• Laura Rich

The Whole Truth about Holistic Review

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

When you begin your college search, you will often hear the term “holistic review” used when describing how colleges review applications and make admissions decisions. What does holistic review really mean?

Like Sherlock Holmes solving a crime, admissions officers review all available information in an attempt to find the "real you." Many colleges divide this review into two equal parts: “Academic Achievement” and “Personal Achievement.” This blog will explore how each of the pieces in the holistic process plays an important part in the ultimate admissions decision.

When I was an admissions officer at a high selective university, the first question I would usually be asked by both students and parents was, “What GPA and test score do I need to be admitted?” While some colleges do make admissions decisions through a strictly scholastic process, (e.g, if a student has a certain GPA/class rank and test score they will be offered admission), many highly selective colleges use a more thorough review process that takes many factors into consideration in addition to “the numbers.” This is holistic review. With applications reaching record highs every year, many colleges are having to transition to holistic review, since more students are applying with admissible numbers than there are spaces available.


  • Transcript (Grades/Class Rank)

  • Rigor of Curriculum

  • Test Scores

Transcript: Many colleges look at class rank rather than GPA, so they can assess how a student performed in relation to his or her peers in their specific academic environment. They also assess how a student performed over their high school career. Was there an upward trend in grades over the student’s high school years? Many colleges will also recalculate a student’s GPA using the college’s proprietary method. This can include taking out honors/AP points and elective grades.

Rigor of Curriculum: Colleges will look at a student’s school’s profile to see if they took advantage of rigorous curriculum opportunities. Rigor has become a very important factor in college admissions, especially for highly selective colleges.

  • Did a student take advantage of the AP and Honors classes their school offered if they found the regular curriculum less challenging?

  • If so, how many rigorous courses did they take compared to the other students in their class?

  • Did the student especially focus on an advanced curriculum that would compliment their future major? For example, if a student is interested in a STEM field, colleges prefer that the student completed calculus in high school.

Test Scores: Just hearing the acronyms “SAT” and “ACT” can cause great anxiety in students. It is important to remember that test scores are just one of many factors considered in the application review process. Many colleges “superscore” the SAT, which means they will take the highest section scores from multiple tests to recalculate a new composite score, e.g., highest verbal score and highest math score combined from multiple test dates. While most colleges do not currently superscore the ACT, there does appear to be a trend toward this, so check with each school.

For colleges that do not superscore, it can be advantageous to submit not only the highest composite score, but also additional scores if you have a higher section score in the section that fits your intended major. Remember the goal of the application is to support your narrative. Any relevant information to that end is helpful. For example, if you are applying to a STEM major and you have a higher math score on a test that isn’t your highest composite score, you SHOULD submit the test with the higher math score, as well as the higher composite score test.

Lastly, make sure you submit your official score reports from College Board or ACT early to ensure the college will receive the official report in plenty of time before their deadline.

What are the factors in PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT?

  • Activities section of your application

  • Letters of recommendation

  • Expanded Resume (usually optional)

  • Essays

  • Short Answer Responses

Personal Achievement: Personal achievement shows college admissions officers WHO a student is outside of the raw numbers and, more importantly, how they will impact a college campus. They want to learn who a student is in their own words through essays and as demonstrated through four years of extracurricular activities.

Activities Section: Most college applications will ask students to list and briefly describe their extracurricular activities, honors, community service, and employment during high school. Like the short answer responses, this is essential in giving insight into what skills, passions, and knowledge base a student will bring to campus.

Letters of Recommendation: The majority of colleges require a letter of recommendation from a high school counselor and one teacher from a core subject. A limited number of highly selective schools will require two teacher letters: one from a STEM teacher and one from an English or History teacher. Letters are used to gain information about the student that cannot be found in the rest of the application. When considering which teachers to select for the letters of recommendation, think about who can speak to both intellect and work ethic. Sometimes it is more important to choose the teacher who saw the greatest growth in the student over the school year, instead of the teacher that gave the student the highest grade. Counselor letters are equally important. If a student had a personal struggle that affected their high school experience, or perhaps was diagnosed with a learning difference, it is essential that these details be included. The admissions committee wants a full picture of the student to fully understand both their academic and personal achievement.

