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What You Need to Know About Holistic College Admissions

You may already be familiar with the concept of holistic review processes for admissions in the United States. It’s the idea that college applicants should not be evaluated only by factors like grades and test scores, but by the whole context of their story, personality, goals, interests, and academic history.

Holistic admissions review became popular in part due to the increased number of applicants to U.S. colleges, both domestically and internationally. How do you choose between applicants with perfect test scores and grades? You must look into other things that can help identify whether one stands out from the rest.

Some students believe they must juggle dozens of extracurricular activities or found a nonprofit to set themselves apart. Yet these are misconceptions. Winning in the game of holistic college admissions is much more about demonstrating your fit and unique contributions than it is about joining as many clubs as possible.

Let’s break down some of the important things you should know to navigate the holistic review process.

The Context of Your High School and Region

Colleges often assign admissions officers (AOs) to read applications from particular regions of the United States, and across the globe. During travel season, they may visit your area, conduct presentations at nearby high schools, and meet with prospective students. These admissions officers are responsible for having a pulse on what applicants from their region are generally like and may have longstanding relationships with college counselors at high schools where a significant number of students apply.

So, when your admissions officer reviews your application, they look at it through the context of the region you are from. This means that colleges understand if you do not have resources to join many extracurricular activities if you live in rural America, but they may expect you to be more engaged in your community if most other students where you live are.  

Even if your admissions officer is not familiar with your high school, your counselor will send colleges a school profile that details information such as the number of advanced courses offered and where previous students have matriculated. This report helps them understand the opportunities available to you. Some schools, for example, limit the number of AP classes students can take, others allow students to take classes at the local community college, and still others use their own system of honors and advanced classes that contrasts the College Board’s AP offerings. Your course schedule will be reviewed in the context of these policies—whether you maxed out the number of advanced courses available to you or if you flew below the typical academic rigor.

Who You Are as a Person

Your personal story—your personality, academic interests, future goals—are taken into consideration. Colleges want to know that in addition to earning high grades, you are able to learn well with others, lend a helping hand to those who need it, and will be a decent roommate to the person you share a dorm with.  

Personal essays and teacher recommendation letters are meant to shine light on these traits. There is no wrong way to demonstrate your personality—except maybe to present yourself in an inauthentic way because you think it is what colleges want.

At the same time, we recommend for students to stray away from common narratives when writing their personal statement, because these make it harder to understand what sets a particular student apart. Be specific about the stories you share to illustrate important parts of yourself. Outside of essays, interviews, emails to your admissions officer, and supplementary materials can be helpful for showing admissions officers who you are as a person.

How Much You Fit

Remember that colleges are not just looking for the most standout student—though showing these characteristics will only help you. They are seeking applicants who belong on their campus and share the values and ethos of the student body. The whole time that your admissions officer is reading your application, he or she will be thinking, “Does this student fit at this college?”

Fit is usually demonstrated through “Why College” essays but it might also be a gut feeling admissions officers have as they read your activities list, recommendation letters, and other parts of your application. Some schools place special emphasis on social justice, while others focus on interdisciplinary interests. Character traits matter here too. The unofficial motto of WashU is to know each student by name and story, so they may be seeking students who are highly relational.

This is why having a firm grasp of why you want to attend a college is important, because your convictions for why you belong on a campus will inevitably seep through as you write your essays and interact with people from the admissions office. In line with fit, your level of interest in a school also gets factored into the process. Learn more about how you can use demonstrated interest to your advantage here.

The Making of a Trail Mix

Most colleges aim to create a diverse student body. Usually when we think about diversity, we think of photos of students from different ethnic backgrounds sitting together on a campus, smiling and engaged in conversation.

While ethnic and cultural background is one criterion that colleges may consider, they also look to build a class of students with diverse academic and extracurricular interests, and from different parts of the world.

Some supplemental essay prompts pointedly ask about diversity. One of Caltech’s four prompts asks, “The process of discovery best advances when people from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives come together. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech’s community?”

While you have no say over how many other students from your cultural background, region, and with your academic interests are in the applicant pool, you can highlight the unique things about who you are and what you hope to study. We see students be successful when they get specific. Instead of a doctor, they say they want to be a brain surgeon; instead of a lawyer, they say they want to be a public defender for undocumented students.

Think about the special spice you can add and highlight it in your applications.

The expert admissions consultants at Wise World Prep have helped hundreds of students maximize their potential of being admitted to their top choice colleges and universities. Over 20 years, we have successfully guided students through each stage of the application process – from choosing competitive high school courses to building an appropriate college list to drafting winning essays to writing persuasive update and appeals letters. We would be happy to answer your questions and partner with you to create a successful admissions roadmap.

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