What Exactly Does "Holistic Review" Mean?

If you’ve been to a college information session, you’ve heard the phrase “holistic review.” It’s been 7 years since I applied to college and the term still makes me roll my eyes. Yeah, yeah, sure, I would think during campus visits, but what ACT score do I really need? What GPA should I have so you don’t throw out my application before you see that I’m captain of the basketball team and cured malaria?* 

Call me an engineer, but the idea of a holistic application review seemed fluffy. I wanted facts, figures, and undeniable statistics I could wrap my head around and use as benchmarks to estimate my chances of acceptance. But the more seasons of admissions decisions I’ve witnessed, and the more research has come out, the better I understand why colleges cling to this phrase so religiously: the raw numbers you put on your application aren’t as reliable as we think.

Michael Hurwitz of the College Board and Jason Lee, a PhD student at Georgia Tech, recently performed a study indicating that students’ GPA’s are becoming unreliable indicators of academic excellence due to what has become known as grade inflation. In other words, everyone’s getting A’s so now nobody stands out. As any good scientist would, I’m slightly skeptical of this information; when examining the results of any experiment, you have to look at the inherent biases. 

The fact that this study -- which downplays the reliability of school grades and promotes heavier reliance upon standardized test scores -- was funded by the CollegeBoard is no coincidence. It’s a smart marketing play on their part. Recent changes to the SAT were inspired by test takers implying their scores were less reliable, their test “harder,” than the ACT. And any educational professional will tell you that standardized test scores, too, are skewed by things like socioeconomic status, availability of SAT/ACT prep, unique learning styles, and more variables that make face value judgments unhelpful. However, this doesn’t entirely invalidate Hurwitz and Lee’s point: college admissions officers are hard pressed to evaluate your application based on GPA alone. 

According to Grace, an LP Advisor, when she worked as a Stanford Admission Officer, this concept confused a lot of potential applicants. “Every day people would ask me, How am I evaluated if my school doesn’t report class rank? Am I at a disadvantage if my school “inflates” grades? Am I at a disadvantage if my school doesn’t inflate, or even deflates grades?” 

(If you’re asking yourself these very questions now, the answers are (A) contextually, (B) no, and (C) no.)

“The thing to keep in mind is that beyond raw grade point averages, admission officers are looking at grade and score distributions at your school as a whole. Especially at schools that don’t provide rankings, four year graduation rates, as well as average SAT/ACT scores and AP score distribution in your graduating class, will further flesh out this context. The school report, often submitted by your guidance counselor, will provide university admissions with this information.”

The takeaway? Your application will be read in the context of your school and your community. Do your best with the resources available -- take all of the Honors and AP classes you can, and aim to be at the top of your class. Then, look beyond the numbers. While they are a necessary part of the college process, seize your opportunity to be reviewed “holistically” by investing time and energy into enjoyable intellectual pursuits and opportunities to improve your community. 

It’s a good thing your GPA isn’t enough  - and your SAT or ACT score either. You’re more than that. 

*Contrary to popular belief, I, Julia Phillips, did not cure malaria -- just for the record.