College admissions is an incredibly emotional time for high school students. I remember mustering the courage to ask my creative writing teacher for a letter of recommendation, trying to express my passion and purpose in a series of 500-word admissions essays, and spending Saturdays during my junior year at the local library studying for the ACT.

My college applications – busting at the seams as I tried to tie my entire existence up into a curated portfolio of who I was – were sent out globally. They made their way to large international universities, small liberal arts colleges that operated on farms, safety and reach state schools, and the Ivy Leagues.

Each application held with it a possibility of a different life.

My heart broke as some of those dreams shattered with rejections, and it swelled as acceptances rolled in.

When I look back at it, I am amazed not only how seriously I took the process, but how much I trusted it. 

I pictured a renowned professor, literally in an ivory tower, reading my application and exclaiming “This is just who we need,” as he sipped his coffee and cracked the spines on new theories.

Connection to Admissions

However, this is not always how it works. Thousands and thousands of applicants come through the door every year. These students are from around the world, from varying education systems, and from unique backgrounds. Admissions teams are tasked with evaluating all of them and deciding who will be the best fit at your institution.

Research shows that holistic admissions is on the rise globally. This shift in higher education means that every year admissions teams are receiving more materials to review for each applicant. But what should you do with all of this new information?

Enter Competency-Based Admissions (CBA)

Competency-based admissions is a framework for evaluating applications. It is a method to complete a holistic evaluation of your applicants.

But what is it exactly? What types of competencies should you evaluate your applicants for?

The great news is that you can choose what’s best for your program.

Kees Kouwenaar, Project Coordinator at Mastermind Europe, a global project investigating competency-based admissions based in the EU, and Senior Advisor International Strategy at VU Amsterdam, indicates three different types of competencies that can help guide your processes. These types of competencies are derived from the research of Mastermind Europe, a global project investigating competency-based admissions in the EU.

  • Subject-Related Knowledge & Skills (SRKS)
  • General Academic Competencies (GAC)
  • Personal Competencies and Traits (PCT)

Admissions teams may use all three, or they might choose one or two that they think will help give them a better understanding of who their applicants are, says Mastermind Europe.

Subject-Related Knowledge & Skills (SRKS)

SRKS competencies assess the specific knowledge that your applicants would need to succeed in your program. This is more useful in graduate programs or direct entry undergraduate programs (i.e. business, engineering, etc.).

SRKS competencies go above and beyond the general academic competencies that your students would need to possess. These are the specialized skills that differentiate the students in your program from the students in a different faculty.

General Academic Competencies (GAC)

No matter if you coordinate undergraduate or graduate admissions, you cannot forget about standard reading, writing, and arithmetic. GAC competencies evaluate if applicants to your program possess the necessary basic skills to succeed at your school.

Assessing general academic competencies outside of transcripts will allow you to widen your applicant pool to more non-traditional students.

The University of Wisconsin implemented competency-based admissions in the 1990s. 

Students apply by sending their transcripts, their ACT scores, and a Standard Report Profile. Teachers complete the Standard Report Profile by indicating a student's mastery of skills not reflected in their transcript.

Competency-based admissions gave students from all schools the opportunity to demonstrate their competence in necessary skills needed for admissions. This attempt to make education more “equitable” worked. 

By giving applicants more opportunities to showcase their general academic skills, competency-based admissions opened the door to university for many more Wisconsin residents.

Personal Competencies and Traits (PCT)

Personal competencies and traits are the soft skills or characteristics that successful students in your program possess. Some of the most common personal competencies and traits that admissions teams assess for using the Kira platform are Self-Awareness, Motivation, Global Mindedness, and Communication.

Learn how evaluating personal competencies and traits helped shape HEC Montreal’s admissions practices.

These types of competencies you most typically find evidence for in the supplemental application materials.

How to get started

Moving towards a competency-based admissions strategy will take some time and planning with your team. First, determine which types of competencies you are looking to assess in your applicants. Second, determine how you are going to assess them in the application materials.

Depending on your school, the three types of competency-based assessment may be beneficial in different ways.

Personal Competencies and Traits

School profile: A medium-sized university that is trying to better accept students who will be retained and become involved on campus. Trying to build up their on-campus involvement with their students.

Competency solution: Investigating PCT will allow your admissions teams to understand which applicants have the characteristics or soft skills that will allow them to graduate and become involved on campus. Measuring skills like motivation and leadership allow you to find students who are going to actively participate in campus culture and stay engaged in the classroom.

General Academic Competencies

School profile: A large public college that is trying to serve more diverse students, but finds that applicants do not always have the prerequisites that they need to be admitted.

Competency solution: Evaluating for GAC will allow you to see how your applicants have developed the necessary competence in your core courses without them having taken those courses. Consider having students submit a portfolio and reference letters that show how they have learned the prerequisite courses through their other work or learning opportunities. Check out PLAR as it is operated through the Ontario government to learn more or our recent interview with Dr. David Burns who is working to expand competency-based admissions at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Subject-Related Knowledge and Skills

School profile: A large research university in an international city with a large number of international applicants for their graduate programs.

Competency solution: Trying to understand degree equivalencies across the world can be challenging for graduate programs that have a high number of international applicants. Consider having them submit materials related to the necessary subject-related knowledge and skills for admission to your specialized program.

Competency-based admissions creates a framework for holistic admissions. Evaluating competencies makes it easier for applicants to get credit for their life experiences and previous work and education. In addition, it allows schools to admit the best applicants regardless of their home country or previous degree.

Through competency-based admissions, you will have a more well-rounded class, diversity in thought, and life experiences in your classrooms.