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8 Factors of the Holistic Review Process in College Admissions (Part 2)

To recap from our blog last week, holistic review is a university admissions strategy that assesses an applicant’s unique experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores. It is designed to help universities consider a broad range of factors reflecting the applicant’s academic readiness, contribution to the incoming class, and potential for success both in school and later as a professional.

The University of California system describes it this way:

“As we consider each individual application - and rest assured, we do consider each one - we look beyond grades. We spend time evaluating your academic achievements in light of the opportunities available to you and your demonstrated capacity to contribute to the intellectual life at UC.”

Photo via UC Davis

Last week we discussed 4 of 8 most used factors in holistic review:

  • Rigor of academic coursework

  • Trends over the course of the student’s academic career

  • Test scores including SAT/ACT, AP/IB exams

  • What your counselor and teacher recommendations reveal

This week we complete the discussion by looking at:

  • Extracurricular Activities

  • Strength of School

  • Essays

  • Demonstrated Interest


5. Extracurricular Activities

Students applying to highly selective colleges where all applicants have outstanding credentials but only 4-20% are admitted each year, should know that achievements outside of the classroom are significantly important. UC campuses and private universities that are in the most selective category need a way to differentiate among the students that have taken the most rigorous courses available to them and earned high grades.

One of the reasons behind our creating Royal’s Recommendations that posts every Monday on our Instagram page is to open students and parents up to vast array of extracurricular activities students can take advantage of to pursue their passion and demonstrate to Admission Officers how they develop their skills and deepen their interests in their academic area.

Here are a few examples shared just this month:

  • Microsoft MakeCode, a free open-source platform for creating.

  • Creative Writers – check out this online course through Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development.

  • YoungArts Competition for visual, literary, or performing artists.

  • Young Scholars Senior Summit (YSSS)

6. Strength of School

Strength of academic coursework: Course selection is an important indicator of a student's academic motivation. Students should continue to take challenging academic courses through the end of their senior year.

Admissions Officers review applicant’s transcript and school report to see whether a student has taken maximum advantage of the opportunities available to them, recognizing that not all students attend schools that provide the same opportunities.

As Pomona College has explained, “We have different expectations for different students: the exam scores from a daughter of two college professors are viewed in a different context than the scores from a first-generation college student who attends an underfunded high school.” Other academic factors: If a high school provides class rank, it will be considered in the context of understanding local grading practices. Likewise, if the high school provided a school profile, it will be considered for additional context on the high school.

Photo via San Diego State University

7. Essays

The purpose of the college admission essay, or Personal Essay as the Common Application refers to it, is to show universities your Values, Interests, Qualities, and Skills.

This unique piece of the college application gives the university a chance to gain an understanding of the applicant that may not be apparent in other portions of the application, such as admissions tests scores and GPAs. Because the essay is written from the perspective of the applicant, it provides the college with a unique glimpse of the goals and intentions of the student and may determine whether the student will be a good fit for the school.

For colleges that don't offer in-person interviews, supplemental essays can provide better insight into the personality of a prospective student. Jamiere Abney, senior assistant dean of admissions at Colgate University, a liberal arts college in Hamilton, N.Y., says that the essay allows the admissions team to learn something about each applicant in their own words.

“Unlike the personal statement within the Common App or Coalition essay, the supplement is focused on the individual institution, so these questions allow us to grasp how well a student understands who we are and what we value as a campus," explains Abney. “Understanding this element is key in recognizing if we are a good fit for the student and vice versa."

8. Demonstrated Interest

The term Demonstrated Interest is used in college counseling and college admissions to signify those steps a student can take to show, or demonstrate, to a school that they are committed to attend if accepted. This is important to admissions officers as they work to have the highest number of students they admit, accept their offer, and enroll (known as yield).

Not all colleges track Demonstrated Interest and use it as a criterion in their admission decision; but, for those that do, read on to learn my recommended steps to show your top college(s) how strong your interest is in attending their university.

  1. Apply early.

  2. Write a well-researched “Why us” essay.

  3. Touring a college's campus and attending an admission information session has long been a favorite way for teens and their parents to demonstrate interest. College’s offer in-person and virtual campus visits.

  4. Attend presentations from college representatives when visiting your high school

For more steps on how student’s can show Demonstrated Interest, click her to read our blog post from February 5: Part 2: The Best Ways to Show Prospective Colleges You’re Interested


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This blog was written Janice Royal, MA. She is the Founder and CEO of Royal College Consulting.

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