Beyond the Old Metrics: Holistic Admissions and the “Whole Person”

RJ Nichol
Oct 24, 2017

On your quest to admit and retain applicants who will constitute an ideal student body, are you inclined to give more weight to academic transcripts and standardized test scores or would you rather emphasize less-tangible factors that may offer greater insights into the “whole person” behind the application?

That question is at the heart of the concept of “holistic admissions assessment” — also known as “creative skill assessment” or “non-cognitive attribute assessment.”

A Bigger Picture for Better Outcomes?

Simply put, holistic admissions assessments are designed to help “widen your lens” when reviewing applicants by considering personal characteristics, skills and experiences that may not be reflected in traditional grade-based metrics alone.

Whereas traditional admissions policies are likely to favor those who performed well on standardized examinations, holistic reviews attempt to evaluate other factors that could lead to on-campus success. For example, a school that incorporates a holistic review may choose to admit a student with lower test scores than other applicants, but who also has desirable attributes that are more difficult to quantify — such as a track record of success in the arts, community engagement or entrepreneurial endeavors.

In turn, employing holistic admissions standards may help your school achieve important diversity goals by taking into account how an individual was shaped by cultural, family or financial factors, to name but a few. It may also put your school in a better position to identify and serve students’ needs as quickly and efficiently as possible.

According to an article on, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers has reported that, “Colleges and universities that have added non-cognitive variables to their admissions requirements are finding that these variables are associated with improved outcomes and higher retention, particularly for certain populations. The application of non-cognitive variables is allowing for earlier intervention methods… The end result is stronger preparation, better orientation programs, and mentoring and coaching programs that start on day one.”

Key Characteristics

So what are you looking for in a candidate beyond grades and test scores? While there is no universally agreed-upon list of non-cognitive qualities that need to be considered when holistically evaluating applicants, there are numerous examples cited in literature on the subject. For example, one report indicates that characteristics which may predict on-campus success include:

  • Positive self-concept (i.e., possesses confidence, determination, independence)
  • Realistic self-appraisal (has the ability to recognize one’s own strengths and weaknesses and work toward self-improvement)
  • Understands “the system” (recognizes how societal systems function and seeks to right wrongs; able to recognize and respond to “-isms,” such as racism, sexism, etc.)
  • Focus on long-term priorities over short-term needs (sets goals, plans ahead, appreciates deferred gratification)
  • Availability of support person or network (has access to people who can help or encourage during challenging times)
  • Nontraditional knowledge (possesses social or cultural insights gained outside of traditional education experiences)
  • Leadership experience
  • Community service experience

Other qualities to consider include collaboration, competitiveness, curiosity, creativity, empathy, maturity, motivation, self-control and self-efficacy, which has been defined as “the belief in one’s capability to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.”

Uncovering Potential: Tools and Challenges

How do you uncover such qualities?

Two of the most common tools for expressing and assessing non-cognitive characteristics have already been in use for decades: letters of reference and the personal essays that often must accompany an application. These forums, it can be argued, provide an ideal opportunity for applicants (or their letter writers) to create personal portraits that go far beyond a recitation of academic accomplishments and aspirations. A page or two of well-crafted verse has the potential to shed new light on an applicant and illustrate how he or she would make your campus a better place.

Other tools admissions officers can use to gauge applicants range from on-site interviews and observations of people involved in group projects to behavioral assessments and situational judgment tests (SJTs). SJTs, for example, describe hypothetical scenarios and then ask respondents questions about how they would react to those experiences. In theory, their answers shed light on the applicants’ values, intelligence and personality.

It’s worth noting, however, that each of these tools may have inherent shortcomings that cause skeptics to doubt the value of holistic reviews. For example, letters of recommendation may be biased by the writer’s personal feelings about the applicant, good or bad. Also, sincerity and honesty are extremely difficult to judge. Does this letter writer really believe the applicant in question is one of the brightest students ever he ever encountered, or does he say that about every student who asks for a recommendation?

In the same vein, personal essays and in-person interviews are “coachable,” which may detract from their ability to be truly predictive or insightful. In other words, a student may not actually be revealing who she really is, but rather who she thinks you want her to be.

Admissions officers may face additional challenges when trying to implement holistic reviews into their processes. Exactly which attributes will your department agree to assess, and how will you make those assessments in a consistent and fair manner? Once those questions are answered, additional staff training may be necessary in order to help staff understand and navigate this new terrain. Exactly what type of human and financial resources will be required to achieve that goal?

Keep in mind, too, that holistic admissions policies — which often rely on subjective judgments — may make it harder to explain your decision to accept or reject a candidate, particularly when a high academic achiever is passed over in favor on an individual with lower test scores but more attractive personal qualities. In worst-case scenarios, a holistic admissions assessment may also be viewed by skeptics as merely a device that covertly allows racial or cultural biases to factor into your decision-making process.

Start With CASTM

Regardless of the extent to which you incorporate holistic reviews into your admissions strategy, Liaison’s Centralized Application Services (CASTM) provides the flexibility you need to make the best decisions possible. A CAS allows you to collect whatever type of application data you desire and then create a customized display for each user or user group, whether you want to view standard metrics, experiences or personal attributes.

Liaison’s commitment to holistic assessment has resulted in several recent business collaborations that have markedly enhanced the ability of CAS to help you achieve your most important admissions priorities. In late 2016, Liaison partnered with Kira Talent, the first holistic assessment platform designed specifically for colleges and universities. Kira’s interactive media tools, such as timed video and written components, allow admissions decision makers to learn about applicants in ways unavailable through traditional metrics and data alone.

More recently, Liaison acquired SlideRoom, a company renowned for seamlessly incorporating multimedia resources into the admissions process. Again, the driving force behind the venture was Liaison’s deep commitment to holistic reviews — and to providing CAS users with a more powerful product suite to support their admissions strategies.

Note, too, that Liaison also recently formed a partnership with Parchment that allows CAS to receive electronic transcripts by the most widely implemented academic credential management system in the country. Parchment currently works with more that 8,000 organizations to facilitate the digital transfer of student credentials.

These latest innovations won’t be the last for Liaison and its solutions, says George Haddad, CEO and founder. “We have and will continue to leverage state-of-the-art solutions to…deliver significant outcomes through our innovative, dynamic admissions platform.”

RJ Nichol

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Over the last three decades, Liaison has helped over 40,000 programs on more than 1,200 campuses more effectively manage admissions through its Centralized Application Service (CAS™) technology and complementary application processing and support services. The higher education technology leader supports its partner institutions’ total enrollment goals by pairing CAS with its Enrollment Marketing (EM) platform as well as the recently acquired TargetX (CRM) and advanced analytics software Othot.