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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

Tackling Holistic Admissions: A Breakdown of What Colleges Consider

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Chances are if you’ve taken a look at the undergraduate admissions site for any of your top choice schools, you’ll see that they employ a “holistic” admissions process. A variety of factors are used to evaluate applicants that extend beyond empirical academic measurements like GPA and standardized test scores. Schools ultimately seek to populate their student bodies with students who will best utilize the resources of the college or university to maximize their personal and academic growth and success. Thus, demonstrating ambition, intellectual curiosity, passion, and a genuine love of learning are essential for admittance to your top choice schools.


While many schools’ websites tout a selection process that emphasizes evaluating students as people and not statistics, it’s often unclear exactly what criteria schools are considering when making admissions decisions. Here is a breakdown of some of the things schools consider in the admissions process:


GPA and Test Scores: They may not be the only thing colleges look at, but GPA and test scores do matter. As a general rule, excellent GPA and scores won’t get you into a top school, but they can keep you out. It’s important to note that unless you’ve faced significant adversity or other circumstances that may have prevented top performance in these areas, your chances of admissions will be significantly hurt by poor grades or scores. That being said, the great part about holistic admissions is that it does take into account things like illness or exceptional personal situations that would harm academic performance, and does not punish otherwise strong candidates for circumstances outside their control.


Coursework: Much of the admissions process focuses on selecting students who demonstrate certain personal characteristics or habits that will allow them to succeed at the institution in question, notably a willingness to challenge themselves personally and academically. To be a competitive applicant, it’s important to take challenging courses throughout high school, including AP, IB, and Honors classes when available. Not only can performing well in these classes give your GPA a boost, which never hurts, it will also show you to be a student capable of rising to challenges and managing a rigorous course load.


Extracurriculars:  The personal nature of the admissions process means that adcoms aren’t necessarily seeking out students who have participated in the largest number of extracurriculars or who have accrued the most awards. Rather, they look for students who have passion or talent in an area and have dedicated large amounts of time or held leadership positions in extracurricular activities pertinent to their interests. Adcoms seek applicants that display qualities of leadership, dedication, and intellectual curiosity, and participating in activities that highlight these personal qualities will be advantageous to any student. An important rule to remember with extracurriculars is quality over quantity; the Common Application only provides for 10 spaces to describe extracurriculars anyway, and it’s better to demonstrate leadership in a few activities than be a largely absent member of 15 clubs.


Essays: The personal essays are an enormously important facet of admissions, because they are inherently the most personal part of the application. Essays provide an excellent opportunity to communicate personal motivations and interests, display qualities of leadership, dedication, and a love of learning, and contextualize your achievements through descriptions of your environment at home or at school. It’s the best way to show adcoms who you are and what you care about, and why you’re an excellent fit for their school. It’s crucial to write effective essays to be a competitive applicant at your top choice school.


Compatibility with The School: Although many elite universities may seem to be essentially very similar, each school has a distinct culture that separates it from its peers. The admissions process seeks to pair students with the university that will be the best fit for them; therefore, it’s important that a student’s interests and personality as communicated through their application fits well with the culture of the school as a whole. For instance, a student whose application shows that he or she values freedom to explore various academic fields and dislikes required classes would likely be a better fit for a school like Brown, with its Open Curriculum, than Columbia, with its Core Curriculum.


Recommendations: Like essays, recommendations are an extremely personal component to a college application. They are very important in the admissions process, as an ideal recommendation should feature not only evidence of exemplary academic performance, but exemplary character and a desire to learn as well. Also, because recommendations are written by outside parties and students are not officially allowed to view them, at least through the Common App, they are not subject to manipulation or bias in the same way that essays and descriptions of extracurriculars can be. For this reason, it’s necessary to form strong relationships with faculty at your school or leaders of organizations you’ve worked with in order to ensure your recommendations are highly favorable and convincing. If you have strong recommendations, adcoms will be able to corroborate the personal characteristics you’ve demonstrated through extracurriculars and essays with the perspective of an outside party, making your application even more compelling.


Interview: Many colleges and universities require students to interview, often with an alumnus of the school. Interviews are given relatively little weight in considering a student’s application, although a disastrous interview can hold significant consequences for your chances. It’s important to demonstrate strong communication skills and interest in the school in your interview, so it’s recommended that you research the school and plan answers to possible questions beforehand. Keep in mind, though, that unless your interview is exceptional in some way (good or bad), it likely will not have a significant impact on your application. The interview is also an excellent opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the school in question.


Other Factors: In addition to the factors mentioned above that are a direct result of a student’s performance and accomplishments, adcoms often take into account things like a student’s race, socioeconomic status, or status as a first-generation college student. More on these in a separate blog post!


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.