Holistic College Admissions during COVID-19

Holistic admissions is nothing new. For decades, colleges have described their admissions processes as “holistic,” “whole person,” or “comprehensive.” But the ways that holistic admissions processes will play out during this year’s application season will probably look a lot different than usual.

WHAT IS HOLISTIC ADMISSIONS?

Schools that practice holistic admissions look beyond test scores and grades to get a picture of you as a person. Your test scores, grades, and course selections are, of course, incredibly important, but they don’t tell the whole story. Admissions officers use your essays, information about your extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and other details to gain a sense of who you are. Do you take initiative? Do you rise to a challenge? Are you creative? Are you a problem-solver? These are the traits that admissions officers can’t see on your transcript or your test score report.

HOW DOES HOLISTIC ADMISSIONS USUALLY WORK?

At selective schools, holistic admissions usually comes into play after an initial review of applications. Super selective colleges have tons of applications to sift through in a very short period of time. To make the process more efficient, they will often use test scores and grades as a first round of cuts—in other words, if your test scores or grades are too low, your application probably won’t get a super in-depth holistic review.

Once they’ve eliminated those applicants whose academics just aren’t up to par, admissions officers will examine more personal aspects of the application in greater depth.

This is much more of an art than a science. After all, if their academics are comparable, how does one choose between a star athlete who volunteers in a soup kitchen on weekends and an award-winning thespian who looks after her younger siblings while her parents work on weekends? Which student will bring greater value and diversity to the campus, and which one will be most likely to succeed at the school?

Because holistic admissions processes are intended to identify interesting, well-rounded students who can add value to the school’s community, there’s no magical formula that makes you an ideal applicant—you need to excel academically, yes, but you also need that certain something extra that makes you the right fit.

HOW WILL COVID-19 CHANGE THE HOLISTIC ADMISSIONS PROCESS?

Since Covid-19 has thrown a massive wrench in applicants’ academic opportunities, the test scores and grades that usually provide a helpful filter will be less useful this year. Many colleges have gone test optional, so while a really good test score will certainly still help your application, the lack of one won’t sink your chances the way it once would. And while colleges usually consider grades from junior year to be of the utmost importance, most will overlook less than perfect grades (or pass/fail reports) from spring of 2020 due to academic interruptions from Covid-19.

In other words, the admissions process this year will probably be a lot more holistic than normal.

Here’s how that affects this year’s applicants:

  • Admission decisions will be more holistic and therefore less predictable. Hedge your bets with additional safety schools!
  • Great grades and test scores are still important. This year, instead of being a way to weed out applicants who don’t make the cut, these numbers will help you stand out of the crowd.
  • Make your application shine with punchy activities descriptions, intriguing essays, and thoughtful supplements. Spend extra time and effort on all of your essays—in a holistic application review process, the essay speaks volumes.
  • Be particularly careful in selecting teachers, coaches, or mentors to write recommendation letters. Select people with whom you share a strong relationship, and ask them for their support well in advance of deadlines. Don’t forget a thoughtful thank you note!

COLLEGE ROADMAP

FRESHMAN

  • You’ve got time before applications are due, but it’s time to think about what interests you have outside academics and pick some extracurriculars.
  • Try anything that sounds interesting. Don’t try to think about what “will look good” on an application or what you think colleges will be looking for. Be yourself and explore your passions.

SOPHOMORE

  • Continue trying new things and delving deeper into extracurriculars you started last year.
  • As you move through high school, try to take on larger roles within clubs or groups and demonstrated increased leadership and responsibility.

JUNIOR

  • It’s not too late to try something new, but also continue to expand responsibilities in activities you’re already participating in.
  • COVID-19 has thrown many activities into disarray, so you may have to be creative in figuring out ways to continue.
  • You can also use this time to explore new interests, start a new online or socially distanced club, or teach yourself something new. We’re limited in many ways by COVID-19, but there are lots of opportunities out there!

SENIOR

  • It’s not too late to try something new, but also continue to expand responsibilities in activities you’re already participating in.
  • COVID-19 has thrown many activities into disarray, so you may have to be creative in figuring out ways to continue.
  • You can also use this time to explore new interests, start a new online or socially distanced club, or teach yourself something new. We’re limited in many ways by COVID-19, but there are lots of opportunities out there!