Can GPAs, test scores, and other various program-dependent credentials predict if a young woman has an aptitude to be a pilot, a nurse, an archeologist, or a software engineer? For most academic programs, these tests are defining whether or not a student can or cannot pursue a career path. We’re sending young people two very different messages: be yourself and do what you love, but prove your passion in a way that only measures a limited scope of intelligence and ability.

We’re telling young people to neglect volunteering, community, and experiential learning, and instead, to rack up individual achievements like they do video game points.

Do schools have a moral imperative to guide, rather than restrict, their students toward the place in society where they can have the most impact, make the biggest difference, and pursue the greatest happiness and satisfaction?

Enter Holistic Admissions

In 2016, Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) released a report, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions, that makes a case for changing admissions. Instead of being wholly focused on an applicant’s individual achievements, HGSE suggests schools use a more holistic evaluation of the individual’s contributions to their community.

Using a holistic approach in higher education admissions is something that has been debated for years.

Those in favor contend that excessive emphasis on high test scores and individual achievements inherently devalues other non-measurable, but meaningful, contributions to society and creates an uneven playing field for applicants with varying levels of opportunity.

Critics, on the other hand, say the process is flawed because applicants are assessed subjectively on personality, appearance, and skill-sets rather than objective benchmarks like GPAs and test scores.

How Holistic is Different

Applying to college can be soul-sucking. During the traditional (non-holistic) process, students attempt to quantify everything they’ve ever learned and every success they’ve ever had.

While this method offers admissions teams a snapshot of how students have performed in the past, holistic admissions, instead, assesses students’ outlooks for the future by encouraging the exploration of their intellectual capabilities and goals.

Thousands of top programs at schools around the world, including Yale, UC Berkeley, Northwestern, Ivey Business School, and Imperial College London, to name a few, have adopted the holistic admissions approach with an aim to assess the student and their potential—not just their accomplishments.


How Holistic can counter inherent biases

In Turning the Tide, Harvard notes that the traditional admissions approach is inherently biased in favor of applicants from more privileged backgrounds. With vast differences in the quality and availability of education between schools in different neighborhoods, cities, and countries, a GPA at one school may be different than a GPA at another school with smaller classes, extra help, and advanced enrichment classes and opportunities.

Likewise, SAT, ACT, GMAT, and TOEFL exams require a significant time commitment to studying, travel to write the test for those in smaller cities, as well as have a hefty fee just to write the exam.

For an applicant who doesn’t have the option to take time off work or have the financial stability to pay for multiple tests, they’re often forced to eliminate certain programs and certain opportunities.

Through holistic admissions, individuals who may have excelled outside the classroom are given a chance to shine. Schools are realizing that the holistic method creates the opportunity to build a classroom of students with similar ambition, rather than, simply, a classroom of 4.0 GPAs.

By identifying the applicants most likely to contribute to their program’s unique intellectual and cultural community, and assessing an applicant’s communication skills, teamwork abilities, and other program-specific competencies, schools get a more authentic picture of each student’s true character and potential. For business schools like Rotman in Toronto, Canada, this transition creates more engaging classroom discussions, better communication and a richer classroom experience.

Likewise, when applicants are considered for their character and traits, rather than their grades, they're more likely to get admitted somewhere where they fit and they will be successful. Happier students translates to improved retention rates, student experience reports, and ultimately, more connected and engaged alumni.

At DePaul University, David Kalsbeek and Carla Cortes were able to link using noncognitive assessments through a holistic review to improved diversity and retention


Why Isn’t Everyone On Board?

There are four common challenges schools we speak with cite as reasons to pass on implementing holistic admissions.

  • “We’ve always done it this way.” As a complex institution, a college or university must fight against a widely held attitude. Convincing faculty or academic deans to take a risk on a change to admissions can be an uphill battle for many administrators. For faculty or deans who are onboard, the battle shifts to ensuring people are excited and prepared to change the way they work (and possibly have been working for decades.)
  • “How do we know it will work?” A 2016 survey of graduate admissions professionals from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) found 81% of graduate school staff respondents reported the need for more data to prove outcomes. While studies exist like the one from DePaul University shared above, most evidence of holistic review successes is qualitative or less backed by hard data than many academics would like.
  • “We simply don’t have time.” Holistic reviewing is perceived to be a time-consuming way to do things. CGS’s survey found 58% of admissions professionals reported time as a barrier. For schools like Virginia Tech, who rolled out holistic review across all programs in the graduate school, this was a major concern for their staff. However, once they implemented holistic review, they found it actually didn't take their faculty reviewers more time.
  • “How do we make it fair?” Many schools prefer the objectivity of assessment criteria like grades and test scores because more holistic evaluation opens up schools for potential subconscious bias.

“Making it fair” is the most important question to overcome to make holistic the best approach for students themselves.

To achieve transparency in holistic admissions, colleges need to create an objective, competency-based assessment to get around racial, gender, and class bias. This can be achieved by asking the right questions and creating a rubric to assess qualities that are mutually agreed upon by the admissions team.

Admissions teams should first determine which skills and personality traits work well in their specific programs, and then craft questions that present opportunities for students to showcase those competencies.

At Kira, we believe that by rating students based on traits selected and defined prior to the admissions process, schools are better able to determine which applicants will be the best fit for each program without biases.

Although change can be scary, colleges and universities that are not using the holistic approach risk missing out on the best and brightest applicants.

With an effectively developed process and fair guidelines, the holistic approach offers schools an opportunity to select a stronger, more diverse cohort of students who will continue to succeed long after graduation. When done with transparency and documentation, even a more 'subjective' approach can create a fair, transparent and legally defensible process that creates an equal playing field for aspiring students around the world.


Useful Resources for Holistic Admissions Research

Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions

Making Caring Common’s 2016 report advocates for a change in what colleges seek and value from applicants. Starting at the admissions level, Harvard researchers argue that when we encourage young people to only strive for personal success in their teenage years (think: high test scores and awards), we inherently devalue many meaningful contributions to others and society.

Linking Admission Strategies to Student Retention

Researchers at DePaul University considers how changes in the admissions process to evaluate applicants' noncognitive traits positively impacted retention at their school. 

Innovation in Graduate Admissions through Holistic Review

Presented by the Council of Graduate Schools, this report articulates the current thinking by graduate schools on holistic review.

Roadmap to Diversity: Integrating Holistic Review Practices into Medical School Admission Processes

Although this is specific to medical schools, this document is an excellent ‘how-to’ resource on crafting a fair and balanced holistic reviewing process, with sections on developing criteria, establishing policy, and building training plans.