Is Switching to Holistic Admissions Worth It for Colleges?

With the Supreme Court striking down affirmative action in college admissions and the approaching “enrollment cliff,” finding the students who can succeed in your school—even if their test scores aren’t the highest—can help keep your enrollment numbers solid. Holistic admissions policies are a pathway to finding great students who fit your institution. Plus, if prospects like your school but are uncertain if their grades are up to par, you can offer them ways to bolster their admissions chances with a broader range of criteria for admission.

Benefits of Holistic Admissions for Colleges

Not all students have access to high-quality elementary and secondary education, and many don’t have the resources to excel on academic tests. Some may have gone to high schools with no AP classes, come from families where education wasn’t a focus, or had other mitigating factors limiting their access to academic achievement. On the other hand, a student might have access to resources but lack the motivation to succeed because their passions are in a subject not taught in high school; they may rise to the challenge when allowed to study their chosen subject in college. The diversity of students who could thrive at your school may not fit into neat boxes, so looking beyond a few basics can help you increase your enrollment with students well-matched to your school.

Not only can holistic admission improve the diversity of your incoming classes, but a study of health professions schools found that it also improved student success and graduation rates. Diversity of race, country of origin, socioeconomic background, and other factors can enrich your campus environment, improve your image as a school dedicated to lifting students up, and align with your mission to educate driven students from all backgrounds.

With the multiple crises combining to decrease enrollments and threaten the survival of institutions, reaching further to find students who may have academic deficits but untapped potential makes sense. All students need more support these days, and universities—like public schools—need to step up to the plate to help where other institutions have failed. While you are building your student support programs to match our trying time in higher ed, you can also bring in students with potential but educational gaps.

The Challenges for Enrollment Teams

Sifting through applications has always been challenging, as you often compare oranges to apples. High schools can have a wide variance in the rigor of standard courses, standardized entrance exams have disadvantaged some groups of students, and it isn’t easy to assess just how much any one student contributed to that winning robotics team. Using holistic processes requires more qualitative assessment than just weighing a few extracurriculars.

Holistic admissions require your assessors to consider each applicant in their totality rather than primarily looking at numeric scores and grades. Each assessor may have biases whether they realize it or not. These can be everything from subtle attitudes about different ethnic groups or regions of the country to enthusiasm for students who volunteered for an animal shelter or an environmental organization. Being “fair” could be even more complicated when you try to sum up a person based on the materials they have submitted for your consideration. But soft skills, while harder to assess, are crucial to college and, eventually, workplace success. So, taking the extra care to evaluate each unique individual in a more nuanced way can pay off.

While holistic consideration is more time-consuming, it is imperative to have multiple people assess each application. Assessors are unique individuals, just like the students they are considering, so numerous perspectives on each application help ensure a more “rounded” view of candidates when making admissions choices. You need planning and interdepartmental collaboration to choose the best methods to weigh the factors and determine admissions standards that are relevant to your institution. Then you must apply them in the most equitable fashion.

Factors to Consider

You can only evaluate what students submit with their applications, so it behooves you to offer a wide range of possible submission formats and topics. Here are some suggestions to help guide you, some familiar and others possibly new:

  • Personal essays
  • Recommendation letters
  • In-person, video, or phone interviews
  • Student-submitted video content
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Academic clubs
  • Volunteering and civic engagement
  • Family caring contributions
  • Hobbies and talents outside of academic, sports, and arts realms
  • Scholarly potential
  • Long-term goals
  • Self-awareness, empathy, and cultural competence
  • Adaptability, time management, teamwork, and leadership,
  • Overcoming adversity, perseverance, and resilience
  • Work ethic, accountability, and trustworthiness
  • Alignment with the academic program or mission of the school

Touting Your Holistic Admissions Process Can Encourage Applicants

While many schools have long considered other factors in making the final cut for their incoming classes, students who didn’t fall into the common grade and score ranges may not have applied. They may have believed that their extracurricular activities, community service, and life stories would only be considered if their grades were excellent.

Holistic admissions policies can help you recruit students who may not have thought to apply. You can tailor more of your advertising to encourage prospects with personal qualities, life experiences, passions, and soft skills that align with your programs. Not only can you broaden your applicant pool, but you can enroll students who are more likely to persist, graduate, and go on to become advocates for future generations of students.

We’re here to help you revamp your recruitment marketing for these volatile times. Don’t hesitate to contact us at to discuss your enrollment marketing strategies.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you adapt to the evolving education marketing landscape and ramp up your efforts, please contact us today.

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The Annual PARENT & Student Survey

Advance Education conducted a nationwide survey to learn what students and their parents are looking for from institutions – and the right marketing channels to reach them.

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