What is a Holistic Review in College Admissions?

In terms of college admissions, a holistic review process is an approach where various academic and non-academic factors are considered by admissions officers.

Instead of just the GPA and SAT or ACT scores, a high school teen is also evaluated based on extracurriculars, talent, state residency, work experience and others.

According to recent studies, 95% of college admissions officers use a holistic approach in reviewing applications.

Harvard University, UCLA, MIT, Caltech, Arizona State University, Amherst College — these institutions may be different from each other in all kinds of ways, but they have something in common: they review applications holistically.

Here’s what you need to know about holistic review in college admissions and how to use it to your advantage when applying to your top-choice school.

Five Phases of Holistic Review

According to the Holistic Admissions in Higher Education: A Systematic Literature Review, a holistic review is a very old idea yet very new and is rooted, believe it or not, in religious and ethnic discrimination.

The same paper also mentions the 5 phases of the admissions process in American colleges and universities:

1st Phase

In the past, postsecondary institutions required undergraduate students to take Latin and Greek.

As such, schools often required applicants to have taken instructions in either or both languages as a part of the admissions process.

Mathematics, too, was a part of the performance assessment of college applicants back then.

2nd Phase

Eventually, more and more pursued undergraduate degrees at the end of the 19th century, and colleges and universities scrapped classical languages as a part of the admissions criteria.

Admissions officers switched to the use of more standardized metrics, especially given the fact that the College Board was founded in 1900.

It was established as the College Entrance Examination Board for it was primarily designed to regulate the admissions process in American institutions of higher education.

3rd Phase

From the early 1900s to the end of World War II, the number of Jewish students on college campuses increased considerably.

At Harvard University, for instance, more than 20% of its freshman class were Jewish.

The vast majority of postsecondary institutions, particularly elite ones, at that time, made a conscious effort to reduce the number of Jewish undergraduates by considering other factors in the admissions process than test scores, which they aced.

During this time, criteria such as character and fitness (assessed subjectively) were considered in the review process.

4th Phase

Anti-semitism, eventually, became taboo.

Selective colleges and universities, in response to this, went back to evaluating college applicants purely on intellectual merit.

So, in other words, admissions officers made decisions solely on grades and test scores all over again.

5th Phase

Institutions that once employed admissions strategies that greatly reduced the number of Jewish students in their classrooms felt guilty and sought to make up for their remorse by attempting to increase the number of minority attendees.

This gave birth to affirmative action, which was sparked by the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The said admissions practice considered race and ethnicity in the review process in deciding whether or not to admit applicants.

Of course, affirmative action in college admissions was banned by the Supreme Court.

Holistic Review vs. Admissions by Numbers

The more traditional process or admissions by numbers, as the name suggests, takes into account cut scores such as GPAs and standardized test scores in the review process.

On the other hand, while holistic review also considers the said metrics, college admissions officers also reflect on an assortment of non-academic factors.

Prior to the advent of the holistic admissions approach, college applicants were mostly evaluated based on their high school grades and, since the College Board came into being, test scores.

Much earlier than the birth of standardized testing, classical language use was a metric as well.

Between holistic review and admissions by numbers, the former is a more time-consuming review process as a lot of factors are taken into account before admissions officers can come up with a decision.

Below is a table that indicates the things that both admissions approaches regard.

Please keep in mind that both the traditional and holistic approaches can vary from one institution to the next as to which factors are included, but the said methods of assessing applicants pretty much remain the same at the core.

FactorsTraditional ApproachHolistic Approach
Rigor of secondary school recordYesYes
Class rankYesYes
High school GPAYesYes
Standardized test scoresYesYes
Application essayNoYes
Letters of recommendationNoYes
Extracurricular activitiesNoYes
Character/personal qualitiesNoYes
First generationNoYes
Alumni/ae relationNoYes
Geographical residenceNoYes
State residencyNoYes
Religious affiliationNoYes
Ethnic/racial statusNoYes
Volunteer workNoYes
Work experienceNoYes
Demonstrated interestNoYes

Factors taken into account in the admissions by the numbers approach are usually in the academic domain — some admissions officers may choose to refer to them as hard factors or hard academic credentials.

