As universities and colleges worldwide explore how to increase diversity and inclusion on campuses and level the playing field in admissions criteria, the conversation always seems to circle back to holistic admissions.
For most schools, the idea sounds great in theory, but the prospect of making significant changes to their admissions process is daunting. Holistic review is perceived by many as being extremely burdensome and time-consuming, 58 percent of graduate school admissions professionals stated that limited faculty and staff time is the number one barrier to conducting a more holistic review in a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools last year.
Schools that have taken the leap to adopt holistic admissions best practices are beginning to change that perception, such as the Graduate School at Virginia Tech, who successfully implemented the practice across 150 academic programs last year.
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I attended their talk ‘Moving from Cut-offs to Screen-ins’ at the 2017 National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals (NAGAP) conference in Salt Lake City, where the team shared how they transformed admissions across the graduate school.
Dannette Gomez Beane, Director of Graduate Recruiting and Diversity Initiatives at Virginia Tech and Ph.D. Candidate, Counselor Education, and Janice Austin, Director, Graduate Admissions and Academic Progress, delivered the talk about the graduate school’s shift to holistic assessment. We were fortunate to engage Dannette and Janice in a Q&A session this month to share their experience rolling holistic admissions out across the graduate school.
KT: What does ‘holistic admissions’ mean to Virginia Tech Graduate School and what motivated you to roll out these assessment practices across the graduate school?
VT: The definition of what is holistic admissions review is still evolving. At Virginia Tech, we see holistic application review as considering a broad range of characteristics, including success critical skills and attributes, when reviewing applications for admission. We wanted to move toward a more holistic approach for reviewing admission applications in order to expand the ability to identify and implement quality practices of evaluation in graduate admissions from an inclusion approach rather than an exclusion process. Our hope was that this shift would allow us to develop a diverse pool of well-qualified candidates to recruit, retain and graduate who would be prepared to work in a diverse and inclusive global society.
KT: What are some of the key changes to your admissions criteria that have happened as a result of this shift?
We now ask departments to focus on at least three criteria for admission consideration. While these can still include GRE test scores and GPA, we want the faculty to consider at least one additional factor for admission as well.
We also modified our application in two ways. First, we updated our Letter of Recommendation that references fill out online. We moved toward a more knowledge/skills/abilities rating. While we still allow for a pdf letter to be submitted, we do ask that the recommender fill out these likert-type items that allow for easy sorting based on skills of interest to the departments for review. Second, we added an Additional Educational Experiences section for applicants to complete. This section allows for additional information on community service, leadership, overcoming barriers, ethics, achievements, and research. Again, departments are provided this information and can easily sort based on experiences of interest for review.
KT: In your talk, you mentioned your approach to ‘screen in’ rather than ‘screen out,’ can you speak to that mentality in admissions and why it’s so important?
VT: It is important to screen in applicants into a review pool to ensure as diverse a pool as possible. By including a minimum of three screen-in criteria, each applicant has at least three opportunities to be placed into the review pool. This ensures that qualified applicants aren’t overlooked simply because of one attribute such as a test score.
KT: You have 6,900 graduate students across 150 academic programs. How did you get everyone to agree on this direction? What steps and events did you need to take to ensure everyone was on board?
VT: The success of implementing holistic admissions was due to a top-down approach. This initiative was one of the three identified by the Graduate School as part of the larger campus InclusiveVT initiative. It was supported by the President, Provost, and VP and Dean for Graduate Education. The Dean (Karen DePauw) met with faculty within all colleges to discuss this initiative and the expectations of implementation.
KT: Efficiency is always a concern when rolling out a new process. How have your admissions teams and faculty members found the changes impacted their time?
VT: From the feedback we have received, implementing holistic admissions has not significantly impacted the time commitment needed for admission application review. We provide a downloadable spreadsheet of data that departments can use to sort application data by their selected criteria to make identification of the review pool much more efficient.
KT: What are the short- and long-term outcomes you anticipate from implementing holistic across the graduate school?
VT: In the short-term, we expect the number of qualified applicants reviewed for admission to increase. In the long-term, we expect the number and diversity of new admits to increase.
KT: For a school wanting to start motion towards school-wide holistic assessment, what recommendations do you have for getting started?
VT: We first assessed what our departments were currently doing with regard to holistic admissions to determine what best practices departments on campus were actively engaged in. Using this information, we were able to tailor options for other departments as to what they could do to implement holistic admission review in their program.
We found the top-down approach to be very beneficial. Having the President and Provost support the initiative and use it for evaluation of our work has assisted in departments being willing to implement this approach.
Taking the time to meet with the College (the Dean) and individual programs (Graduate School staff) to discuss this initiative and how it can help broaden the applicant review pool was important. Allowing flexibility in what criteria each department selected to screen in for was key in acknowledging disciplinary differences.
KT: Who do you believe are the key players within the university to get holistic admissions to happen?
VT: Upper-level administration buy-in and support of the initiative was important. College Deans and program department heads who set the direction for each program are key as well.
KT: What would you say is the biggest challenge is for schools looking to adopt holistic best practices?
VT: Getting buy-in and a willingness to do holistic admissions review by faculty admission committees who are overextended already and may see this approach as additional work.
KT: And what would you say is the biggest opportunity for schools?
VT: Increasing the quality and diversity of their applicant pool while limiting the likelihood of overlooking a great candidate who may not meet one specific criterion.