Holistic admissions expands options during (and after) COVID

June 12, 2020
  • AACRAO Consulting
  • Admissions and Recruitment
  • Competencies
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Holistic Admissions
  • Holistic Admissions
  • covid-19
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By Michele Sandlin , AACRAO Managing Consultant

As the world is coping and trying to manage during the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities are expanding their current admissions approach by adding holistic measures that present a more “whole” view of who a student is and their ability to succeed.  “Holistic admissions” as a term has been around for 20 years, with various definitions as to what additional aspects are being considered in order to provide a more “whole” view of a student.  These aspects are generally grouped within two major categories: noncognitive measures and life skills and financial factors. 

Applying holistic measures, in particular noncognitive, have been shown to expand diversity and non-traditional student enrollment, and provide a measure to assist with predicting student success for those institutions moving to a test optional format or replacing standardized test scores.    

Defining noncognitive variables

Noncognitive measures are those qualities that research has shown relate to college success as much as test scores.  These are those life skills that are strong predictors of the likelihood of student persistence and success in college.  Qualities such as hard work, determination, strong sense of self, realistic understanding of their own abilities, navigating systems, dealing with racism, ability to ask and seek help, has a strong support person/structure.  These are in addition to the more commonly sought-after qualities in scholarship applications such as leadership and group contributions, long-range goals, and knowledge gained from outside interests.  There have been lots of articles and researchers in this space, but the researcher with the most longevity and extensive findings in this area with a span of more than 40 years is Dr. William Sedlacek, Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland.  

AACRAO has been in partnership with Dr. Sedlacek for more than 10 years and has developed our approach to holistic admissions based on Dr. Sedlacek’s research.  Not only has Dr. Sedlacek done extensive research on noncognitive variables with many different student types and levels, but his noncognitive variables have been tested in the U.S. court system.  (Sedlacek, 2017, pg. 29-30).  

Dr. Sedlacek’s definition of noncognitive variables is as follows: Non-cognitive is used to refer to variables relating to adjustment, motivation, and student perceptions, rather than the traditional verbal and quantitative (often called cognitive) areas typically measured by standardized tests (Sedlacek, 1998, 2004). While non-cognitive variables are useful for all students, they are particularly critical for nontraditional students since standardized tests and prior grades may provide only a limited view of their potential. (Sedlacek, 2005).

Many institutions contemplating moving forward with a noncognitive holistic admissions approach struggle with the initial questions of “why” and “how”.  The “why” do this is fully answered by the research, backed up by the legal decisions in support of a holistic noncognitive process that have been upheld in the courts.  For the “how” to do this, a good place to start is to ensure that your institution will be able to answer this question in the affirmative in reference to its holistic approach: If your institution were challenged on your holistic admissions process, could you readily defend your holistic/noncognitive methodology based on research, legal decisions, evidence, data, and training that is ongoing and verified annually?

A holistic noncognitive approach will provide an institution with much more information about students much earlier in the admissions funnel.


Essentials of a holistic process

The three core areas that your noncognitive approach must include are as follows:

1. Questions/measures/variables that have been legally tested and supported by research 

2. A validated scoring rubric, that is supported by research, legally tested, and calibrated to your questions/measures/variables

3. Formal training of all noncognitive application scoring readers, to include:

  • How to read and score your measures
  • Reader Reliability 
  • Bias Awareness Training
  • Cultural Competency Training

To hit home the significance of adding a holistic noncognitive approach, the College Board and Education Counsel produced a well summarized guidance document in August 2016 for U.S. institutions, “Implications from Fisher II." 

Of the five key takeaways from this guidance document, the third takeaway is that holistic review remains a cornerstone for race-conscious admissions because it reflects flexible consideration of race through individualized evaluation and an institution’s unique mission.

And the process matters: There can be NO quotas, and no separate pools, no points systems. Best practice is a holistic process with trained reviewers.

Benefits and further exploration

A holistic noncognitive approach will provide an institution with much more information about students much earlier in the admissions funnel. With that comes a responsibility to be responsive to student needs that are identified in their noncognitive answers and an opportunity to ensure student success by not only providing resources to meet those needs but doing so on the first day of enrollment. Knowing more about future students helps institutions broaden their own understanding of who their students are, what students need, and to help your institution better prepare for a rapidly changing student demographic. 

For more information on holistic admissions or incorporating it into your college or university’s admissions process, contact AACRAO Consulting at consulting@aacrao.org or (202) 355-1056, or click here.


Sedlacek, W.E. (2017).  Measuring Noncognitive Variables. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Sedlacek, W. E. (2005).  "The case for noncognitive measures." In W. Camara and E. Kimmel (Eds.). Choosing students:  Higher education admission tools for the 21st century (Pp 177-193). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 



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