While application essays and recommendations are considered academic factors, it’s not uncommon for them to be completely unnecessary in the traditional admissions process as colleges and universities that employ it mostly believe that numbers such as GPAs and test scores (oftentimes class rank, too) are the best predictors of one’s ability to succeed in college.

It’s true that the more holistic approach considers both academic or non-academic factors.

However, colleges with this particular admissions policy may consider different academic benchmarks and non-academic factors, which some college admissions officers may also refer to as soft factors.

Let’s take the University of Florida and the University of South Florida as examples: both are public institutions of higher education located in the Sunshine State that use a holistic approach in the review process.

However, the University of Florida considers college essays in the admissions process, while the University of South Florida doesn’t.

Also, while the former considers volunteer work and work experience, the latter disregards them completely.

Both schools, however, do not care about letters of recommendation, interview and demonstrated interest.

Some institutions may consider both academic and non-academic factors but tend to lean toward one side of the college admissions process.

Arizona State University, for instance, considers state residency but no other non-academic factor, although it makes admission decisions by also considering academic rigor, class rank, test scores and, of course, high school GPA.

Who Benefits From a Holistic Approach?

Applying to colleges and universities with a holistic admissions policy can be extremely beneficial for some, including those who are bad at test-taking or those who demonstrate excellence outside of the classroom.

Besides high school teens in their junior or senior year, colleges themselves can benefit from a holistic process.

Students Applying to Highly Selective Schools

It’s common knowledge that only the strongest applicants end up getting admitted to Ivy League schools and other institutions with pretty much the same selectivity level.

Applying to any of them means that you will be competing against those with perfect or near-perfect GPAs and test scores.

Thanks to a holistic approach to college admissions, you can stand out from the rest with your recommendations, personal statements, supplemental essays, extracurricular activities, work experience, etc.

So, in other words, you can be a student with a not-so-traditional academic profile and still have a fighting chance at getting in.

But do keep in mind that a holistic review does not erase more traditional admissions factors in the equation — especially at some of the most competitive colleges and universities, your GPA and test scores will still be considered.

Bad Test-Takers

According to a UCLA information resource, 40% to 60% of students have test anxiety, which can get in the way of them performing up to their full capacity, such as when sitting for the SAT or ACT.

Given the fact, too, that standardized tests give significant advantages to students from wealthy families compared to their low-income peers in the admissions process, it’s no wonder that a lot of colleges have gone test-optional.

Whether you are from a poor family or a terrible test-taker or both, a holistic admissions policy can work in your favor.

To make a sound decision, however, college admissions officers need to obtain as many details as possible.

And this is why to prove that you are worthy of a slot in the incoming class, some other component of your college application should make up for the absence of your SAT or ACT scores (or not-so-high test scores).

Students With Non-Traditional Academic Profiles

In most instances, it’s true that the high school GPA is the single most important college admissions factor.

However, it’s far from being the only factor admissions officers take into account in the review process.

Colleges, of course, want well-rounded students, the kinds that engage in different kinds of things.

While it’s definitely a wonderful idea for your high school transcript to be peppered with high core course grades and challenging AP or IB classes, you will be able to contribute to the campus community better if you have a healthy and diverse mix of academic, extracurricular and social engagements, which is crucial for success on and off campus.

Thanks to a holistic admissions process, your unique character and experiences, special talents, extracurricular pursuits, community engagement and demonstrated potential, among others, also become important factors.

Colleges That Want Diverse Student Bodies

Many postsecondary institutions employ a holistic approach in their review process not only to benefit students who want access to higher education but also their campuses themselves.

A holistic admissions policy allows colleges to achieve diversity among their campus communities.

By considering the individualized backgrounds and perspectives of college applicants as well as their potential no matter their circumstances, schools can enhance the educational experience for everyone, which then paves the way for a better reputation and, ultimately, increased enrollment rates and profitability.

Who Benefits From Admissions by Numbers?

High-performing students who have been working hard to get high grades since the start of their high school careers are the primary beneficiaries of admissions by numbers.

