Holistic graduates admission rubric

Holistic admissions is becoming an increasingly hot topic among U.S. graduate schools and programs. It’s not a new idea. Programs

have long used multiple criteria such as

undergraduate grades, standardized test

SCores, English-language proficiency tests,

essays, personal statements, letters of recommendation, interviews, and résumés in

evaluating prospective students.

What is new is the increased focus on the

intentionality of the process and whether

it is being carried out in the best way to

identify the most promising prospects while

ensuring equity, equality, and inclusivity. In

a true holistic review, no single data point is

Considered in isolation.

Holistic admissions is becoming

an increasingly hot topic among

U.S. graduate schools and


Rather, all the data points together paint a

broad picture of each applicant’s abilities,

attributes, and experiences to help decision

makers identify who most effectively matches the goals of the program and stands the best chance of thriving in it.

Many graduate programs say they are

practicing holistic admissions, yet because

there isn’t one universal definition of the

term, they are not entirely sure that they

are doing it correctly. What is clear is that

each program is using its own unique

version of a holistic approach, based on

its own understanding of the definition.

Those most committed to the concept are

taking steps to include more information

on candidates, trying to educate professors

and reviewers against unconscious bias,

and establishing more formal rubrics and

practices to build consistency.

“Like any system change, designing and im-

plementing holistic review should be more

like chess than checkers,” says Julie Posselt,

associate professor of the University of

Southern California Rossier School of Educa-

tion, and author of Inside Graduate Admis-

sions Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gate

keeping. “You need to think out a few movess

to imagine how both students and reviewers

will respond to the system you create. You

need to be disciplined and systematic.”


What is the talk about holistic admission?

The intensified attention to holistic admissions has grown out of concern that faculty

Committees traditionally have given too

much weight to just one or two academic

indicators, and studies show that students

from underrepresented groups tend to

have lower grades and test Scores than stu-

dents who have had accesS to more educational resources.

At the same time, a growing body of evidence

Suggest that noncognitive skills such as grit,

resilience, and motivation can help predict

future success, for students of all back-

grounds. Many consider holistic reviews a

more race-neutral way of achieving diversity.

Another driving force is that decision making

in higher education is becoming more and

more informed by data. Institutions want to

be sure they are using the most predictive

measures of a student’s ability to do the

Work, contribute to the program, and excel in

their field.

That’s why, when it was created in 2014,

the Professional and Graduate Education


Program of Mount Holyoke College put into

place a holistic admissions process. In addi-

tion to the traditional academic indicators,

applicants must submit a personal state-

ment, two letters of recommendation, and

a résumé. Each application is also evaluat

ed by an external reviewer who holds the

same teaching license that the candidate

seeks to pursue. In addition, prospective

students have to interview with an admis-

sions committee- and teach a prepared

mini-lesson on a Subject of their choice.

Many consider holistic reviews

a more race-neutral way of

achieving diversity.

“This gives us real insight into their suit-

ability around content knowledge and

pedagogical skills,” says Ruth Hornsby,

Mount Holyoke’s assistant director of

teacher licensure programs. “This helps us

to see not only the teaching potential of

a student, but how they prepare and plan

this component.”


What is driving the conversation about holistic graduate admission

It has been relatively common in years past

for graduate admissions officials to make

an initial cut based on grade point average,

standardized tests SCores, or some other ar-

bitrary threshold to reduce the prospect pool

to a more manageable number. This is espe

cially true for larger programs that might get

hundreds or thousands of applicants. How

ever, many institutions are developing other

ways to strategically narrow the pool.

One strategy involves considering multiple

measures. In addition to undergraduate

transcripts and test scores, graduate schools

can consider relevant research experiences

or significant obstacles an applicant has over-

come. Staff can identify such cases to be put

into the pool for full holistic review. The final

review, as is customary, would still be done

by regular taculty members.

Suzanne Barbour, dean of the Graduate

School of the University of North Carolina at

Chapel Hill, says that the traditional metrics

of grades and test scores work best when

they are considered with other factors, like

letters of reference and personal statements.

Even still, she says, it is a challenging task to

dissuade faculty members, especially in large

programs, against using arbitrary thresholds

to weed out applicants who might initially be

perceived as academically weak.

In addition to undergraduate

transcripts and test scores,

graduate schools can consider

relevant research experiences

or significant obstacles an

applicant has overcome.

