The 2018-2019 application cycle was one of the most tumultuous, unpredictable cycles in years. Amid the Varsity Blues scandal and the Harvard lawsuit, in the background, “normal” applicants around the country experienced a bumpy ride as they tried to navigate an increasingly competitive system which oftentimes does not seem to make sense.

College admissions is unpredictable, and the only guarantee is that college admissions is unpredictable and will continue to be so in the future. However, despite the chaos and uncertainty, we definitely gained some helpful take-aways this season that we plan to use with our rising seniors to at least bring a little order to the process and to help our outstanding students put their best foot forward in the upcoming chaos ahead.  

Today, in part one of a multipart series, we are focusing on the first lesson we learned this season - the increasing reliance on a holistic review of college applications.

More and more often, the transcript and test scores are just a part of what admissions officers are looking at when making admissions decisions. As the applicant pool continues to grow more competitive each year (in 2000, 131 out of approximately 1.1 million test takers received a perfect 36 on the ACT. In 2018, 3,700 out of approximately 1.9 million test takers received a perfect 36), admissions officers need to focus on a number of holistic factors to differentiate between a record number of “near perfect” applicants. In addition to the numbers, admissions officers want to understand who each applicant is as a person, in what context her grades and tests were earned, what each applicant is going to contribute to the college, other students, and the community at large in addition to her brain, just to name a few. This growing reliance on a nebulous set of criteria is the very reason that we all hear stories about a seemingly “less qualified” applicant being admitted to a college while the “perfect” candidate is denied.

According to Debra Jones, a former Yale Admissions Officer, Yale evaluates each year’s prospect to find applicants who are creative, inclusive, collaborative, and well balanced. It is important for an application to show a deep interest and passion in at least one thing and to display the applicant’s budding intellect as demonstrated through academic and out-of-the classroom choices. According to Ms. Jones, 60% of Yale applicants could do the work based on grades, scores, and course selection. Each year, Yale can fill its class two to three times over with qualified applicants requiring them to rely heavily on their holistic review process to find the “right” students for Yale.

When he reads applications, William Sichel, an admissions officer from NYU, looks to see if the applicant is someone he would want to have a conversation with. Does the student portray grit, resilience, character, and/or creativity? Is she nice? Mr. Sichel does issue an important warning, however, reminding applicants that holistic review is not a pie. In other words, relying on holistic characteristics does not mean less reliance on the student’s academic characteristics (i.e., transcript and test scores).