What are holistic admissions?

Posted on 5th September 2022

What are holistic admissions?

One thing that makes US admissions unique is that they are 'holistic.' But what does it mean for admissions to be holistic? What should you be thinking about when preparing a US application, or when considering applying to US universities?

When we say that US admissions are holistic, what we mean is that applicants are assessed on more than just their grades and standardised test scores. US admissions officers will take into account other aspects of applications, such as extracurricular activities, essays (both a personal essay and college-specific essays), teacher recommendation letters, how much interest applicants have shown in the college, and whether they fit the values of the college and its particular curriculum (you can read more about curricula and fit in our previous blogs). They are interested in getting the whole picture of who you are, and what motivates you to do what you do.

The other thing that makes applications holistic is that there is no clearly defined weighting system for the different aspects of the application. This means students can't be 100% certain which bits are more important than others, so will have to balance what they do against the values of the college. This is where experts can help - they know from experience what a college looks for, even if they don't say it explicitly!

You can see that if students are planning to apply to the US, they will need to concentrate on more than just getting good grades! So, the high school experience for a US applicant should ideally be different to that of a student applying to only UK universities. Don't let that seem daunting: all the things needed for a US application actually help students to explore their passions and be involved with not just academics, but all the different things in life that can prepare them for later success. You can find out more about each aspect below:

  • Extracurricular activities: previous blog here
  • College essays: previous blogs here and here
  • Teacher recommendations: previous blog here
  • Demonstrated interest: here

Match of values

Another more nebulous aspect of holistic admissions is the match of values between applicant and university. Some colleges, like Notre Dame, value serving one's community and getting on well with others as much, or more, than academic grades. Other colleges, like the University of Virginia, have honor codes, showing the emphasis they put on personal character and ethics. To make successful US applications, you must assess your values, match them to the colleges to which you're applying, and then make these values clear in your application in your essays, activities, and letters of recommendation.

Academic fit

Throughout this blog, we have emphasised how academics aren't everything in holistic admissions! However, they do play an important role, and one way that this comes across in a different way than just having high enough grades to gain admission to a college, is through the idea of academic fit. Although students generally study a wide range of subjects at US colleges before specialising, different colleges have very different types of curricula, which you can read about here . You'll need to think about whether you suit a strong core curriculum with lots of required courses, an open curriculum that allows you massive flexibility, or something in between.

Why are US admissions holistic?

Some aspects of US admissions reflect the educational experience there; for example, standardised testing is a part of the educational experience from primary school onward, and activities play more of a role in the school experience as well. But holistic admissions also reflect the educational ethos of US colleges. Like US schools, they offer a range of non-academic activities and clubs, and want to attract students who will get involved with all these aspects of university life: from studying in the library, to joining cultural, religious, and/or volunteer organisations; sports and clubs; academic societies, and/or Greek organisations (fraternities and sororities).

So, if you have been quite academically focused in school, that’s understandable, as grades tend to be the main focus of UK schooling (as they prepare students to specialise at UK universities). If you’re considering applying to the US early on in high school, think about what your other passions and interests are, and carve out time to explore these interests alongside your academics.

Rather than viewing holistic admissions as daunting, think about them as positive: US colleges are interested in the person and the story behind the grades. To make a successful application, you’ll want to craft a cohesive story about who you are, what you do, and why you do it: your application can be viewed as a text in which you open up a wider dialogue about your identity and passions, how they diverge and intersect, and how you can express yourself and connect with the wider community around you.

For guidance on the different aspects of US applications and on crafting your unique story through these applications, our excellent and rapidly expanding college counselling department can help! Our counsellors come from backgrounds including university admissions, high school counselling, and creative fields like music and theatre, and love helping students through the process. For more info, contact consultancy@ueseducation.com or book a free call with one of our experts.

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