bloomtwo blog

What is holistic review?

April 2020
hidden garden steps in SF: putting together an application is kind of like putting together the pieces of a mosaic

All top-tier colleges claim that they review candidates holistically. So, what does this actually mean?

In short, your test scores, GPA, and course rigor must be strong enough for you to even be considered. If the college is highly selective, the other components of your applicant must also be exceptional. If the college is moderately selective, the other components just need to not present any red flags. It’s helpful to understand who actually reads your college application and how applications are divided between readers . Below, I go through each part of the application and how it factors into the admissions decision:

  1. ACT/SAT scores
  2. Grades
  3. Class rank
  4. Course rigor
  5. AP, IB, & SAT II scores
  6. Teacher recommendations
  7. Counselor recommendation
  8. Extracurricular activities
  9. Essays
  10. Additional contextual information

Test Scores
ACT and SAT scores are the easiest metric for application readers to use when comparing applicants across schools. Each college has guidelines for what constitutes very strong, strong, borderline, and weak scores. Schools say that they do not have score cutoffs, but in reality, if your scores fall into the “weak” category, your application will barely get read. If you want to know what constitutes a “strong” score at a particular school, just Google the college’s name + SAT or ACT percentiles. Many colleges publish the 25th to the 75th percentiles test scores for enrolled first-years.

GPA is a useful metric for comparing applicants from the same school. Top-tier colleges have “feeder schools,” which are high schools from which many students typically apply, and application readers are familiar with the grading systems of these schools. GPA is less useful for comparing students across different schools, as the difficulty of receiving an A or a B in any particular course can vary widely across schools. Still, colleges have guidelines for what constitutes strong, borderline, and weak GPAs. If your GPA falls into the “weak” category, the reader will look for additional contextual information to determine whether you may still be a strong applicant.

In general, colleges are more accepting of lower-than-ideal grades in 9th and 10th grade, as long as there is an upward trend in grades. They are also more understanding of slightly lower GPAS if there is context explaining the dip in grades. For example, I remember reviewing an applicant from South Korea who received all C’s at her Korean high school. She moved to the US in her sophomore year and her transcript reflected nearly all A+ grades since then (with just a couple of regular A’s). She also had a near perfect ACT score and her teachers raved about her in their recommendations. In other situations, I have seen admissions readers look past a temporary dip in grades explained by a student experiencing a serious illness, a parent being deported, or a close family member passing away. If a traumatic life event affected your school performance, it’s important to address this in either your essay or the additional information section of the application.

Course rigor
Course rigor is another area in which application readers will compare you against the other applicants from your school. Colleges want to see that you are taking the most challenging courses available to you. Most high schools have a secondary school report, which lists the school’s AP and/or IB courses. If your high school has an IB program or AP courses, colleges want to see that you have taken advantage of them. If your school does not have these advanced courses, admissions readers will not hold this against you, but they will expect to see how you’ve gone out of your way to expand your education. For example, it shows initiative, motivation, and intellectual curiosity when a student goes out of their way to take community college or online courses on a topic that interests them.

Of course, course rigor and GPA can be somewhat at odds with one another, as it’s much easier to maintain a high GPA with easier courses. My advice for students is always to take the hardest courses that your schedule can accommodate, take classes with the best teachers available, and play to your strengths. If AP Physics is a really tough class, but the teacher is known to be one of the best at your school, then take AP Physics. You will not regret taking a class with a great teacher, even if you have to put in a ton of work. If you’re a talented artist and so-so at math, then take AP Studio Art instead of AP Statistics (but still take another math course -- you need four years of math). Ultimately, figuring out the right balance of courses that will be appropriately rigorous is highly personable.

Milo is at the top of his class

Class rank
Many high schools rank their students: usually, students are given one rank based on their weighted GPA, and another based on their unweighted GPA. This metric gives application readers another clue as to how you stack up compared to your classmates. The most selective colleges are looking for students who fall into the top 5-10 percent of their class.

