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How a University Overcomes the Challenges of Holistic Admissions

Denver — Fit is a big deal at Brigham Young University, where the admissions office looks for students who share its values academically, socially, and spiritually. To select those students, the university uses a holistic process that three campus officials described here on Monday during a session at the American Association for Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers’ annual meeting.

Each applicant’s file—stripped of its grades and test scores—is evaluated by more than one reader. Readers consider essays, lists of extracurricular activities, and counselor recommendations. They also look, in keeping with the university’s relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at letters from two church leaders and a teacher in the church’s education program for high-school students. The goal is for readers to get a sense of the whole person.

Readers’ subjective evaluation is combined with the objective grades and test scores to make an admissions decision.

The feedback from readers really matters, said Kirk Strong, director of admissions. He pulled up examples of two anonymous applicants to show that the university does sometimes pick one with strong recommendations and a well-articulated desire to enroll there over another with higher grades and test scores.

Decisions, Mr. Strong emphasized, are carefully made. “Every time we admit somebody, it displaces someone else,” he said.

Mr. Strong is a big advocate of holistic admissions, but he acknowledges it isn’t easy. He shared several challenges of reviewing applications in that way, and what the university does about them:

  • It’s time consuming: Even with the help of outside readers, reviewing applications holistically is a lot of work. The university has bought more time, Mr. Strong said, by offering applicants who apply by its December 1 priority deadline extra consideration in admissions and housing.
  • It can be difficult to assess: Several years ago, the university studied the connection between students’ reasons for enrolling and their satisfaction later. The university will know its admissions process is successful if the number of students who don’t have a positive experience drops, Mr. Strong said, though he doubts it can get to zero.
  • It can be tough to explain: Over the last several years, Brigham Young has grown more selective, with a larger and better-qualified applicant pool. That means it rejects some students with perfect grades and high test scores, and some who graduate at the top of their classes. The university tells rejected students and their families about its approach, but doesn’t provide specific reasons for a denial, Mr. Strong said. To minimize appeals of admissions decisions, the office sends a document saying the decisions are final.

But as Travis Blackwelder, associate director of admissions, pointed out, a rejection doesn’t have to be the end. Brigham Young has an unusually large transfer program for a college of its kind. The “vast majority” of students who enroll that way, he said, were rejected in the initial process.

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