A Realistic Look at Holistic Review of Applications
“We review applications holistically based on several factors, including courses taken, grades received, college essay, activities and honors, recommendations, and, if submitted, test scores.” This is what you will find if you review Agnes Scott’s website for information on how we review your application. But what, exactly, does it mean to review applications holistically? And what does it mean at Agnes Scott?
Over the past few years, many colleges and universities in the country have moved to a form of admission application review called “holistic.” In theory, a holistic review would mean that someone in the admission office is reading and reviewing every part of your application. However, if we look at every institution that says they read holistically, we know that’s somewhat impossible; some institutions receive tens of thousands of applications for a relatively small admission staff to consider.
Perhaps it’s best, then, to consider holistic application review from the perspective of its Merriam-Webster definition: “relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts.” Holistic medicine, for example, was created to focus on the whole body and the mind when diagnosing and treating a patient, as opposed to treating individual symptoms. Holistic admission can be considered similarly: it’s considering the information on an application as a part of a whole story about a student’s high school experience.
The easiest way to think about it is that we’re interested in more than just results–we’re also interested in the choices you’ve made and the circumstances that have surrounded you during your time in high school to create a full picture. Let’s take a look at that first sentence about our holistic review process again.
“Including courses taken…”
We’re interested in the courses you chose to take in the context of what you were offered. It’s not just a checklist of “did they take 10 AP classes, yes or no?” We’re looking to answer a lot of questions through your transcript and the information from your school. Did you take the full curriculum we recommend (four years each of English/Lit, mathematics, laboratory or physical science and social science + 2 years of foreign language)? Did you take more or less in any area? How many advanced courses are offered at your high school? How many did you choose to take? In what academic areas did you choose to take them? How does that align with where you tell us your passions lie? This gives us a fuller picture of the choices you have made regarding your own education.
Obviously, we’re interested in your academic success. However, we’re realists here at Agnes Scott: we don’t expect that every student that applies has a 4.0, especially if you made the above choices to challenge yourself in your coursework. When we are considering your transcript, we’re looking for any outlier grades and to see that you worked hard for the grades you received. We also take into account anything you include in the additional information sections on the application, which are your place to explain any outlier grades. We understand that sometimes circumstances beyond your control affect your grades, but we can only take that into account if we know the circumstances, so make sure to utilize those additional information sections.
“College essay (and supplemental answers)…”
We’re big fans of the college essay at Agnes Scott for one key reason: the college essay and the answers to your Agnes Scott supplemental questions are the only place you really get to speak for yourself in the application process. We know that students sometimes put a lot of pressure on themselves about the essay, so let us assure you: we’re not looking for publisher-quality work here, nor are we taking a red pen and marking every single grammatical error. We are reading to understand your background and your story; your passions and goals; and your interest and excitement for Agnes Scott in the supplemental questions. We’re also making sure your writing is on-level for a high school senior. We want to make sure from your writing that when you turn in your first paper at Agnes Scott, you are prepared and have the basics of writing down.
A note on these as well: we’ve run several experiments. We know when you’re not the one writing your essay, whether it’s a parent, a friend or an AI writing it for you. You’re better served in the long run by writing your own essay–the worst thing that could happen is you don’t and then you struggle or fail classes in college because you weren’t prepared for the writing.
“Activities and honors….”
Again, just like with courses chosen, this isn’t a checklist. We aren’t looking to make sure you did X number of activities with X leadership roles. We’re reading your activity list with an eye toward your passions and interests. We’d much rather read about multiple years with a lot of time dedicated to a music group you love than five scattered clubs you aren’t truly interested in. We also are reading these with an eye toward circumstances. Make sure you fill your activity section with a full list of how you spend your time; if you spend a significant amount of time working a part-time job, caring for relatives for siblings or working with one specific organization, make sure to include that as well.
Yes, we read the letters of recommendation from your teachers. We’re reading them to understand what kind of student you are in the classroom and if they have any special insight about what kind of student you would be in our classrooms. When you are requesting letters of recommendation, consider that when you are considering who to ask for a letter. You want someone who knows you well and can describe you as a student, as an academic and as a person.
“And, if submitted, test scores.”
The submission of SAT or ACT scores is optional for all of our undergraduate applicants; 58% of the Class of 2027 did not submit their test scores, and you are not required to do so to qualify for any of our top scholarships. If you do decide to submit your test scores, it should be because you think they are representative of you as a student or tell us something additional about you that we couldn’t learn from your application.
I hope this peek into our version of holistic is helpful and, I’m hopeful, able to dispel some of the anxiety about the admission process. Of course, the first step to this process is you actually submitting an application. We hope to be holistically reading your application soon!
Rachel West is the Director of Enrollment Marketing at Agnes Scott College. Her favorite part of the college application is always the essay, and her own college essay was about her love of swings.