Most American universities use some form of holistic admissions to determine who they will invite to enroll at their school. "Holistic" means that they look at the whole applicant and the whole application, and it usually means they look at the whole application together. There are no cut-off test scores; there is no formula for how to score and weight each portion of the application; there is no "magic bullet" that will earn you admission or get you rejected. This means that you can't necessarily make sense of the results by only looking at a part, because they take the whole into consideration. So a person may get accepted while someone with lower test scores does not. A person who writes a really crappy essay may still get accepted if the other parts of the application look great.
I've never worked for a college admissions department, so I've never been in a meeting where they decide who to accept. But I've talked to a number of people who have, and I have a good sense of how it works. The process is a lot like meetings I have been a part of to accept students to the National Honor Society or to pick a scholarship winner. Here's, basically, how to process works:
Each of the committee members is in charge of applicants from their geographic territory. That way, the person handling the file is the person who is most likely to have had contact with the applicant at a college fair or campus visit. Some of the applications don't take much discussion--they're obviously someone to accept (or deny). But most applicants do get discussed. So the person in charge of their file says something like "This is Jane. She has pretty good ACT scores, in our normal range. She has a 6.8 GPA on her school's 1-8 scale, which is about equivalent to a 3.2 for us. She's been on the Model U.N. team all four years, is a captain of the debate team, and plays varsity volleyball. She doesn't have any AP classes, but her school doesn't offer them. She has taken Honors classes in math and English. She wrote a decent essay--nothing spectacular, but she certainly knows how to write well enough. I recommend we admit." Then the other committee members have a chance to ask questions or make statements, and then they vote. Repeat hundreds or even thousands of times.
I want to interrupt myself here to say that when schools claim they use a holistic admissions process, they mean it. High school students often read that admissions is holistic, but they don't act as though they believe it. They cram and re-take the SAT again, hoping to raise their score just a few extra points. They buy books of essays by accepted students, thinking that maybe an essay like that will get them in. They try to game the system, picking up extra points...in a system that doesn't really have points. When schools say they focus on the whole person, they mean it, so work on being a whole person instead of a resume of impressive parts.
There are some ways within the holistic process for the scales to be tipped in someone's favor. Occasionally--very rarely--the university president may tell the admissions dean that they really should accept a particular child of a board member or other V.I.P. Similarly, the basketball coach may be in dire need of a forward, the Religion department may want to get some prospective majors in the door, or the arts school manager may be on a campaign to get more artists on campus. These voices can sometimes have an effect on how the admissions committee behaves.
Also, as you can imagine, a lot of the applicants may seem to be very similar. When trying to accept a small number of similar applicants from a large pool, they committee may see an opportunity to vote in favor of more diversity: racial, ethnic, geographic, or any other diversity.
What should smart and ambitious high school students do to maximize their chances to get accepted at the school of their choice?
First, follow the colleges' lead and focus on the whole person. Don't get too caught up in the component parts. Be the best you that you can be, and do your best to show schools that best you. Be a good student, pursue your interests, gain experience. Follow the motto of perennial "Best High School in America" T.A.G. Magnet: "Be interested. Be interesting."
Also, keep the whole person in mind when making decisions about the parts of your application. By all means, make sure you get the best test scores you can. If you're sick or have an "off day" when you take the ACT or SAT, take it again. But if your scores seem a pretty good reflection of your ability, then don't stress out trying to get a few more points. Spend that time and energy doing something more productive. Similarly, work hard on your application essays and let them reflect your best thinking and your best work. But don't waste time reading what other people wrote that "got them in." Their essay got them in, but only your essay will get you in. Don't add on an extracurricular club or activity just to make your resume look better. Does you current list of activities reflect who you are? Great! Now work hard at them. Is there something you're really interested in that doesn't show up on the list? Find a way to get it on the list. Are there things on your activity list that don't really interest you or reflect who you are and want to be? Drop them.
Too many students think that to get accepted to college they have to stop being a robust, complex, whole person. They have to narrow things down to looking good for colleges and doing what colleges want. Understanding how holistic admissions works, though, helps us know that we can--and should--be our whole, interesting selves.
Is there another term you'd like to see in The Glossary? Let me know, and I'll explain it!