4. Choose the right people to write your letters of recommendation

Many colleges require at least two letters of recommendation, which can come from students’ guidance counselors and teachers, as well as supervisors of extracurricular activities such as coaches or club coordinators. The NACAC survey found that letters of recommendation are also an important factor in first-time students’ college applications, so it’s important for students to choose the people who write their letters of recommendation wisely.

The key, according to Neal: Choose someone who knows you well and can provide context as to why you’re applying and your personal situation. “Admission professionals can read about any outlier grades a student may have earned, any awards that a student received but forgot to mention, and any character-informing personal anecdotes that the writer chooses to share about a student. This section also can be useful when a student looks less stunning by the numbers but is an incredibly hard worker or has faced great adversity.”

5. Be thorough

The goal of applying holistically to colleges is to give off the best possible impression of who you are and what you can bring to a given college. So it’s important to be thorough when filling out your applications, double- and triple-checking everything once you think you’re done.

Making a checklist of all the materials needed for each application you need to complete can help make sure you’ve included everything you need. Keeping a calendar of deadlines can also help you stay on track and avoid feeling rushed when completing your applications.

Being thorough will also help you avoid silly mistakes, which could possibly cost you admission to the colleges of your choice. As Davis says, “That application is you. It will be what speaks for you to admission officers.” You certainly don’t want to appear sloppy and disorganized, so be sure to put forth your best efforts when completing your applications.


Erica Cirino is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.

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