Holistic admissions is both a blessing and a curse for colleges that practice it, especially this past year in the midst of Covid. A holistic process looks at both academic and non-academic factors in an application, allowing institutions to take a variety of factors into account when evaluating prospective students.
- The blessing is that it gives institutions a tremendous amount of flexibility to lean into their priorities in admissions—whether that’s more full-pay students or more men or more humanities majors—all under the cover of holistic review.
- The curse is that to a skeptical public, holistic admissions is confusing and secretive at best, and nefarious and illegal at worst.
What’s happening: In a year when nearly every aspect of the college admissions process was upended by the pandemic, holistic review was a savior for admissions offices faced with applications from students who had very different high school experiences because of Covid-19. As a result, the admissions process seemed even murkier than usual this past year.
Why it matters: Public trust in institutions reached new lows during the pandemic. Admissions is the front door to college. It’s when much of the public has their first interaction with higher ed and forms those initial perceptions.
- Every heartbroken applicant denied by their dream school thinks they deserve to know why—but do they?
🎤 It was a question I posed last week when I moderated my panel at the annual NACAC meeting: Should colleges do more to own their processes and have comfort with the imperfect and human judgment that is the admissions process?
What I heard: An opaque process=more flexible for colleges.
- The priorities of colleges change from year to year and they want to have the ability to shift their admissions criteria in response.
- The more details colleges put out there, the less flexibility they have in tweaking their criteria without hearing complaints from those who already acted on the previous guidance.
- Case in point: test optional. Many colleges that aren’t requiring test scores during the pandemic are hedging about whether they will go back to their old policies, because once they do, it will be difficult to change course.
—If we’re “completely transparent, we lose track of our narrative,” said Tim Fields, senior associate dean of admissions at Emory University. “We can’t tell the story how we want to tell that story. A lot of that story—the legacy, the history, the reputation of those institutions—is tied to that narrative.”
—Part of the story that colleges like to tell is that they’re selective enough to actually use holistic review. “Some colleges say they use holistic review when they’re really admitting students who meet a cutoff for GPAs or test scores,” said Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the University of Washington.
—What colleges look for sends a message to students. If colleges say more will students and their families respond accordingly? “If you’re admitting based on major, do you broadcast that a student who lists classics or French is going to be admitted with a lower academic profile?” Seegert asked. “Some people might use that to get their foot in the door, but that’s not in their best interest.”
—The contradiction that is often apparent in admissions is that colleges are very transparent in what students and families need to do when it comes to applying “but not in what happens next,” said Diane Campbell, the college counselor at Liberty Common High School in Colorado. “I wish we had more explanations for why this is happening. If I’m going to write more essays, how are you going to use them, what do you want to know?”
Bottom line: “I’ve experimented giving specifics about our admissions process,” Seegert said. “But when you give specifics then someone says ‘But I know someone who…”
- “It’s so frustrating not to be told why,“ he said, "but you can’t with holistic review because it’s not one thing” that pulls a student in or pushes them out.
My why: I asked the representatives from Emory and UW the question I led with above—why they let me into the process.
- We feel good about our process, said Fields from Emory, “and very selfishly, it was a way to get our name out. We’re not Vanderbilt in the SEC or Duke with Coach K.”
- At the University of Washington, “we had lots of internal discussions,” said Seegert. The media people were really concerned, he said. So were people in the admissions office who were worried about being interrupted during a busy time of year.
- “In the end,” Seegert said, “I don’t know how I got everyone on board.”