Op-Ed: The truth about ‘holistic’ college admissions

Many of the nation's elite universities practice what is called "holistic admissions." Above, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimor.

Many of the nation’s elite universities practice what is called “holistic admissions.” Above, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimor.

(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

In May, 60 groups filed a complaint with the Justice and Education departments claiming that Asian Americans are held to a different standard — a higher standard — than other students applying for admission at elite universities. They believe that “holistic admissions” is being used as a modern-day form of racial discrimination.

I worked in admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and at Franklin & Marshall College, and I can tell you something about what goes on. Elite universities — public and private — practice what is called “holistic admissions,” a policy based on the idea that a test score or GPA does not completely reflect who a student is and what he or she can bring to a college community. It allows a college to factor in a student’s background, challenges overcome, extracurricular involvement, letters of recommendation, special talents, writing ability and many other criteria. Private schools and many public universities can include race among the characteristics they consider, as long as they don’t apply racial quotas.

In all, holistic admissions adds subjectivity to admissions decisions, and the practice makes it difficult to explain who gets in, who doesn’t, and why. But has holistic admissions become a guise for allowing cultural and even racial biases to dictate the admissions process?


To some degree, yes.

As an admissions professional, I gave students, families and guidance counselors a list of what it took to be admitted — the objective expectations of a competitive applicant. I didn’t mention that racial stereotyping, money, connections and athletics sometimes overshadow these high benchmarks we all promoted. The veil of holistic admissions allows for these other factors to become key elements in a student’s admissions decision.

The most heart-wrenching conversations I had were with students who hit all the listed benchmarks and didn’t get in. I would tell them about the overall competitiveness of the applicant pool and the record low admit rate we had. But after I hung up the phone, I knew I wasn’t being transparent.

There was always a reason. Once in a while, it was something concrete, like the student got a low grade in an academic course even though his or her overall GPA remained high. Often, it had to do with the fact that the application had no “tag.”

A tag is the proverbial golden ticket for a student applying to an elite institution. A tag identifies a student as a high priority for the institution. Typically students with tags are recruited athletes, children of alumni, children of donors or potential donors, or students who are connected to the well connected. The lack of a tag can hinder an otherwise strong, high-achieving student. Asian American students typically don’t have these tags.

Asian Americans are rarely children of alumni at the Ivies, for example. There aren’t as many recruited athletes coming from the Asian American applicant pool. Nor are they typically earmarked as “actual” or “potential” donors. They simply don’t have long-standing connections to these institutions.

And the fact is that Asian Americans often don’t use the “connections” they do have. In all my years in college admissions, I never received a phone call or a visit from a well-connected politician, chief executive or other leader to advocate for an Asian American student.


Tags alone are not the only reason highly qualified Asian American applicants are turned away in droves from elite private institutions. Nowadays nobody on an admissions committee would dare use the term racial “quotas,” but racial stereotyping is alive and well. And although colleges would never admit students based on “quotas,” they fearlessly will “sculpt” the class with race and gender percentages in mind.

For example, there’s an expectation that Asian Americans will be the highest test scorers and at the top of their class; anything less can become an easy reason for a denial. And yet even when Asian American students meet this high threshold, they may be destined for the wait list or outright denial because they don’t stand out among the other high-achieving students in their cohort. The most exceptional academic applicants may be seen as the least unique, and so admissions officers are rarely moved to fight for them.

In the end, holistic admissions can allow for a gray zone of bias at elite institutions, working against a group such as Asian Americans that excels in the black-and-white world of academic achievement.

This doesn’t mean that holistic admissions should be outlawed. I’m convinced that empirical benchmarks can’t be the only thing that matters in college admissions. Holistic admissions can be truly glorious to watch in action. To see an admissions committee admit a student for the story and background he or she brings is exactly what America, education and opportunity are all about.

One way to improve the system for Asian Americans — and everyone else — is to add more transparency to the process. That would mean coming clean about tags and their influence in the admissions process. In addition, all colleges should be required to make public the demographics of their applicants and the percentages admitted. This is already the practice at many public universities, such as the University of California.

Better yet, schools should also break down their admits’ high school GPAs and test scores by race and ethnicity. Knowing acceptance rates by identifiable characteristics can reveal institutional tendencies, if not outright biases; it can push schools to better justify their practices, and it would give applicants a look at which schools offer them the best opportunities.


Without more transparency, holistic admissions can become an excuse for cultural bias to dictate a process that is supposed to open doors. We are better than that. And our youth will demand that we do something about it.

Sara Harberson is the founder of, a subscription college counseling website. She is the former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the former dean of admissions and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall College.

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