Students entering college this year will likely have no memory of cut scores (in which colleges wouldn’t consider applications from students with lower than a certain SAT score or GPA), but for those of us who remember what a VCR was, the transition to a holistic admissions review process can sometimes seem like a catchy but meaningless buzzword. Every year students ask me, “I have a quantitative GRE score of 150, what are my chances?” or “My GPA is below a 3.0, should I bother to apply?” and every year I have to give them the most frustrating answer… it depends. Because I get so many questions about what a holistic admissions process really means, and because students often don’t realize how this process can work in their favor, today I’m going to be giving you the definitive explanation of what a holistic admissions process means for you and your application.
Put simply, a holistic admissions process means that your application is considered as a whole, rather than individual data points. Of course, we still consider your grades and test scores, but we use other pieces of your application to provide context. Let me give you an example of how that might play out.
Student X and Y are both applying to the same program at Heller. Student X has a 3.8 GPA, and Student Y has a 3.0 GPA; a traditional application review process would suggest that we favor Student X over Student Y because of this higher GPA score. But in a holistic application review, Student Y’s resume might reveal that they were working in a nursing home throughout their undergraduate degree, and their statement of purpose might tell us that they were providing care for an elderly parent in their final year of college. Both of these experiences led them to develop an interest in improving health outcomes for the elderly, or patients on Medicare. With that in mind, we might determine that the professional background and life experience of Student Y make them a good fit for the program, even if their GPA isn’t as high. This doesn’t, by the way, mean we wouldn’t accept Student X; we would look just as hard at their application to see what experiences they would bring to our community.
So knowing this, how can you use a holistic admissions process to your advantage? You can’t change your GPA or (if your program requires them) your standardized test scores, and it’s probably too late to get a new job to put on your resume, but you can decide who your recommenders are going to be, what to highlight on your resume, and what to write in your statement of purpose. I’m going to use another example to show you how that can work to your advantage.
Student Z is interested in Heller’s PhD program, but knows that they don’t have strong GRE scores (editor’s note: the GRE is now optional for students applying to the PhD program for Fall 2021), and low grades in the quantitative classes like statistics or economics they took in their master’s program, although they’ve been out of school for some time. However, they do have more than five years of work experience in a research lab, and their mentor from their master’s program is well known in the field. What can they do to make up for the weaknesses in their application? First, and easiest, they could move their work experience to the top of their resume, and take care to highlight their accomplishments in the years since they’ve graduated, especially accomplishments that would show that they’re capable of performing high-level research. If they have publications, they could find a way to highlight that on their resume as well. When they’re thinking about their recommenders, they could certainly ask their mentor to write one, but they would be smart to make sure that the other two recommenders are people they’ve worked closely with on research projects, who can testify to their quantitative skills or how they respond to new challenges. When they submit a writing sample, they could choose to submit a sample that shows a high level of data analysis. And just like that, their application would demonstrate that despite the weakness of their GRE or GPA, they are perfectly capable of succeeding in a quantitative research program.
This is just an example, of course, and it’s likely that your situation will be quite different. Regardless, the key here is to think strategically about how your application will appear as a whole and make efforts to supplement any potential weaknesses. So take the opportunity to look at your application as an outsider: What’s missing? What part of your story aren’t you telling? What strengths are underrepresented? At Heller, we’re not offering admission to your GPA, we’re giving it to you, so make sure you give us a good sense of what you would bring to the Heller community.