Holistic admissions

Increasing diversity in graduate admissions has become regular conversation among graduate deans and graduate school personnel.  The Council of Graduate Schools has include sessions on diversity and inclusion at its Annual Meetings and summer workshops for many years and recently actively promoted holistic admissions through a funded project and publications.  In 2015, Hobsons funded a CGS research project to explore existing practices and strategies for creating a more diverse graduate student population.  The results were shared with the graduate education community through a CGS publication that includes promising practices for holistic admissions and an overview of existing resources.  As graduate dean at Virginia Tech, I was invited as one of the participants to share our holistic admissions process.

Since then, I have also been invited to participate in ETS sponsored breakfast panels for increasing diversity in Graduate School at the 2018 CGS Summer Workshop and 2018 Annual Meeting.  These were focused generally on strategies used by selected Graduate Deans for creating inclusive graduate education and increasing diversity in graduate school and followed the development of the ETS GRE Holistic admissions website. In November 2018,  ETS hosted a webinar entitled “Diversity in Graduate Education: Looking at – and beyond – admissions”.  The panel was moderated by Jamal Eric Watson, Executive Editor of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

At Virginia Tech, we have developed a holistic admissions process that involved a modification of the on-line application to facilitate admission decisions based upon more than quantitative measures including test scores and GPAs (or the university from which they graduated).  Applicants are “more than a number” to us.  We value the following characteristics as success critical attributes and use them as relevant factors in admissions:

  • Community involvement/service
  • Leadership
  • Social, economic, physical, and other barriers overcome
  • Personal/professional ethics
  • Achievement
  • Research and scholarship

While it can be argued that the characteristics are often articulated in the applicant’s statement or letter of application and frequently incorporated into letters of recommendation, VT Graduate School has added sections to the application itself and created the ability to “sort” by these characteristics as well as GPA and test scores.  We added questions to the application and for the reference letter section.  These modification have encouraged academic units to select those additional characteristics of importance for admission and to “sort in” the applicants who demonstrate these within their pool of qualified candidates.

In modifying our application, we considered data provided by our academic departments about the additional criteria that were used in the review of the application materials.  Specifically, we modified the application so that applicants could provide additional educational experience for consideration in admissions including the characteristics/attributes identified above.

We also modified the letter of recommendation form based upon the personal attributes critical to academic success studied by Educational Testing Services in its development of the Personal Potential Index (PPI).  Specifically, reference letter writers are asked to evaluate the applicant on the following attributes: communication skills, ethics and integrity, initiative, innovation and creativity, planning and organization, and teamwork. They are also asked to provide a brief statement about the most compelling reason to admit the candidate.  Although the full letters of recommendation are still to be submitted, the characteristics/attributes can be used to sort-in those with the desired experiences.  The historic context, rationale and process are articulated in a short presentation.

Based upon anecdotal evidence and our initial data collection, our holistic admissions approach allows for the inclusion of a more diverse pool of applicants than use of quantitative criteria primarily.

2 thoughts on “Holistic admissions

  1. Thank you, Dr. DePauw, for the blog. I just knew about the new changes that the grad school has adapted. I like how you added six non-standardized factors to the admission decision yet I’m concerned how you would evaluate them and check their truthiness given students would just need to explain why they’re good at each factor. To me, it’s subjective and students might exaggerate what they’ve done in the past just to get an admission.

  2. As I am waiting for admission decision. This article helped me a lot to release some of my stress. I wish I could join this great school soon. It touches my heart that grad school does not look at us as numbers.

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