What are Holistic College Admissions?

Application Strategies
December 17, 2019
With College Admissions Becoming Increasingly Competitive, There Are More Reasons Than Ever For Colleges To Change How Admissions Are Handled…

Thankfully, many colleges are either already using or transitioning to a new method of application review: the holistic application process. With more institutions than ever using this method to evaluate student’s applications, it’s vital that students learn how the holistic review process works in order to tailor their college applications to fit.

What You’ll Find In This Article

What Does "Holistic Admissions" Even Mean?

If you take a look through the realm of higher education websites, you’ll notice many different institutions promoting their holistic admissions process. From UC Berkeley to the University of Pennsylvania, colleges and universities across the country are implementing this new way of considering college applications.

Simply put, the holistic admissions process considers multiple factors including your academic life, your non-academic commitments, and your individual circumstances.

According to the College Board, there are three hallmarks of a holistic review process:

  • The process is aligned with the institution’s mission
  • The process determines which students can forward the institutional goals
  • The process considers a multitude of factors beyond academics

As Willard Dix points out on Forbes, “holistic” in the context of college admissions means the same thing as “comprehensive.” It’s a trendy buzzword, but thankfully a concept that benefits students and colleges alike.

How Do Holistic Admissions Benefit Students?

Holistic college review processes benefit students in a variety of ways. Gone are the days when a student’s only hope of being admitted was found within their GPA and test scores. Now, students are given the opportunity to showcase everything they have to offer an institution during the application process.

The benefits of going through the holistic admission review process are tangible, and help students feel like they have more control over what goes into their application.


One of the most well-known and frequently cited benefits of the holistic application process is that it shifts the focus away from a purely academic point of view. While a student’s grades and standardized test scores are still critical parts of their college application, with a holistic review they aren’t the only factor considered.

With the holistic application process, you no longer have to choose between taking courses that challenge you or preserving a high GPA. This gives you greater flexibility in high school to find your academic passion and pursue it before you enter college.


The holistic admissions system has the added benefit of taking student’s lives outside of high school into consideration. For students whose extracurricular activities extend beyond their school system, this allows them to explore their interests without worrying about the impact on their future, knowing that time spent volunteering with a local charity group looks just as good on their college application as working for their student council’s annual food drive.

In fact, taking a leadership role in volunteer organizations or other extracurricular activities can be a huge boost in a holistic application process, showing that the student has the qualities and passion necessary to lead and innovate.


One aspect where the holistic approach to college admissions benefits both students and colleges is the number of opportunities made available to students. Due to holistic admissions resulting in naturally more diverse student bodies, students will have the opportunity to live and study alongside peers from across the country and around the world. In addition to the holistic process bringing in students from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, a multitude of different financial backgrounds and personal upbringings are represented at colleges that use this process.

Consider what hard-earned life lessons each student in the examples below can share with their peers, and you can begin to see the benefits of such a diverse student body.

  • A student who started working part-time at 15 to save for college
  • The legacy student who has loved this college since they were a child
  • Foreign exchange students, each with a unique upbringing and perspective
  • The student who’s traveled the country as their parents pursued different jobs
  • A fully-fledged Instagram influencer and their inherent marketing talents


Overall, the holistic admission system is designed to allow students to focus their high school years on being better students in every aspect of their education. With the focus shifted from test scores and grade averages, the holistic approach gives students the freedom to work toward growth in every aspect of their lives.  

Because colleges that use this system consider your circumstances and the context of your achievements, students are no longer held back by factors out of their control and can truly showcase their talents and passions.

How Do Holistic Admissions Benefit Colleges?

Alongside the benefits for students, the benefits of holistic admissions for colleges are less tangible. Using this review process lengthens the time officials must spend on each application and what they must look for. However, there are still plenty of positive outcomes for colleges that switch to a holistic review system, and most colleges find the system to be well worth the extra effort.


We’ll preface this section by saying that, yes, college admissions across the board have a rocky reputation right now. If you haven’t been following the news, we’re referencing the 2019 FBI investigation into the bribery of admission officials by wealthy parents that was code named, quite ironically, Operation Varsity Blues. However, the holistic approach to admissions is a step in the right direction to address many of the most common complaints with the typical academic-focused admissions approach.

