Navigating Holistic Admissions Ask us a question

Selecting Applicants

Bringing it all together

Are you and your colleagues ready to admit the class best suited for your program? If you’ve set goals and guiding principles, worked with the admissions committee, collected evidence based on a carefully crafted application and established a fair and thoughtful process, it’s time to put your hard work to the test.

SELECT: At a glance

  • Balance quantitative and qualitative measures to get the most complete picture of what an applicant can offer.
  • Take the composition of the class as a whole into account in order to meet program goals and targets.
  • Consider using a scorecard or rubric to evaluate applicants consistently.
  • Consult published research to determine which of the three GRE General Test scores are most predictive in your discipline, and weight those scores accordingly.

Balance the art and the science

Making admissions decisions is an art and a science. Objective, standardized measures, such as GRE® General Test scores, provide the science. More subjective sources of information about an applicant’s attributes and experiences, such as the personal statement and letters of recommendation, provide the art. Both are important.

ETS recommends ensuring your admissions process is as holistic as possible — balancing the art and science so that all applicants have the opportunity to be considered for everything that they can bring to a program, and so that programs can enroll applicants that best fit their program needs and support institutional goals.  ETS also recommends requiring GRE scores of all applicants, as standardized tests have a unique role as an objective measure in the admissions process and can balance more subjective components of the application.

Consider class composition

Admitting a body of applicants to meet program enrollment goals requires a bit of creativity. When selecting students, consider the composition of the class as a whole to ensure goals are met. For example, if a goal is to increase program diversity by enrolling more individuals from underrepresented groups, factor that in during the selection process, if defensible and appropriate. Consulting with university counsel periodically can help ensure the selection process remains defensible.

Programs can also benefit from having students that bring different skills — or a mix of them — to the classroom. For example, the program may benefit from a balance of students with strong research skills and those with work experience. In Building Successful Graduate Programs with a Humanistic Approach, a graduate enrollment management director describes his efforts to balance class composition.

Achieving balance may be easier if some of the traditionally qualitative components of the application file are quantified. As mentioned previously, many institutions are attempting to quantify the letter of recommendation by asking reviewers to rate applicants on a number of skills and attributes. Quantifying more subjective measures can add a bit of consistency and rigor to the “art” of admissions.

Use scorecards and other tools

Some programs use scorecards (see example below) or rubrics to help ensure that reviewers evaluate applicants consistently and in alignment with program goals. In a scorecard or rubric, a range of points are assigned to each component of the application based on the program’s goals. Components that the program considers more important can receive more points, or be weighted more, than components the program considers less important. And for each component, reviewers can assign a range of scores depending on whether the evidence received demonstrates the skills, experiences and attributes desired.

For example, if a program is looking to enroll students who have leadership experience and have overcome significant challenges in their lives, and the personal statement instructions explicitly request evidence of those attributes and experiences, the personal statement might be valued at three points, with students earning one point if they have met the requirement, two points if they have surpassed the requirement in either area (meaning either that their leadership experience seemed especially significant or that the hardship they overcame seemed especially substantial), and three points if they have surpassed the requirement in both areas. If the program in this example also would like to see previous work or internship experience in the field, but places less value on that experience, perhaps the total possible point value for work/internship experience is two.  

The scorecard or rubric could also recommend action for the committee to take based on the total score range. For example, if the total score range is 10-27 points, perhaps applicants with a total score range of 24-27 are considered “strong admits,” applicants in the 20-24 range are “probable admits,” and applicants below 20 are likely to receive waitlist or rejection letters. This would depend upon how many applicants fit into either of the aforementioned categories and the historical response rate to acceptance letters that the program sends out. While these are just examples provided for illustrative purposes, the idea is that by creating total score ranges, reviewers can more easily make recommendations for admittance that align to program goals. Of course, a scorecard is intended as the beginning of a discussion, not the source of a firm admit/deny decision. Faculty committees should reach final admissions decisions through discussion and consensus.

Weight GRE general test scores

Users of GRE® General Test scores receive three distinct scores, one for each measure on the test: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning and Analytical Writing. This allows for flexibility in determining which scores to weight more or less. It’s especially helpful to consult published research to determine which of the three measures is most likely to predict success in your field. For example, research shows that in Engineering programs, Quantitative Reasoning and Analytical Writing scores most strongly predict graduate GPA at both the master’s and doctoral levels. Therefore, it makes sense to weight Quantitative Reasoning and Analytical Writing scores higher than Verbal Reasoning scores in an Engineering program.

Analytical Writing scores can be undervalued, despite providing programs with two unique benefits. First, research shows that of the three scores that the GRE General Test provides, how well students perform on the Analytical Writing section is the best or second best predictor of their graduate GPA across most disciplines at both the master’s and doctoral levels. Second, institutions can view applicants’ actual Analytical Writing responses through the ETS® Data Manager — this service is free to institutions that have a GRE score reporting code.

Additionally, Analytical Writing responses:

  • Give faculty committees another piece of information about their applicants.
  • Cannot be coached or edited by parents or other advisors, unlike personal statements, because the GRE General Test is administered in a secure testing environment.
  • Give faculty committees a good indication for how the applicant would analyze an issue or an argument and present those analyses in a form that could be understood by others. These are skills they’ll need at some point in any graduate program and certainly in their careers.

The GRE® Guide to the Use of Scores not only provides information about important score use guidelines, but also offers a compelling case for using GRE scores as part of a holistic admissions process.

Considering holistic admissions tools

See how a scorecard, formula or rubric could be structured to support the evaluation of holistic file review.

Sample Scorecard for Holistic Admissions