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Holistic Admissions

What is Holistic Admissions?

Holistic admissions review refers to practices that promote an inclusive and rigorous graduate application review process that evaluates applicants through a variety of methods, rather than prioritizing GPA, standardized test scores such as GRE scores, or former school of attendance. In the 2016 report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), the authors note that reliance upon measures such as GPA and standardized test scores may not accurately predict success in graduate school. 

UW’s Commitment

The Graduate School at the University of Washington offer on-going workshops and trainings for faculty and staff to promote understanding of issues pertaining to traditional admissions practices as well as understanding of the rationale and benefits in implementing holistic admissions review.

Our Recommendations

The following Promising Practices recommendations from the Graduate School are the result of reviewing holistic admissions review literature and studies, and interviewing departments across the UW: 

Holistic Admissions
  • Attend institutional, regional, or national conferences or recruitment fair to recruits diverse potential applicants
  • Conduct a simple study on past trends of applicants, students, and alumni, and pay attention to any underrepresented population
  • Clearly state on the admission webpage details outlining how the program implements the holistic admission process
  • Form an admission review committee, representing diverse perspectives from across the department/program (consider asking student representatives and program alumni to serve on the committee)
  • Include narratives in required admission materials (e.g., essay, personal statement) to assess non-cognitive skills and past experiences, and provide clear instructions as to how these materials may impact admission decisions
  • Create and update an admission manual and guidelines for review committee members (to account for annual committee member turnover)
  • Provide and update an annual orientation session for admission review committee members, which should include implicit bias training
  • Assign at least two reviewers for each applicant to provide an accurate assessment of the applicant
  • Decide whether or not the GRE score should be a required component of the admission review process (and if so, define how it is used and what weight it carries in the final decision)
  • Be clear of the desired qualifications of candidates, and make them transparent to potential applicants
  • Develop an admission review rubric that reflects departmental values, and discuss the rubric with review committee members to achieve a shared understanding of department/program mission, focus, and diversity, inclusion, and equity
  • Record the scores, rank the candidates, and schedule at least one admission committee meeting to discuss the merit of the committee’s rankings and decisions
  • When pre-screening is required (due to a large number of applicants), clearly define the process and do not use a single indicator for excluding an applicant (e.g., GRE score, GPA, undergraduate institution)
  • Developing evidence-based practices, such as collecting data on applicants’ experiences to capture changes before and after implementing a particular practice.
  • Matching student services to the diverse needs of admitted students, so they are fully and comprehensively supported as UW students

2023 Supreme Court Ruling on Race and Admissions

Following the 2023 Supreme Court case Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) vs. Harvard University and SFFA vs. University of North Carolina, we share key takeaways from the UW Attorney General’s Office’s guidance with regards to admission, recruiting and funding.

Want to Learn More?

The Office of Equity and Justice and the Office of Student Affairs collaborated on a larger presentation and panel discussion in Fall 2020. This presentation on holistic admissions by Dr. Bill Mahoney touches on best practices and considerations for departments to keep in mind during the admissions process.

Resources and References

Holistic Admissions Resources

  • Holistic Review in Graduate Admissions (2016). This report released by the Council of Graduate Schools offers a legal rationale for holistic admissions, as well as a summary of existing resources and the experiences of individual institutions. The “Supporting Holistic Review: Priorities for Graduate Institutions and Programs” and “Existing Resources” sections may be of particular interest. 
  • Posselt, J.R. (2016). Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping. Harvard University Press. This is a ground-breaking book. Drawing on firsthand observations of admission committees and interviews with faculty in 10 top-ranked doctoral programs in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, Posselt exposes the processes and limitations of admissions committees. In addition, she challenges a prevailing paradigm of reliance upon GRE scores and GPAs in admission practices.
  • Using GRE Scores in Holistic Admissions. Many graduate programs have stopped requiring the GRE while others use it as part of their holistic review. This resource was put together by the Educational Testing Service to explore how GRE scores could fit into holistic admission reviews. 
  • Men Call Their Own Research ‘Excellent’ (2019). This article highlights differences in how men and women explain their research and accomplishments. Women disproportionately articulate their accomplishments less assertively than men.
  • Rooting Out Implicit Bias in Admissions (2019). This article explains how implicit bias, preferences, and unconscious associations from committee members can impact whether an applicant moves forward in the selection process.
  • A Practical Guide for Implementing a Holistic Admissions Review, Lisa Rosenberg , PhD, R, 2019. This article highlights specific elements to address when developing and implementing a holistic admissions review.
  • Holistic Review Toolkit:This toolkit explains holistic reviews and walks you through the process in developing a rubric.