“Faculty are very busy and service responsi-

bilities like graduate admissions are some-

times not rewarded,” says Barbour, also a

professor of biochemistry and biophysics.

“We are still working hard to convince pro-

grams that holistic admissions processes are

worth the additional time and investment.”


How do you find the time to Carry out the holistic application process


Time is perhaps the biggest challenge of un-

dertaking a holistic process. It simply takes

more time to go through all of the parts

of an application and interviews- and to

COordinate feedback among the reviewers,

especially when as many as 10 to 15 people

might be involved.

Time is perhaps the biggest

challenge of undertaking a

holistic process.

Technology has helped. Many programs are

using online systems so that applications can

be read anywhere and anytime. Reviewers cann

also make online comments within the elec-

tronic application materials to be seen by their

COunterparts, but not the prospective students.

Video conferencing makes personal interviews logistically easier. Programs are developing

systems for the interviewers to discusS and

Compare their impressions.

To streamline the process and provide consis-

tency in review, some institutions are coming

up with rubrics for professors to follow as they

Conduct their reviews. At UNC-Chapel Hill,

graduate admissions is decentralized, as it is at

many institutions. Applicants are reviewed by

the departments or programs, and then their

recommerndations are made to the Graduate

School. The dean’s office recommends that

programs use a “reverse design” to identi-

fy desired characteristics for their graduate

students. “Start with your strongest students,

identify the characteristics that underlie their

success, and devise a strategy to review appli

cants for those characteristics,” Barbour says.

When can non cognitive indicator balance academic inconsistency

The University of Rhode Island recently insti-

tuted new policies for graduate admissions to

make “implicit” holistic experiences “explicit,”

says Alycia Mosley Austin, the universityys

assistant dean of graduate recruitment and

diversity initiatives.

The university has 35 master’s programs. Each

one requires an undergraduate GPA of at least

3.0, a personal statement, two letters of recom-

mendation, and a résumé. The résumé compo-

nent, added for the fall of 2019’s entering class,

is valuable for seeing candidates’ employment

history, volunteer work, or research endeavors,

which are often more telling of future success

than their academic record, she says.

Looking beyond academic data points, she

says, helps reviewers discover students who

might have struggled with grades, but have

valuable research or career experience. The

expectations are different for someone who

has been out in the working world. “The holistic

approach helps us focus on Our outcomes,”

says Austin. “We can identify a creative person

versus a person who got all A’s in their classes,

but doesn’t have any creativity.”

Jeremiah Nelson, director of enrollment

management for the business school at Wake

Forest University and vice president of the

National Association for Graduate Enrollment

Management, says there is more risk asso

ciated with admitting a candidate who has

poor academic performance, but he has seen

multiple examples of people who thrive in

graduate school after they have matured and

are motivated and goal oriented.

One student who is currently in her second

year at the business school was marginal

based on test scores and grades, but her expe-

rience as a senior executive and her leadership

in the community was extensive. she was a

great fit and has thrived in the program. She

needed a tutor for one class since her founda-

tion wasn’t strong, but she was determined to

succeed and has shown that at every step of

the process.

You can’t admit a whole class of students with

low GPAs,” Nelson says, “but the benefit of

averages is that there is always room for some

whose GPA was not the best indication


of their potential for success.”

How can you elicit the most meaningful information from prospect.


JOAnn Canales, senior-dean-in-residence for

the Council of Graduate Schools and a GRE

board member, says that for a graduate

program’s admissions to be truly holistic,

officials first must think about what they

are looking for in a student and come up

with an Overall rubric that uses compo-

nents that align with those outcomes. It’s

also necessary to put together an informed

admissions committee with review mem-

bers who understand the nuances of the

process and applications, says Canales,

who retired in August 2019 as the founding

dean of the College of Graduate Studies at

Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi.

She recommends that every candidate

be evaluated based on the same criteria.

Programs that are clear and explicit about

their application requirements and what

materials and information they are look-

ing for, she says, have a better chance of

ensuring that comparable data is collected.

Providing a standard form for résumés, for

example, can ensure that all prospective

students present the same types of facts

and details in a singular format. It is also

advisable, Canales says, that work experi-

ence of all kinds, regardless of setting, be

included to give a broader impression of

the candidate.

