Holistic assessment has been touted as an excellent way to improve diversity and build stronger classrooms based on fit, soft skills, and intent, rather than past performance on standardized tests. However, many admissions teams are hesitant to talk in much detail about how they conduct their holistic admissions process.
Some schools are reluctant to share the details of their process because they believe it gives them a competitive edge over other similar programs. Other schools are nervous to show the world how ad-hoc their review process is for fear of legal penalties. The result is uncertainty, both for schools who want to adopt an effective holistic review process and for the applicants who just want to get in.
In our search for answers, we turned to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Berkeley is renowned for being a pioneer in holistic admissions and has been iterating and improving their assessment process for decades to ensure they are attracting the best fit students for their programs.
“Holistic admissions means that we look at a variety of factors that give us a comprehensive view of an applicant and how they fit with the culture of Haas, and their potential to succeed in our programs,” said Marjorie DeGraca, the Assistant Dean of Admissions at the EMBA and part-time admissions office. “This requires an extensive review of each applicant, but it is worth the extra effort to ensure we have the right person at our school and in our programs.”
DeGraca has been working in the Haas admissions office since 2002. In fifteen years in admissions, her favourite part of the role is meeting the new group of smart and accomplished prospective students who apply to Haas each year. She joined us for a Q&A about holistic assessment at Berkeley's Haas School of Business.
Kira Talent: Berkeley, as a whole, is known for its excellent collaborative campus culture. Haas has four defining principles (question the status quo, confidence without attitude, students always, beyond yourself) that help shape this culture. What role do these defining principles play into how you assess your applicants?
Marjorie DeGraca: Our defining principles play a pivotal role in our campus culture and are an integral part of everything we do at Haas. Each principle represents certain behaviors and actions that we look for in all parts of an application — from letters of recommendation to the interview. It is important that we see an understanding and/or demonstration of all the defining principles and not just one.
KT: This year there has been some grumbling about ‘transparency’ in admissions, with critics claiming the process itself is inherently unfair. How does your team work to ensure fairness in how you look at each student?
MD: Our process is built to reduce as much bias as possible, from multiple reviews of an application to a mix of individual and shared feedback about applicants. Our interview process is also designed in such a way that interviewers conduct the interview purely based on just the resume of the applicant. Additionally, all interviewers are also readers of the application and part of a tightly-knit admissions committee.
Of course it’s difficult to remove all bias from any process, but our team regularly looks at our review process to ensure fairness. Recently we held our annual training for all our part-time MBA application readers. We spent part of the day discussing admissions bias to uncover our own personal biases and build awareness. It’s consciously taking the time to incorporate bias awareness into our training and in-service meetings so that the process is as fair as possible for all students.
KT: Admissions teams are often looking for efficient ways to assess applicants, while still making informed decisions on each student. However, many schools fear that a deep-dive holistic examination, such as yours, can be extremely time-consuming. Can you comment on how your team has managed to (or has tried to) find a balance between efficient and thorough reviewing?
MD: Building effective internal solutions is key in holistic examinations. As you know, many applicants do not realize the logistical aspects of application processing. From processing official transcripts to answering all the inquiries from applicants, our office is always busy ensuring files are complete and ready for review. Developing expectations around the turnaround time of file reviews to assigning a manageable amount to each team member is important — and helps us eliminate reviewer fatigue. We also build this into our admissions deadlines to ensure we have enough leeway to interview applicants, review applications, and hold admissions committee meetings.
KT: Do you have any daily rituals to keep your energy high during review season or strategies your team employs during the busiest cycles to stay focused?
MD: Before each round of admission deadlines, we have a tradition where each team member guesses the amount of completed applications and the winner receives a coveted crystal ball. It’s a fun way to lighten the air during especially busy times like before a deadline. One of our favorite things to do is call applicants who are granted admissions. Hearing their reactions and excitement during these calls often reminds us of how transformative education is on the lives of our students. I also think that our supportive team, who are all happy to help one another, helps keep our energy high.
KT: Given holistic admissions is so qualitative in nature it can be difficult to evaluate how your team is doing year over year. How do you measure success in admissions for your program?
MD: Outside of the typical statistics like yield, enrollment, application rates, etc., we work closely with other student service units like our academics, student affairs and career services groups to measure how well our cohort is doing, from their grades to engagement in the student experience. We often get the first impression of our holistic admissions work when the entire class meets for the first time for orientation. It’s truly spectacular to see and feel the electricity on campus. Another measure of success is faculty feedback. It’s rewarding to hear faculty say they love teaching our students.
KT: At Haas, you give applicants who don’t secure admission feedback on their application. Can you tell us a bit more about this? How do your applicants respond?
MD: Candidates who are not admitted are given the opportunity to receive a call from an admissions staff member, who will give them personalized feedback after the admissions season ends in the summer. We want those candidates who are considering reapplying to be able to learn what aspects of their application they should focus on; it is also as a way for them to improve professionally and/or personally. This is in line with our defining principle of Student Always. We find applicants to be appreciative of the opportunity to hear frank feedback and grateful to know how their application was perceived. In fact, a good number of them reapply and are admitted in the following year because they have taken the time to improve their applications.
KT: What would you say is the biggest challenge facing schools today when it comes to enrollment?
MD: The biggest challenge for most schools today is understanding the changing needs of our applicants and students. With the advent of new technology and societal paradigms, schools have an even greater charge to ensure they have a strong value proposition that meets the needs of a 21st century learner. This requires our program and admissions processes to be constantly evaluated, tweaked, and sometimes overhauled to ensure institutions of higher education are relevant in this quickly changing world, from personal touches in the admissions processes to flexible course offerings.
KT: And the biggest opportunity?
MD: Often times your students have some of the solutions to your problems. Getting students involved in the process can often get the “out-of-the-box” thinking that you are looking for. As schools become much more “engaged” with technology and social media, it’s important to get feedback and help from your main audience — the students.
KT: Last question! What are your top three recommendations for a school looking to improve holistic assessments at their school?
MD: First, conduct an assessment of your resources and operational processes before trying to add or adjust anything. This will help you identify any opportunities or constraints you have in your department or school.
Second, do not bite off more than you can chew. The great thing about admissions is that it is cyclical. You can implement small (or big) changes here and there and evaluate for the year and then refine in the next cycle.
Finally, reach out to your peers and community. If you are part of a bigger university, sometimes your answer could be just a building away. Reach out to your campus colleagues for support or troubleshooting. Build relationships with other admissions professionals through conferences or meet-ups.
Thanks Marjorie DeGraca and the team at Berkeley Haas for giving us this window into holistic assessment on their team!
Any other suggestions for schools looking to improve holistic assessments? Drop them in the comments below.