How Colleges Do Holistic Admissions

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: September 17, 2020

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For the 2021-2022 admissions cycle, many colleges and universities are adopting test-optional policies. As a result, many have also expressed that they’d be reviewing college applications holistically. In other words, when deciding who to admit, college admissions committees will consider a range of factors, qualitative and quantitative applicant information. 

In this post, I will help you answer questions about the holistic admissions process, including:

  • What are holistic admissions?
  • What factors will admissions committees consider when reviewing your application holistically?
  • How do you know if your application will make the cut in this new test-optional environment?
  • Why do good grades and test scores still matter?

As a bonus, in this post I have included a companion workbook to evaluate if you are ready for the holistic admissions process. Download the companion workbook to this post to self-evaluate how your application would be reviewed by an admissions committee.

What is Holistic Admissions?

When a college reviews your application from a “holistic” viewpoint, they are evaluating your unique experiences coupled with traditional evidence of academic excellence such as grades and SAT and ACT scores. With this approach, colleges and universities can consider a range of factors that help prove you are ready for college. Often, schools such as Columbia University, share on their website the exact factors they look for and state their mission-driven purpose is to “….find the students who are the best fit for Columbia.”

"Each year, there are many more qualified applicants than there are places in our class. With such an appealing pool of applicants, it is the job of the admissions committee to get to know all students and select those that we believe will take greatest advantage of the unique Columbia experience and will offer something meaningful in return to the community."


Let’s get specific. Student A has a 3.6 GPA, is captain of the swim team, and plays the trumpet. Student B has a 4.0 GPA and no extracurricular activities to report. Student A may be favored. Students who write a better essay may get admitted over a student who writes a flat essay, even if they have higher SAT scores.  In essence, a college with a holistic admissions policy will be looking at your interests, motivations, unique TALENTS, and the contributions you can make to the campus community.

What Factors are Considered in Holistic Admissions?

Take challenging high school courses that show academic promise. Ideally, you will have Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Honors, and dual enrollment college courses to report. Also, know that it’s better to show improvement from 9th to 12th grade, than to show a sharp decline. If your record shows poor performance, then you’ll have to explain what caused the dip in the additional information section of your college application.  Download this high school course planner to design a challenging high school program.

Get involved in extracurricular activities to show your passion for outside of school interests. Your goal is not to get involved in as many activities as your schedule can handle. Rather, you should aim to explore things you’re genuinely interested in and engage with them deeply. In other words, depth is better than breadth. Focus on finding activities that you enjoy, fuel your growth, and set you up to connect with and/or make an impact in the lives of others.

Professional resume that highlights extracurricular activities, but also work experiences, hobbies, and conveys organization and the purpose that drives your overall high school experience is professional and shows you’re ready for the world of work, a key goal of colleges and universities.

Click above to download free resume templates.

Teacher recommendation letters that speak to and further explain your strengths and qualities as a contributing member to a classroom and campus community. Teacher recommendation letters are social proof that corroborates your self-reported information and adds dimension and depth to your application and scores. Read this article about how to ask a teacher for a recommendation letter.

Winning college essay that tells your story in an interesting and authentic way. When done right, a strong essay shows your ability to think, problem-solve, and write at the collegiate level. To get started with your essay, you can start here with a method I use with students to write a strong draft.

Interviews with college representatives or alumni that give you a chance to meet someone from the college in-person, get your questions answered, and make an impression. Not all colleges require or consider interviews. If anything, it’s an opportunity to speak to someone who can give you details you can add to your application to demonstrate your interest and knowledge of the school.

Demonstrated interest that provides insight into your excitement about the college. Examples of demonstrated interest include social media engagement (like and follow the college admissions pages), virtual and in-person college visits, attendance at college fairs, communication with the admissions officer who represents your geographic area, submitting your application during the Early Action or Early Decision rounds, to name a few can play into demonstrated interest.

Diversity, which is valued at many colleges and universities as a way to enrich the campus community. What qualities — such as race, religion, geography, and gender for example — are valued depends on the college. For example, schools in the midwest may admit a student in California over another student in Illinois to diversify the student roster.

Legacy is helpful if you have a sibling, parent, or another close family member who attended or is currently attending the college.

Scores Still Matter

Even in a holistic admissions process, grades and test scores do matter. They show that you are ready for the rigor of college coursework. No other part of your application — your essay, resume, or recommendation letters – can make up for poor scores that show your unlikeliness to succeed academically. This year of COVID-19, grades matter most. If you can take the SAT or the ACT exam, it can help – but won’t hurt you.

Get Your Free Workbook

To self-evaluate how your application will be reviewed by the admissions committee, download your workbook here. The workbook is a editable Google slides document you can use to answer questions about your college application and score your application to determine your admissions chances.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.