A traditional admissions process is also advantageous to institutions that wish to maintain their reputation and standards.

While a holistic process is a plus to a number of students, a traditional approach is also advantageous to some, too.

Straight-A High School Students

Completely disregarding the rest of the academic and non-academic factors in a holistic admissions process, a perfect high school GPA of 4.0 gives you the best opportunities for college admissions and merit-based scholarships, too.

Getting a 4.0 means you will have to get a grade of A in all your high school courses — not a single A- is allowed!

At a college that sticks to a more traditional admissions by numbers, a 4.0 on your high school transcript is very much likely to secure you an acceptance letter.

And if you take weighted classes such as AP, IB and honors classes, you can make your perfect GPA look even more awesome to some of the most selective institutions in the nation.

Great Test-Takers

Having the right academic knowledge as well as reading, critical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving skills is the recipe for acing the SAT or ACT, which can greatly work to your advantage if applying to a college where one of the two most critical admissions factors is your standardized test score.

Coupled with being a good test-taker, nothing can keep you from acing the SAT or ACT.

The college of your choosing needs to have a traditional review process to benefit from your high standardized test scores — a test-required or test-optional policy is usually more than enough to give you an edge in the admissions process.

Colleges That Want to Stick to Their Academic Standards

Some colleges and universities that want to maintain their high academic standards and highly selective reputation may accept only applicants with high GPAs and test scores, seeing them as the sole indicators of college readiness.

Of course, many of them are private institutions.

However, do take note that some public institutions also consider the GPA more important than everything else.

The University of South Florida, for instance, takes into account talent as the only non-academic factor in its admissions process — together with test scores and academic rigor, it considers the GPA very important.

Pros and Cons

While there’s no denying that a holistic college admissions process is a good thing for it allows certain applicants to stand out via other merits, there are also cons associated with it, which can pose a problem for some applicants and even college admissions officers.


  • It is a fairer form of admissions process
  • It considers the whole applicant instead of just his or her grades and scores
  • It gives students from low-income backgrounds a fighting chance in the admissions process
  • It allows students to meet on campus those with similar backgrounds, interests and perspectives
  • It helps colleges and universities enjoy more diverse and inclusive campuses
  • It helps increase student retention rate


  • It can be subjective, with some colleges putting more weight on some factors
  • It can favor certain types of applicants by considering certain criteria more important
  • It may overlook some critical academic qualifications
  • It may put applicants with fewer resources such as time at a disadvantage
  • It may be used against underrepresented and/or underprivileged groups
  • It can be a resource-intensive process for colleges and universities

There are advantages and disadvantages to a holistic review process, which makes admission by the numbers look more favorable in certain situations, such as when admitting applicants to highly competitive programs.

However, it’s clear that the pros of a holistic approach far outweigh the cons.

Using This Knowledge to Increase Your Chances of Being Admitted

You can use the holistic admissions policy of your dream college to your advantage by focusing not only on getting a high GPA and SAT or ACT scores but also on strengthening other components of your application.

Researching the college and your intended major, for instance, allows you to demonstrate your interest through the alumni interview and supplemental essays.

You may participate in extracurriculars that allow you to equip yourself with skills that college admissions officers love, such as leadership, communication, teamwork and volunteering skills.

Having some sort of work experience that aligns with your intended major is a plus, too. Of course, you may pick the right teachers to serve as your recommenders to have glowing recommendation letters.

How Do You Know Which Approach the College Uses in Admission Process

Some colleges and universities with a holistic approach say on their websites that they consider more than just GPAs and standardized test scores.

In some instances, you will have to access a school’s common data set (CDS) to have an idea of the criteria that it considers. Many test-optional colleges have a holistic review process.

You will find it easier to determine which institutions have a traditional admissions policy than which ones have a holistic approach.

Usually, small private liberal arts and Catholic colleges are the ones that prioritize numbers when reviewing applications.

For instance, Dallas Christian College, which is a private, Christian college with a small student body of less than 250 undergraduates and a low acceptance rate of 17%, has a traditional admissions process.

According to its website itself, the school considers the GPA and standardized test scores as the primary criteria for admission.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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