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Reviewing Applicant Files

Creating a balanced process

Are your processes enabling reviewers to clearly see which applicants are best suited for your program? Considering smart process changes and ensuring that all reviewers are on board might have a big influence on your success.

REVIEW: At a glance

  • Adopt a holistic review process to help reviewers clearly see which applicants are best suited for your program.
  • Consider multiple criteria to make admissions decisions. Explore alternate processes to identify the one that’s right for your program and that best mitigates cognitive biases, such as the framing effect.
  • Work with the admissions committee to ensure application packages are reviewed and evaluated consistently.

Reviewing applicants holistically

Various definitions agree that, at its core, holistic admissions it is a method in which reviewers consider all available information to get the fullest picture of everything that an applicant can bring to a program. Implemented appropriately, it can support a fair and inclusive process that helps to identify applicants that effectively meet program needs and support institutional goals.  

Programs conducting holistic admissions typically:

  • use evidence and information from multiple sources to gauge applicants’ knowledge, skills, experiences and personal attributes
  • avoid using threshold (or cut) scores that are determined using only undergraduate GPA and GRE® General Test scores, as that may prevent candidates with other desirable qualities from being considered
  • give thought to the weighting of various components of the application, and the order in which those components are reviewed, to consider all information about an applicant in a fair and equitable way.


Consider multiple criteria

One of the foundational elements of holistic admissions is the consideration of multiple sources of information in making admissions decisions. This is one of the score use guidelines published in the GRE® Guide to the Use of Scores and depicted in the “Using GRE® scores successfully: Guidelines for identifying the best applicants” infographic. The premise of holistic admissions is that each piece of evidence requested in the application should add another layer of understanding about the applicant’s knowledge, skills, experiences and personal attributes.

If your program receives an overwhelming number of applications and has resource constraints so severe as to make holistic review of every application impossible, ensuring your process uses more than just two sources of information (traditionally GRE scores and undergraduate GPA) to make the initial cut can make the process fairer for applicants and can prevent great applicants from being dropped. It can also help you better achieve your goals. If the description of your desired admitted pool includes not only academic experiences and cognitive skills, but also personal attributes and non-academic experiences, it makes sense that the initial whittling of your large applicant pool takes these other goals into consideration. Evidence of personal attributes and non-academic experiences can be found in the statement of purpose, personal statement, letters of recommendation and other sources.

Adding another source of information to your initial evaluation will probably be easier if traditionally qualitative components of the application file are quantified. For example, many institutions are attempting to quantify the letter of recommendation — in full, or in part — by asking reviewers to rate applicants on a variety of skills and attributes, such as analytical ability, breadth of knowledge, verbal and written expression skills, perseverance, maturity, imagination and creativity, and potential as a scholar or researcher.

Explore alternate processes

How applications are reviewed, by whom, and in what order can result in the framing effect and significantly influence the outcomes.  The framing effect is a cognitive bias in which people react to a particular choice in different ways based upon how it was presented. For example, if a reviewer is first exposed to information about an applicant’s low GPA and average GRE scores, the reviewer may review subsequent information with less interest or greater skepticism. If the reviewer is first exposed to evidence of the applicant’s significant contributions to their field or impressive research work, the information about the applicant’s undergraduate GPA and GRE scores may seem less important.

To avoid the framing bias, some institutions ensure that faculty members who read letters or personal statements or conduct applicant interviews aren’t exposed to information about GPA and GRE scores ahead of time. Each committee member reviews all of the application materials 1) in the same order, and 2) completely independently. This can help to increase the quality and diversity of the incoming class.

Below are additional options for reviewing applications that you may want to consider to help achieve your goals and prevent overreliance on any one measure:

Separate and convene – In this process, different committee members review different components of the application, then convene to discuss. For example, one committee member might review components of the application that contain cognitive evidence (e.g., undergraduate GPA and coursework, GRE scores), while two other committee members review components of the application that contain information about experiences and personal attributes, such as work or research experience, letters of recommendation and the personal statement. When the two groups convene, applicants that received high marks from both groups should sit high in the consideration set. If the application process includes an interview component, consider having yet another group of reviewers conducting the interviews, so a single set of people are not judging all components. Some programs find that the interviewer is more objective when not exposed to applicants’ test scores or undergraduate GPA. See other suggestions for mitigating bias during the interview process from Georgetown University School of Medicine and University of Florida’s Training & Organizational Development group.

Two-pool – This process enables decision makers to act quickly in an environment in which multiple institutions will likely target the same populations you are considering. In the two-pool process, programs first review the applications of candidates in the target populations to accelerate the holistic review process. Then the program focuses on reviewing remaining applications.

Multi-stage – This process uses an initial set of criteria to narrow a large applicant pool. From the group that didn’t make the initial cut, reviewers identify additional applicants that exhibit other desired skills or attributes. Both groups are reviewed holistically. This process might be especially helpful to institutions that want to target members of underrepresented groups, who might be disadvantaged if limited criteria are considered.

Work with the committee regarding the review process

Working with the committee at the start of the review process helps ensure application packages are reviewed and evaluated consistently. All decision makers should understand:

  • Enrollment goals, guiding principles and processes.
  • How to evaluate each component of the application, including its role and importance, the order in which components should be reviewed, and which inferences are, or are not, appropriate to make based on the information provided.
  • How to mitigate unconscious bias.
  • How disagreements between reviewers will be resolved.

*ETS has not empirically validated the examples and tips from graduate programs and institutions provided above.

Avoiding unintended consequences

Sometimes, what seems like a good idea may result in negative outcomes. Explore the unintended consequences of dropping test scores.

Holistic File Review: Getting the Greatest Value Out of Test Scores