The False Promise of 'Holistic' College Admissions

Many institutions claim to evaluate applicants based on who they are as people rather than simply looking at test scores and grades—an approach that incites anxiety in students and parents alike.
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College applicants these days take the admissions process so personally. Not because today’s youth can’t face disappointment, but because the system for applying to selective colleges in the United States asks students to view the process as, well, personal.

This begins when students decide where to apply. As an applicant, you’re urged to find the school that’s most in line with your “personality.” Then comes the college admissions essay. Even students not the least bit inclined to confessional writing are asked to spill to strangers (and to parents who may be reading the thing over). You’re invited to show your truest self by sharing a story you might normally reserve for close friends.

All of this is leading up to the most personal aspect of the entire process: the “holistic” measures by which schools judge applications. In exchange for your candor (‘here are my parents’ tax returns, my transcript, an essay about my deepest secret, and some letters from my teachers about what I’m really like’), many colleges promise to evaluate you as a human being. Applicants to Oberlin, for example, learn the following:

When making our admissions decisions, we draw upon a holistic review process. The holistic review allows us to get a sense of not only the applicant's academic qualifications, but also of what the applicant is like as a person, and what they will contribute to the Oberlin community.

Consider what’s being promised—not just by Oberlin, but also by selective schools generally. (The Common Application also encourages a “holistic selection process.”) Admissions committees don’t simply take factors beyond GPA and SATs into account. They claim that they're judging each applicant – as Oberlin puts it – "as a person."

The illogic of “holistic” is striking, as I’ve been pointing out since 2009; as Jason Willick’s excellent 2012 Daily Californian op-ed indicates, some students are beginning to question it as well.  Willick explained the drawbacks to “holistic” as follows:

There are two serious problems with this portrayal of college admissions. The first is that it is dishonest—and arrogant in the extreme—for admissions offices to claim that they are entitled to pass judgment on the character of each of the tens of thousands of 17- and 18-year-olds whose applications they read each year. Berkeley’s admissions officers have at their disposal a transcript, test scores, a list of extracurricular activities and two short essays. On the basis of this information, colleges can make some inferences about an applicant’s academic ability. They cannot possibly rate the quality of applicants’ personalities.

Second, it is unhealthy for anxious high school students applying to college to be under the impression that they are facing a type of comprehensive judgment—not just of their academic and extracurricular performance but of their quality as human beings and their value to their communities. Students who are accepted are effectively told that they are not only academically superior, but morally superior, to the applicants who were rejected. And students who don’t get in may feel they were rejected because of some personal deficiency.

The issue, then, isn’t that schools look beyond grades and scores. It’s that admissions committees don’t really know applicants personally, and that their claiming to do so is bad for students. Isn’t it better, Willick and I have both argued, to be rejected as an applicant than “as a person”?

From colleges’ perspective, “holistic” is just shorthand for, we make the decisions we make, and would rather not be asked to spell out each one. It’s a way for schools to discreetly take various sensitive factors—“overrepresented” minorities, or students whose families might donate a gym—into account. Of course admissions committees don’t know each applicant personally. But they’ve settled on this language, I suspect, because it’s a succinct way to express the truth, which is that the process is subjective but not arbitrary.

“Holistic” language is central to how students understand the application process. On the New York Times’s college-admissions blog, then-high school senior Michael Campbell wrote of “the struggle to disassociate an admissions rejection from the rejection of me as a person.” Yet he added, “I hope colleges see and evaluate ‘human me,’ not just ‘transcript-test-scores-class-rank me.’” Unfortunately, it’s the very notion that a college might be able to identify “the real and complete Michael Campbell” that makes rejection that much more difficult.

Another senior, Suzy Lee Weiss, notoriously took to The Wall Street Journal to announce her post-decision disappointments: “For years, they—we—were lied to. Colleges tell you, ‘Just be yourself,’" she lamented; just being herself wasn’t enough. While the piece itself came across as entitled, Weiss’s initial observation was spot-on. Colleges do tell students that they’re being judged on the basis of some indefinable quality that transcends the materials provided.

Many applicants, though, seem to be seduced by “holistic.” It sounds like a gentler form of judgment. It’s a word associated with healing and high-end skin creams, not the sting of the proverbial thin envelope. That team of caring experts isn’t going to hold that D in chemistry against you, are they?

I suspect that many parents, too, find “holistic” reassuring, because it promises an alternative to standardized tests and quick judgments. Parents, after all, tend to think about their children as good people, certainly as whole people, so why wouldn’t they want colleges to do the same?

But “holistic” may tap into deeper anxieties, and be a response to two unrelated but intertwined parental fears: first, that a simpler process short-changes underprivileged kids, and second, that the offspring of wealthy families will be—horrors!—reduced to the sum of their scores, their unquantifiable strengths not given proper consideration. “Holistic,” then, speaks to many well-off, highly-involved parents who insist their kids are academically gifted, no matter the evidence. For whichever cultural reasons, the same parents also often have a sense of social justice—that the system is unfair to poor and minority applicants. “Holistic” appeals to such parents because it neatly addresses both concerns. It reconciles a democratic ideal with the undemocratic desire for one’s own children to succeed.

“Holistic” evaluations may be superior to algorithms, but what’s clear is they’re not actually holistic. Much of who a person is would be off-topic or altogether inappropriate for colleges to take into account, even if it were possible for them to do so. If someone frail or ten months pregnant gets on the bus, do you give up your seat? Are you devastatingly attractive to your preferred gender(s)? Ultimately, what’s at stake in college admissions isn’t who you are as a person, but whether you’ve demonstrated that you have the skills and experiences that qualify someone for a slot at a particular institution. If a school rejects you, what they’re really rejecting is your application.

Because schools, parents, and students all find it so persuasive, “holistic” is unlikely to leave us any time soon. The best we can do, then, is to remind applicants and their families that despite what the schools themselves might have them believe, it isn’t personal. 

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Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer based in Princeton, New Jersey. She holds a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University.

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