For years, colleges have been accused of everything awful under the sun that could pertain to a selection process. From nepotism to inequality, higher education as a whole has dealt with a variety of issues internally to create a fairer admissions process for all.

Like any institution, no college is perfect. However, with a comprehensive approach to admissions through a holistic review, colleges are making significant progress in making admissions a fair process for all of their students.


Just as students benefit from a more diverse student body, so do the colleges themselves. With students from around the world bringing their perspective to campus, colleges can grow and expand just as their students can. With a diverse student body comes new cultures, traditions, and ideas that every student on campus can benefit from.

For example, who could better spread knowledge and appreciation of the culture and history of different social groups than a passionate student organization led by members of that very group? This student-led group will be able to share their experiences and history with their fellow students, leading to a more empathetic and knowledgeable student body overall.

Not only will this understanding of other people benefit students in college, but it will help them fit into an increasingly diverse working world, transitioning into their careers with ease!


One way that colleges take full advantage of the holistic admissions process is by creating essay prompts focused on the school’s values and mission. The college essays written by students are an important part of holistic review and a common way for colleges to determine how a student’s personal values align with the college’s vision and mission.  

Therefore, students should always carefully read over a college’s mission statement, values, and holistic review process before sitting down to write a college essay.


The biggest advantage of holistic college admissions is that student’s circumstances and situations are taken into consideration. No longer will students “fall through the cracks” due to factors out of their control. With the holistic approach to applications, students are judged by how they took advantage of the opportunities available to them.

Let’s say you come from a small, rural school with few extracurricular options. Rather than being judged for only participating in a handful of activities, the holistic approach will take into consideration that you’re a member of 3 out of the 5 clubs at your school, and that you’ve taken considerable responsibilities and leadership roles in all 3. You won’t be penalized for your circumstances, and you’ll be given credit where credit is due. That’s a wonderful thing for students and colleges from all walks of life!

How You Can Tailor Your College Application To Holistic Review

The three most important aspects when tailoring your application for a holistic review process are:

  • Highlighting your strengths and respecting your weaknesses
  • Tying your application together in your college essays
  • Creating a cohesive picture of the type of student you are

As we’ve discussed, your grades and test scores are not the only factor being considered in a holistic review, but they are still essential. Do the work required on your end to maintain your grades and improve your test scores. Once your grades are in a good place, there are several steps you should take to best present yourself in an application that will go through a holistic review.  

First, always choose authenticity.  

College admissions officials have read more than their fair share of overly fanciful college essays and letters of recommendation; what the admissions officials really want to hear is the true story of you, your accomplishments, and your ideas. Don’t get lost in the weeds trying to sound like a stereotypical Ivy League/Georgia Tech/UPenn/etc... student, as this stereotype is often far from what admissions officials want to hear.

Second, make sure you’re taking full advantage of extracurricular activities and any other non-academic achievements of note that you’ve already done. If you can tie your summer spent as a camp counselor to your dream of being a therapist, that’s one more piece of proof that creates a cohesive picture of who you are.

Finally, make sure your application makes sense when taken as a whole. If your entire focus on the form section of the Common Application was listing extracurriculars and achievements in botany, your college essays shouldn’t switch gears to only reference your passion for racing motocross. Do your best to create a story that makes sense, like that of the award-winning motocross racer and his love for the local community garden when he’s not traveling the country for races.

Your job when filling out a holistic application is to show the admissions officials how one part of your story bleeds into the next, in addition to how your passions fuel each other to make you an ideal student for their institution.

Fortunately, our WeAdmit counselors are well-versed in helping students create cohesive college applications. We work with our students to tailor their applications to each college’s unique approach to the holistic review process. Whether you’re having trouble tying your story together, or have no idea where to start with your college applications, we have the know-how needed to get you through every step of the holistic college admissions process; and we’d love to help!

So, What Story Will You Tell Through Your Application?



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