How Do Universities See Me As “Holistic?”

2015 was the largest application season to date. With tens of thousands of students applying for a fraction of spots, how do you present yourself, holistically, to admission committees? What do admissions committees look for and in what order? The simple fact is, given the increasing number of applicants, a strong GPA and solid test scores is not itself sufficient for admission.

That said, a strong GPA and high test scores matter. While it won’t be the “thing” to get you into a college, low scores or a low GPA can be prohibitive. More important than a 4.0, however, is academic passion and rigor. Because each high school has different course offerings, different standards for grading, and different ways of ranking students, colleges and universities account for these discrepancies. Admissions committees understand that some schools require an IB curriculum and a heavy load of AP classes, while other programs might only offer a handful of Honors courses. What matters is that your academic work is rigorous, given your resources, and strong. From the beginning of high school, take challenging classes that you care about, not necessarily the classes you think that admissions committees want to see. Taking challenging classes is more important than taking easy classes simply for an “A.”

Given the sheer number of applicants to programs, some schools would be able to fill their classes entirely with students who received near perfect test scores and have stellar academic records. But colleges choose not to do this because the college experience is about far more than success on standardized tests. Colleges instead seek to enroll diverse cohorts where students can be exposed to new backgrounds, perspectives, talents, and ideas. Colleges and universities admit students that succeed in broad and diverse ways. They need the brilliant musician as much as they need the star athlete, poet, and science researcher. It is thus important, in high school, to find what you’re passionate about and devote your time to it. Excellence comes in many persuasions. Colleges would rather see people who are devoted and passionate about what they do than read résumés and CVs overstuffed with obvious filler or padding.

When writing the application essay and completing the applications themselves, it is most important that you, the student, are doing the writing. This is the opportunity for you to show colleges your voice, your unique perspective, and what you will bring to campus. Admissions counselors read tens of thousands of essays each year—they know the tricks of the trade. They know when an essay was written by a parent or a counselor; they know when you are pandering, telling them what you think they want to hear. In the quest to stand out, many applicants go to extreme, or bizarre lengths. Here, what will make your application strongest is an honest, rich, and complex essay where your voice truly comes through. Tell a story about how you became you, what matters to you, what you will contribute to campus life.

Finally, extracurricular activities: part of the reason that admission committees accept such a range of students is because they are interested in your life both in and outside of the classroom. They want students who will contribute to intellectual life while also enriching the campus community. As you apply to university, admissions counselors will want to know what you do with your spare time: what do you enjoy? What are you passionate about? If your passion is service and working in your community, excellent! But counselors will know if your service is college-minded rather than altruistic. If you spend all of your free time reading because you hope to be a writer, great! Convey this in your application. Given the number of applicants, neither gimmicks nor bland resume stuffing are ways to stand out; the best way to shine is to be yourself and show that in your application.

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