3 Holistic College Admissions Trends to Watch

By Caroline Duda Jan. 5, 2015

At some schools, getting into college is about more than just high school GPA and test scores. Some colleges are moving toward evaluation methods like video chats that allow students to showcase what makes them unique in a way academic transcripts cannot.

As admissions committees focus on reviewing applications for next year's college class, high school juniors across the nation are beginning to prepare for their own admissions cycle. If this describes you, you likely already realize how difficult it can be to concurrently complete your course work, gather application information and track annual changes to items like the Common Application.

College admissions is an ever-evolving world, and for members of the Class of 2020, there is another application aspect to consider – the holistic option. The term "holistic admissions" refers to an application system that evaluates the candidate as a whole, including his or her mentality, not just a collection of his or her documents.

As criticism of current admissions practices such as standardized tests increases, promising new alternatives are emerging. Here are three to familiarize yourself with this winter: 

1. Tasks that highlight skills that are crucial in college: While the revised SAT intends to more closely align its content with the realities of high school and university classrooms, institutions like Bard College have redesigned their entire application to the same end. The Bard Entrance Examination requires four 2,500-word essays, a letter of recommendation and an official transcript.

Applicants can choose from a bank of 21 questions, which enables them to demonstrate their particular academic interests and strengths. Each prompt mirrors a typical college assignment, and with its mandatory categories – arts and literature, science and mathematics, and social science, history, and philosophy, the college can far more effectively assess students' ability to complete general education requirements.

2. Application portfolios that mold themselves to the uniqueness of students: Holistic admissions practices have previously allowed applicants to opt out of tests like the ACT and SAT. Bennington College’s dimensional application, however, represents a new realm of flexibility for students.

The Dimensional Application has no required documents. Instead, it asks applicants to build a portfolio that demonstrates their academic achievement including their creation and revision processes, classroom and community involvement and their writing skills. 

This form of holistic admissions lends itself especially well to alternative genres of exploration and expression, from musical composition to scientific experimentation. It is also a natural platform for highlighting the connections between your course work and extracurriculars.

3. Videos that expand communication options: The ability to write well is critical to success in higher education, but so is strong verbal communication, as well as a sense of initiative and purpose. If you find writing to be challenging but you excel in other areas, trends like Goucher College’s video application are for you.

A two-minute video supplants traditional application materials, such as exam results and high school GPAs. The simple video prompt asks applicants to describe how and why they would excel at Goucher College. Students are also required to submit two works from their high school years, one of which must be a graded writing assignment. In some ways, the video application evaluates an applicant’s drive and vision, rather than his or her educational past.

Not all colleges and universities offer holistic admissions, and not all students will be comfortable with this option. As you investigate prospective schools, ask yourself what message you want to send to admissions committees and what aspects of your background you want to highlight. 

The method you ultimately choose, whether holistic or traditional, should speak to your intentions and capabilities. Holistic admissions often involves more care – not less work – but for the right applicant, its advantages can be tremendous.