How Would an Admission Officer Review Your Application? Understanding Holistic Review and Making the Most out of Your Application

You’re more than a test score. You’re GPA tells more than a number. Okay sure, maybe you’ve heard that when college admission offices are making decisions, they’re looking at MORE than just academics, but do you believe it? While universities admission policies and review processes vary, it IS helpful to understand the basis of what makes up a “holistic admission review.” Why? Because part of getting to know how you can present your best self in the college admission process, is understanding the basics and most importantly, knowing what key resources and people to tap into when things get a bit trickier. 

Universities that practice a holistic admission review look at additional factors beyond the academic pinpoints for context, understanding and an idea of not only WHO you actually are, but also WHAT you may be capable of. I mean you are a student…a human being…and it’s certainly important to find out if not only you’ll be successful at the university, but at that particular university. So depending on where you’re applying it’s helpful to understand that your application really tells a story. A larger story in which both the reader and the author choose each other based off interests, fit, skill sets and the narrative in general.

Let’s break it down. Actually, pause, just for one second. Be mindful that each university will vary in terms of their admission practices and it can change depending on institutional priorities. It is incredibly helpful to connect with your regional admission counselor for that university and get to know the nitty gritty details. Okay, now let’s break it down.

In a holistic review, your application is being presented in three larger pieces, academic, personal and background.


A lot of students tend to get caught up on the GPA. I get it. It’s one number that seems to define your success and where you stand. Here’s the good news. Knowing ONLY the GPA really tells an admission officer nothing. A GPA is just a number until we are able to peel the curtain back and look at the curriculum. The trajectory of courses you took, if you stumbled and how you got back up, if you showcase strength in a specific subject area, if you’ve taken a pathway or AP/Honors coursework. It tells a university not only your academic ability and achievements, but also how you’ve enriched or furthered your learning in areas of strength and interest. It also tells them what you do if you stumble a little.

Think about it this way, you could be a student with access to an advanced curriculum and chosen to take all regular coursework, not for lack of ability, but to keep that 4.0 in tact. Take another student who has a 3.75 who took AP/Honors when appropriate and in areas based off strengths, recommendations from teachers/counselors etc., and earned a few B’s. Which student would you consider adding to your university? The latter! Why? Because they weren’t afraid of a challenge, but they also were able to manage their course load in a way that made sense for them.

Remember that on your application it’s your job to add context whenever is needed. So if you had a hardship or a setback for a compelling reason and your grades were significantly impacted then offer context and share your experience. Remember to highlight your strengths and resilience through the hardship and how you’re using the proper coping mechanisms and resources to continue to come back in a strong way. It is OKAY to mess up. LIFE HAPPENS. But what you do with it is what an admission officer will key in on.

In the academic review, admission officers will be looking at your grades and classes, but also within the context of what is offered at your school. You cannot be faulted for not taking a class you did not have access to. But it is super awesome for a school to see that you’re thinking outside of the box in an area of strength/interest. Community college courses to high school students are practically free, read, listen to podcasts, get creative and show your academic talents beyond the classroom!

College Admission Testing 

pen writing notes studying

Gotta love the SAT/ACT and all the fun and joy it brings right? A standardized exam is one way to help put an additional factor to where you are academically. Not all high schools offer the same curriculum. Maybe you did have a hardship and your GPA suffered, but now is your time to showcase your academic strengths. It’s an indicator. Not the end all be all to your application. Grades and rigor in college preparatory coursework throughout high school will still reign king on this one, but standardized tests can be an additional positive factor to your application.

The BEST guide to understanding college admission testing, when you should take it, how many times, what your scores mean, etc., download Compass’ Guide to College Admission Testing here:

There are also test-optional colleges. For more information visit


woman wearing green shirt
Photo by Brett Sayles on

The fun stuff! I mean this is it. Your time to shine. In a holistic admission review an admission counselor will want to get an idea of how you spend your time, what you’re excited about, who you are, where you’ve been and where you want to go. They also want to get a sense if their campus is the right fit for you, a.k.a if admitted you’d actually not only want to come, but stay!

Universities have varying personalities, much like your friends groups. So just as much as one university will focus on research and academics, another might really value experiential learning. It’s important it’s a good match!

The personal pieces of your application come in some of the following ways:

  • Essays, personal statements (for an AMAZING resource go here: The College Essay Guy
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Additional information (the space you might use to talk about a personal hardship, provide more context, etc.)
  • Activities/Awards section (your resume really!)

Take the time with these sections. The Activities and Awards section can be one of the most overlooked ones by students. When you write your descriptions of the activity you participated in, get specific, share your impact within the activity and make it so that you can differentiate yourself from every other co-president, ASB participant, etc. out there.

Write, re-write and re-write your essays. Really. In selective admissions when practically 80% of the applicants are more than qualified academically, they HAVE to rely more on your personal piece to get a sense of you and your potential impact and fit. You have the most control on this section!


Lastly, it is incredibly helpful to understand the context of your life in general. Where were you raised? Did you grow up in a single-parent household? Are you bilingual? How much access, or lack of access, did you have to opportunities around you?

Remember, the holistic admission process is one that tries to understand your narrative. Understanding who you are and what you’ve done within your surrounding environment is a helpful way for them to understand if you’ll be successful and if you’re the right fit for their university.

Phew! You made it through holistic admission review!! A few final tidbits because why not?

  • You have more control than you think. Take the time to explore college options and get to know universities early on so you feel confident about where you’re applying and your application will be stronger for it.
  • Provide context when needed. To grades, personal circumstances, your impact within your activities, etc. Context, context, context!
  • Get to know admission counselors at universities. They are a HUGE resource!
  • Draft and re-write your essays.
  • Take a breath and smile, because you have SO many incredible opportunities ahead of you!


Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

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