Holistic application review at work

I frequently find myself telling prospective students to expect to hear the term “holistic application process” bandied about as they apply to grad school. It’s pretty much an industry-standard trope these days, and I sometimes worry it can come across as a chunk of highfalutin jargon that sounds official without actually meaning anything, like “solutions,” “cross-functional,” or “leverage” used as a verb. In the admissions context, “holistic” means that there’s not a single attribute upon which a decision will consistently hinge for all candidates, and that all the information we request in an application meaningfully contributes to an applicant’s case for admission.

What this means in practice is that our Admissions Committee meetings regularly involve quite detailed group conversation and further review of candidates to determine whether or not admission to Fletcher will be setting them up for success. One of the great strengths of our process is the multiple sets of eyes reviewing applications. Committee members all have biases, pet peeves, soft spots, and blind spots, and the story told by many applications is simply too complex for a single review to carry the day. Bottom line: debates are frequent!

Some sample cases from last week’s committee meeting – all of whom will be admitted, incidentally – can help illustrate the benefit of a holistic process. One candidate had several years’ experience in government work, an academic record featuring quite distinct peaks and valleys, but very strong test scores. A second applicant had an admittedly bumpy academic experience as an undergrad, but had since held several professional positions of responsibility, and offered emphatically supportive letters of recommendation as well as a clear professional plan after graduation. A third had a relatively well-rounded set of overall qualifications for Fletcher, but submitted a personal statement that left several readers a bit cold. The Committee discussed the relevant concerns for each of these applicants, but in all cases felt they were outweighed by the candidates’ assets. The leeway to view individual applications in context, and to make collective judgments about the likelihood of success at Fletcher, is what a holistic process allows. Were we to use GPA or score cutoffs, or an ironclad numerical rating scale for essays, it’s possible none of these candidates would be admitted, which I can confidently say would have been our mistake, and our loss. So while it may sound like the admissions equivalent of new TPS report cover sheets, “holistic review” empowers us to evaluate candidates on their distinct and diverse merits.

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