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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What Does Holistic Admission Mean?

Today is the day that the ETS folks delivered scores to those who took the SAT earlier this month. This day always unleashes a flurry of worried emails and comments from those who aren't happy with their scores. Then come the questions about how we "weigh" different components of the application.

I despise the word "weigh" almost as much as the word "quota" for two reasons. Maybe it's because they both imply that admission decisions are just based on a rubric. Plug in some numbers and *boom* the decision is made. In a way, it also ignores the fact that my colleagues and I spend five months of the year cloistered away, dedicating most of our waking moments to file review. Students don't want to be reduced to numbers and admission officers don't want the process reduced to them, either. The review is holistic.

Unfortunately, I've seen "holistic admission" twisted to the point that people start to think that volunteer work or being on the soccer team is on par with their academic work.The best way to effectively communicate what holistic admission looks like to me is to compare your application to a puzzle. In a holistic review, you look at all pieces of the applicant's puzzle together before you make your decision.

The largest, most central piece of your puzzle is your transcript. This shouldn't be a surprise since your transcript represents four years of academic development. I took a really bad jpeg of a puzzle and used my awesome skills to demonstrate this idea:

Aren't you impressed?

The other components of your file fall in around the four years of academic work you've been doing. I'm sure you can imagine the bigger pieces: recommendation letters bring the academic data to life and essays are where we get to hear your voice.
You get the picture. I don't have to keep coloring, right?

As we read, the puzzle comes together. All of the pieces are important, but they vary in size. The testing piece is a four-hour piece of your puzzle. It's obviously important because it contributes to the overall picture, but it is one component among many and there are other parts of the puzzle that are larger and take considerably longer to evaluate.

When you fixate on one of the smaller pieces it's as if you are trying to make a decision about taking a puzzle home with you based on seeing one corner of it. You wouldn't do that, right? The people who make puzzles put the complete picture on the box so you can make an informed decision about purchasing it.

If you are looking at test scores this evening, I hope you'll put things in perspective. Yes, testing is important. However, it doesn't overshadow or knock other parts of your file out of the way.