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What is the “Holistic Approach” in the College Admissions Process?

The holistic approach in college admissions refers to a variety of reading practices and context framing that allows admissions officers to admit a diverse pool of students. Since they cannot compare one student to another in order to fairly assess the competitiveness of their candidates, admissions officers think about how the applicant stands relative to the pool of applicants.

Holistic Approach Ins and Outs

Within the holistic process, numbers are important, but the qualitative details of the application are important as well. The students should not rely solely on having good grades and high test scores. They have to be able to translate their high school experience into a narrative that stands. Students should strategically describe their activities, learning style, and how they think about the world’s problems. It is important to look at the school’s mission statements and other narratives around residential life that make the school unique. The admissions officers will be thinking about their school and how a potential candidate can both fit and match the school.

What is “Context”?

When I was an admissions officer, the task at hand was to understand each student within their specific context. We had to consider the student under a number of identity factors and their subject position within privilege or disenfranchisement. We had to think about their achievements relative to what was available to them at their high school. This is why standing out looks different for each applicant.

If a student had significant family duties, that might count as stellar extracurricular involvement because of how much time and effort is required for care-taking. For example, consider an applicant who is first in their family to attend college and has several younger siblings who they care for to help decrease child care costs. This student may only have time for three or four extracurricular activities. If they have leadership positions in all of the activities, this will stand out even more because of their context.

Alternatively, if a student has no significant family duties and is able to participate in six or more activities, other factors would help them stand out. Perhaps having leadership positions in almost all activities and being the founder of one or two would stand out. The personal qualities of students with more resources will also be important to consider. Writing an essay about volunteering in a disenfranchised community in a way that minimizes the agency of those in need can strike a dissonant chord with admissions officers.

Students who have a good rapport with their teachers shine when evaluated by the holistic approach because admissions officers think about the intangibles of a student’s personality through their teachers’ descriptions. Readers are less concerned with a teacher’s title rank and more invested in hearing from someone who knows you well. This is why it’s important to build your relationship with teachers from early on.

The evaluating system reflects quantitative and qualitative qualities. Numbers work in terms of thresholds. Some schools have score cut-offs and others do not. They will have a ranking system for scores but have their own technique of considering the context. For example, a school may assign a high rank to the student’s testing profile for falling between 750 and 800 (SAT subsection) or 33 and 35 (ACT overall score). If these scores appear in a pool with lower average scores, the student will stand out. However, if a large portion of the pool ranks highly, the scores won’t contribute to a unique spark as much.

The notion of “spark” or “stand-out” quality depends on the student’s original voice, initiative, and proven leadership. Building a class that fits a school’s needs and strengths is also affected by school climate and sometimes new grants, funds, and donations.

Within the holistic college admissions process, the typical college application can be broken down into the following sections:


They will note your demographics and background. Many top schools want to admit a diverse class of students, but “diverse” is a contested term even among admissions officers and guidance counselors. Several people misunderstand and misuse it. A diverse class of students will have differences in race, class, language, hometown, school type, subject interest, and campus engagement.

This year, questions about parent education, occupation, and sibling information are optional — check out this article for a list of all changes to the Common App. If you submit this information, admissions offers will think about how educated your parents are. They may note whether you are legacy or first in your family to attend college. Once admitted, advocates may recommend a student for a resource specifically for students who are first in their families to attend college. At Dartmouth, the First Year Student Enrichment Program is one such resource that connects first-generation college students to faculty, mentors, materials, and more.


The information your guidance counselor provides about your school will be compared to the overall pool of applicants. Familiarize yourself with your secondary school report so you can provide any missing context about your accomplishments. These reports often layout policies about how many advanced courses are offered and whether there are individual limits to how many students can take.


Some admissions officers are skeptical about the veracity of weighing standardized tests heavily. Numerous studies have shown that a student’s ability to score well on these tests correlates with their family’s ability to pay for test prep. Statistically, the test scores of those admitted and those waitlisted are nearly the same. Context is weighed here to consider how those with less access to test preparation may perform differently.

Schools, however, still rely on the scores in some capacity and if they are not test blind, admissions officers will still evaluate them. Most students admitted to top schools this year submitted their test scores, though optional.

In an interview with MarketWatch, Pierre Huguet describes the challenge that test optional creates: “We’ve already heard from a couple of Ivies that it is extremely difficult for them to evaluate the academic profile of the students without the test scores,…not just because they want to make sure that they select the most competitive students, but also because they want to make sure that they don’t struggle in college.”


When you look at your activities list, readers want to understand how competitive the scope of the award was. We want to see you and stand-out leadership. You should not read like many others. Admissions officers will consider how consistent your activities were/are.


In the personal statement, they are looking for your creativity, intellectual qualities, and personal qualities. School-specific supplements and additional questions serve a similar purpose. “Why (this school)?” prompts should reflect your unique research into the school’s resources and campus culture. Explore other articles for more information about when and how to start the statement, why specificity matters, and other tips.

Courses & Grades

Top schools want to admit students that meet thresholds that allow the class average GPA and average rank in class to remain consistent. Readers will consider how many advanced courses students are allowed to take at their school. At top colleges, you’re expected to take the most challenging course load. They may even evaluate whether you pushed beyond the resources at your own school by taking classes at a community college or online. Some admissions officers won’t make a large distinction between As and A-s. If students do not submit test scores, school performance will be especially important.

Application Synopsis

One of the admissions officers’ main task is to condense a 12-15 page document into a short narrative or set of statements. This synopsis allows other readers to understand what the previous reader thought about each application section. Applicants should make sure that they can think of shorten and memorable phrases that reflect the candidacy you’re trying to portray. Prepare summarizing statements and phrases that describe you and your approach to your interests. Ask others who read over your application to summarize it in their own words as well to see if your message is getting across.

The holistic process attempts to evaluate candidates fairly and individually. As you work on your college applications, reflect deeply about your values and priorities. Think about how you problem-solve and what issues you want to impact in the future.

Interested in setting up a free consultation to talk about your college application? Contact our college admissions company today.

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