Likewise, programs might want to create

a process in which recommendations are

submitted on a standard form, rather than

individual letters on letterhead that might

impress-or disappoint- a reviewer. This

also precludes giving too much weight, says

Canales, to well-written letters or letters

from prestigious schools.

Being deliberate about personal state

ment prompts is also key, Canales says. If

a college is too general in its request for

a personal statement, it is open to inter-

pretation. In some cases, that can be good

because it lets admissions officials see what

the question evokes in the student. How-

ever, if the question is too broad, then the

response could be too ambiguous.

“Different individuals might interpret it

differently, and reviewers may react differ-

ently, which could lead to an inequitable as-

sessment,” she says. “Additionally, without

an explicit rubric for assessing the content

focused on clarity, mechanicS, specificity,

the assessment can be quite subjective.”

Holistic graduate admission.

Howcan you guard against bais


A 2018 report entitled Master’s Admis-

sions: Transparency, Guidance, and Train-

ing, by the Council of Graduate Schools,

recommends that institutions provide

information and support to help admis-

sions committees avoid unintentional bias

in the review process. Only 26 percent of

the graduate schools participating in the

survey reported that their institutions pro-

vided such training

Only 26 percent of the graduate

schools participating in the

survey reported that their

institutions provided such


At Cornell University over the past couple

of years, many graduate programs have


been critically examining their admissions

review practices, including how to prevent

bias. The university has held faculty work-

shops and panel discussions on such top-

ics, and it has set up an online resOurce

to educate professors. The site includes a

series of videos that describe how biases

can influence decision making without a

person realizing it. One lesson, for exam-

ple, is entitled Explicit vs. Implicit Bias, and

another is Attitudes and Stereotypes.

“Our directors of graduate studies are very

engaged,” says Sara Xayarath Hernández,

associate dean for inclusion and student

engagement at the Graduate School.

“Many are willing to consider ways in

which they cannot only improve their

admissions practices, but also how they

can contribute to creating more inclusive

research and learning environments.”

How can you be sure the essay and recommendation are authentic


Many admissions teams say there really is

no way to adequately or accurately aSsess

whether the words are the words of an ap-

plicant or whether they’ve been finessed by

a parent, professor, or college consultant.

Many institutions require applicants to cer-

tify that the content is theirs, not someone

else’s, and that they didn’t receive undue

help. Still other admissions committees rely

on actual GRE essay responses because

they are written in a monitored setting,

where candidates cannot receive any help

or coaching.

Some institutions are moving away from

asking for formal recommendations, as

most candidates choose recommenders

who are going to make nice comments.

Instead, the applications ask for references

who can be contacted to answer questions

about the candidate.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center’s

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Bio-

medical Sciences, which has been using holistic admissions since it was created in 2015,

no longer accepts letters of recommenda

tion that are personal in nature. Rather, it

requests letters from specific categories of

individuals, such as a faculty member from

whom the applicant has taken an upper-lev

el science course, a research mentor, or a

supervisor. All of these changes have been

made to the program’s application forms

and assoCiated instructions.

Interviews with the biomedical candidates

are a huge component of the admissions de-

cisions process because they are an effective

way to assess noncognitive variables. The

reviewers also compare the communication

skills evidenced in the personal interviews

with the quality of the writing in the personal

statements. “This can often identify situa-

tions in which the student received consid-

erable assistance with the written personal

statement,” says Karen Gould, associate pro-

fessor and vice chair for graduate education

for the department of genetics, cell biology,

and anatomy.

What does the future hold for holistic admissions.

Admissions protessionals are uncertain what

the future of holistic admissions looks like,

except to say they are sure it vwill continue to

grow. Some say their institutions need to invest

more in admissions staffing So more time

Could be spent getting to knovw candidates in a multifaceted way.

Many graduate-admissions decision makers

desire more guidance and direction. They are

not sure they are doing it right, and they would

like to know more about the process and how

to develop effective rubrics. Most caution that

they are not advocating for standardizing holistic admissions practices to the point of a one type-fits-all kind of approach. Rather, they are

looking for general techniques to adopt that

still can be flexible to meet the needs of the

individual program. Only then can a graduate

program create a unique and effective learning

environment for students who have different

educational backgrounds and life experiences.

“Holistic review affords opportunities for access

that might otherwise be overlooked, and that

better levels the playing field,” says Canales. ”

would argue that holistic admissions can work

for all graduate programs anywhere especially

because it forces conversations that otherwise

might not occur.”