If you're a California resident and rank in the top 9 percent of your graduating class (and you have met the A-G requirements), you are guaranteed a spot at a University of California school. (See more info here.)

my friend Sarah, a long-time Computer Science teacher and expert in CS & AI education

AP, IB, & SAT II scores
Similar to ACT and SAT scores, AP, IB, and SAT II scores give admissions readers another useful metric for comparing applicants across different schools. These scores are not weighted nearly as heavily as ACT/SAT scores, but they help differentiate applicants. Some colleges require certain SAT II scores to apply, although these requirements have eased somewhat in the past couple of years. These scores can give helpful context to your grades. If your admissions reader is not very familiar with your high school, then the A’s in your AP or IB courses will have more weight if they are accompanied by perfect AP/IB test scores.

my friend Brian, a long-time educator and expert in Math education
Teacher recommendations
Teacher recommendations have two components: a form and a letter. The form includes categories such as intellectual ability, leadership potential, and maturity, on which the teacher can rate the student according to a scale that ranges from “concerning” to “best of my career.” Some teachers are more liberal in their use of “best of my career,” so if possible, readers will compare these forms across students from the same school to get a sense of whether a particular teacher is overly stingy or overly generous in their praise.

The letter should be a more personalized component, in which the teacher speaks to your specific strengths. The best recommendation letters speak to specific experiences in which the teacher witnessed your determination, intellectual curiosity, or another quality. An outstanding teacher recommendation can push a borderline candidate over the edge towards acceptance. On the flip side, a negative teacher recommendation can disqualify your application, regardless of the strength of the rest of your application. (I truly do not understand why teachers agree to write recommendation letters if they don’t have anything positive to say. This is rare but it does happen.)

Teacher recommendations can also give context to your accomplishments. Teachers who know you well can speak to how you have grown as a student and how you have overcome obstacles. For example, I have seen recommendations where the teacher mentioned that the student maintained a consistent academic performance despite experiencing homelessness or the divorce of their parents.

teaching at a free coding workshop

Counselor recommendation
Your high school counselor must submit four items to supplement your applications: a form, a recommendation letter, your transcript, and your school profile. A school profile includes important contextual information, including the percentage of seniors who graduate, the percentage who go on to attend 2- or 4-year institutions, and the list of AP and/or IB courses.

Similar to the teacher recommendation form, the counselor recommendation form requires your counselor to score you on various components, including academics, extracurricular involvement, and character. At large and under resourced high schools, it’s common for counselors to not have a close relationship with each student, so their recommendations are often vague and simply refer to a student’s GPA and course rigor, as well as what they’ve heard about the student from their teachers. As a result, these recommendations are usually minimally helpful in making an admissions decision.

Extracurricular activities
Extracurriculars activities are one component that can really set an applicant apart. Colleges are looking for students who take initiative, show resilience, explore their intellectual curiosities, demonstrate leadership, and achieve impressive accomplishments. They’re also looking for sustained, impactful involvement. So, four years of an activity is better than one. Being the president of a club is appreciably better than being a member. Founding a club and then accomplishing something, like raising a significant amount of money for a cause, is even better. Check out this short article on standing out through service and this post on passion projects .

my friend Taylor, a former high school science teacher & current expert in instructional design and financial literacy

Essays are another component that can push a borderline candidate over the edge towards acceptance. Essays give you the chance to tell the reader who you are in your own words. Check out these articles for more guidance on writing a great essay:

  1. How to start your essay in 10 minutes
  2. Overcome your fears and start writing
  3. Watermelon vs. seed stories
  4. Essential ingredients in an admissions essay

Additional contextual information
The admissions readers do not know anything about you, other than the information presented in your application. The Common App and the Coalition App (see this article to learn about their differences) both have space to put additional information that you think may be helpful to the reader.

Here are the types of the situations to include in this section:

  • If you experienced a major life event, including a major illness, injury, or loss of a close family member, especially if this impacted your academic performance.
  • If you are limited in their ability to participate in extracurriculars due to supporting your family financially, taking care of younger siblings or disabled relatives, or not having reliable transportation to/from school.
  • If you were unable to take a certain AP course because it was offered at a time that conflicted with another required or AP course.
  • If you were diagnosed with a learning disability during high school, so did not receive proper accommodations before this.
  • If you don't have access to a computer and have to fill out the application on your phone.