Resume: Colleges want to craft a well-rounded class of incoming freshmen, and the resume is the perfect opportunity to show the specific attributes a student will bring to campus Because there is so little space to describe activities in the application, the expanded resume is the perfect opportunity to showcase the depth and breadth of involvement and achievements throughout high school. When describing resume items, remember to include information that paints a full picture of the activity or achievement, as well as a student’s specific involvement in it.

When creating your resume, never include scholastic information (like GPA, Test Scores, etc.) that can be already found in the file. Admissions officers spend only a few minutes on each file, and including redundant information takes away from the new and valuable information on the resume. Students should remember to always list their most important accomplishment or activity first in each category and continue in descending order of importance. If they have a leadership position or received an award for an activity, they need to make sure to list all of that information with the activity description. They do not want to scatter pieces of information about the same activity in different categories on the resume. Putting ALL the information in one place gives the admissions officer the clearest picture of the student when they are reviewing the application.

Make sure to submit the expanded resume WITH the application. As soon as all of the required items are submitted, the application will be considered complete. Students don’t want to risk the application being reviewed WITHOUT the expanded resume if they plan on submitting it.

Resumes should be structured in the following order:

  1. Education

  2. Honors and Distinctions

  3. Extracurricular Activities

  4. Community Service

  5. Internships, Employment, Summer Activities

FREE Resume Builder

The ReadMyCollegeApplication team has taken the guesswork out of how to structure the expanded resume, and has built a FREE tool that will populate resume information into a format that is highly desired by college admissions officers because of it’s quick and easy readability. Check out our resume builder by clicking the link above.

The key to successful college essay writing is to take away the option for an admissions officer to say “NO.”

Essay and Short Answer Responses: With colleges receiving record numbers of applications every year from qualified students, the essays and short answers are a way for students to show their personality in their application and stand out from the competition beyond their academic profiles. Students should show the unique qualities, attributes, skills, and talents that set them apart from other applicants and why they would be such a valuable addition to the incoming class. A powerful essay will be personable and written about something that is truly meaningful to the student, which will be obvious to the reader.

Admissions officers read THOUSANDS of essays every cycle, and the majority of these are not memorable. Students try to dazzle rather than be authentic, and write about something they think will impress the admissions officer rather than speaking to something they are truly passionate about.

Students should tell their story using sensory imagery, strong personal voice and engaging examples. The essay should give the reader a true glimpse into a piece of the student’s life. In short, a truly successful essay will make the reader feel like the student is sitting in front of them telling their story in person.

The short answer questions are strategic for colleges to find the exact students they want to craft a well-rounded class. These may include questions about leadership, special talents, academic dreams, challenges or obstacles students have overcome, and most commonly, why you want to attend a specific university. Answering these questions authentically is the key to really “sealing the deal’ on your applications. Many times, universities have specific goals for the type of students they would like to admit to their freshman class, and they use these short answer questions to help really pinpoint these specific students. Perhaps the most important short answer questions that colleges ask is “Why would you like to attend our university?” The easiest trap students can fall into is writing a generic response to this answer and changing only the name of the college in each version. An admissions officer can spot these generic responses from a mile away!

Make sure you do your research! Talk about your campus tour if you took one and describe how you felt when you stepped on campus and knew you wanted to be a student there.

  • Is there a specific professor who inspires you?

  • Is there exciting research being done that you would like to be a part of?

  • If you want to study abroad, reference a specific program. Are there any traditions that you can’t wait to be a part of? Is there a specific student organization that excites you?

  • When did you first become interested in the university and why?

Including specifics in your answer shows admissions officers that you WANT to be a part of their community!

Click below to see our FREE essay writing guides