Colleges adopt holistic admissions to gain diverse student populations

By Whitney Blair Wyckoff

In an effort to admit a more diverse student body, more colleges are beginning to use holistic admissions when considering potential students.

The process allows admissions teams at universities to judge the whole applicant rather than focusing on test scores and grades alone. Most schools who go holistic emphasize personal statements, answers to brief essay questions and extracurricular lists when considering an applicant.

“It’s not just plugging in a number, but reading everything there in the application folder,” said Gretchen W. Rigol, the former vice president of the College Board who now works on special projects related to diversity.

The University has taken this approach for years, said Stacey Kostell, director of admissions. This year’s undergraduate application used two essay questions that, along with the applicant’s high school activity list, allowed the admissions staff to evaluate the candidate holistically. Kostell said that diversity does not only equate to racial or ethnic factors, but that admissions also keeps an eye out for geographic diversity and students who would be the first in their families to attend college.

However, Kostell said that diversity is not the only factor under consideration.

“We tell students that academics are still the most important, not necessarily test scores, but performance,” she said.

Rigol said that many schools have been using holistic admissions for years. Some colleges accept the highest caliber candidates and then use the holistic method for students who are in the middle. But now, many more schools are evaluating all of their candidates holistically. This method is also being used at many competitive, private institutions.

Rigol said that many schools have a slightly different approach to judging students holistically.

“They review the application in their particular context,” said Rigol, who is also the author of “Admissions decision-making models: How U.S. institutions of higher education select undergraduate students.”

She said often public institutions strive to serve all students in the state, and they try to draw people from all areas of the state. Those schools adjust their holistic method accordingly.

“There’s no best way,” Rigol said. “All colleges and universities have different missions.”

Holistic admissions is known by many different names. In the University of California system, it is referred to as comprehensive review, and the University of Michigan calls it individual review.

Three years ago, Oregon State University implemented a holistic admissions program. According to a March article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michele Sandlin, director of admissions, said this new method has resulted in a more diverse campus and a higher year-to-year retention rate.

In the article, Sandlin said that this new method has also red flagged dangerous potential students, who, in years past, would have been accepted without a hitch. Their holistic admissions method uncovered a candidate who turned out to be a potentially violent white supremacist and a girl who had suicidal tendencies.