Field Notes: Implementing a holistic freshman review process

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at 

by Nancy Walsh, Director of Admissions Operations,Office of Undergraduate Admissions, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Are you starting to find that the amount of qualified freshman applications is exceeding the number of admission spots which you have available, especially in particular majors? With most of us experiencing a continual increase in freshman applications, you may want to consider implementing a holistic review process on your campus for all applications or a subset of them to better ensure that you are offering admission to those most qualified and/or are good fits for your institution.

If you are considering the implementation of a holistic review process or would like to make improvements to an existing one, you should start with a few basic questions and build your process from there. What type of students are desired on my campus? Which attributes are most important to ensure that such students will be successful graduates and proud alumni of my college or university? You may want to consider forming a committee or working group for developing and implementing a holistic review process.

We have used a holistic freshman review process for more than 20 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, although it has become much more formalized over the last five years or so due to a spike in freshman applications. We continue to tweak our process and typically form a working group every two years to discuss the current process and identify areas in need of improvement as we strive to make sure that we are offering admission to the appropriate applicants.

Currently, Illinois has identified six distinct factors which are evaluated for all freshman applicants in our holistic process and how they are assessed. You may want to consider developing similar factors on your campus or use completely different ones, but you also need to provide a measure(s) for each category.

1. Academic Achievement: Since performance in the high school classroom is the best predictor of success on our campus, this factor weighs most heavily in our holistic review. We carefully evaluate the grades earned in academic courses and also pay close attention to the type and rigor of courses taken. Upward trends in both grades and rigor are desirable while the opposite may not bode well for the applicant. We want to see that applicants have challenged themselves and have taken advanced courses in their high school setting if offered. These types of students tend to perform better on our campus. A solid senior year schedule is also desirable.

2. Test Scores: An ACT or SAT is currently required of all our freshman applicants. The standardized test score helps us to measure the potential for success amongst all our applicants, although high school performance remains a stronger factor. We will use data from previous admission cycles to provide test score ranges as guidelines in the holistic review. TOEFL and IELTS scores are also evaluated for non-native English speakers.

3. Understanding/Commitment to Academic Area: At Illinois, our freshman applicants are required to select a major during the application process. If the student is undecided, we offer an Undeclared option, but a major would need to be selected on campus by the end of sophomore year. The majority of our applicants select a declared major, so we want to make sure that the applicant has a genuine interest in the area, understands the major, has had some activities or experience related to the major and/or has career goals relevant to the selected major. The essay is mainly used to gauge this review factor, although we also look at activities, honors/awards and course selection to see if any of those are a good match with the selected major. Since we have a high volume of well-qualified applicants in our more competitive majors, this category can help us distinguish one student from another when academics are very similar.

4. Other Achievements: It is our hope that we enroll students who are just as successful and engaged outside of the classroom as they are in it. We ask our applicants to provide a list of clubs, sports, volunteer experiences and part-time jobs; any positions held in those activities; years of involvement; and time commitment during the year. We like to see applicants who have dedicated a decent amount of time to a few activities and have held leadership positions in those activities. Being a member of multiple clubs is not as important to us as really showing a commitment of time and/or leadership. We also look for applicants who would bring unique experiences to campus or have earned state or national recognition for academics or non-classroom accomplishments. On the opposite side, if an applicant must work to support his/her family and does not have time for other outside activities, that would be considered in the review as well.

5. Personal Characteristics: Since Illinois is a public, land grant university, providing access is a vital mission of our institution as well as providing a diverse educational experience for our students. Reviewers will look for access and/or diversity indicators as part of the review. First generation, low-income (application fee waiver or attending a high school with large percentage of low income students), military service and/or residing in an Illinois county with low University of Illinois enrollment would be such indicators. At Illinois, we also consider diversity through ethnicity/race and geographic location of the applicant.

6. Other Circumstances: On our application, we give students the opportunity to offer an explanation for any challenges they faced which may have impacted their high school performance. If an explanation is provided, reviewers will carefully consider it against the applicant’s high school academic record. Was the situation severe enough to cause a decline in performance? Did the event occur during the same time as the decline? Has the student moved on from this experience and has there been grade improvement? We don’t want to penalize an applicant who may have experienced a few lower grades due to an unfortunate situation but has bounced back and performed much better once the situation was resolved.

The six factors detailed above are an example of how a freshman holistic review process can be developed. Again, the key component is defining the type of students which you wish to enroll on your campus and what elements can you identify through the application which will then be measured during the review process. You need to ensure that you are collecting the appropriate information on your application to support your review process, so a revamp of your application may need to be part of your discussion as well.