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What Colleges Look For

Behind the Holistic Admission Curtain

Picture of Casey Near
By Casey Near on November, 10 2021 | 3 minute read

A few weeks ago, my colleague Arun hosted the leaders of the admission offices at UC Berkeley, Caltech, and Johns Hopkins to discuss highly selective admission, peeling back the layers of what "holistic admission" really means. I see  a lot of presentations at our professional conferences, but this one stands out as one of the most compelling, informative ones to date (not to mention, these presenters rarely make public appearances together!). We'd highly recommend watching the recording here, and I'll be digging into some of the core points below.

How will you be additive to our community?

This was the question posed at the outset by Calvin Wise, Director of Recruitment at Johns Hopkins. It's the question at the heart of holistic review -- the process employed by all selective schools in the United States. The gist of holistic review means it's anti-formula; there isn't a set combination of test scores, grades, and a particular activity that gets you in. From the outside, it can be maddening. It's why we often get questions like, "but what activity is the best?" And it's why we continually reframe the question as what's best for the student -- what are they likely to stick with and to truly engage in?

You might be wondering, well, but why does that matter to a college? Femi Ogundele, Associate Vice Chancellor of Enrollment at UC Berkeley, succinctly framed what holistic review seeks to unearth in the process (to watch this live, jump to the 15-minute mark in the video): "When I talk about holistic review, I talk about: how does a student's excellence emerge in our pool? Excellence is not perfection. Excellence is what we're seeking because excellence gives way to the fact that there are different opportunities for different students, but it's much more about how a student engages with what they have available to them."

Ashley Pallie, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Caltech, echoed this: "we're not looking for perfection; we're assessing potential. And character can be an aspect of that. We're looking for students who will do something with the knowledge they've been given."

In one of our latest blog posts, my colleague Meredith touches on this obsession with perfection -- and the paralysis that ensues this time of year with seniors. With our seniors, it's something that can inhibit them from making progress this time of year. And with younger students, it can limit their ability to take risks or to try new things.

So much of the excellence we encourage and cheerlead with our students starts with unpacking the fear of failure, which hopefully enables students to more fully engage with their classes, activities, peers, and community. And eventually, in turn, they can bring that spark, that potential, to a future college campus.

For those with younger students, we highly recommend watching this presentation, as it unpacks so many myths in this process around what excellence can mean, how to rethink perfection and student success, and how excellence and potential find their way onto hundreds of college campuses.




About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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