Holistic Admissions Toolkit

Holistic Admissions Toolkit with campus aerial photo

Holistic admissions is a best practice process to ensure selection of a diverse cohort of exceptional students. Both quantitative and qualitative measures are used to obtain a more complete picture of each applicant’s attributes and potential to thrive in graduate school. Holistic review ensures that no single factor leads to either accepting the applicant or excluding them from consideration. Simple reliance on GRE or GPA cutoffs or other quantitative measures of student merit often do not predict success in graduate school, especially for students from historically marginalized communities.

In this toolkit, admissions reviewers will learn how to implement a holistic review process and learn about the best practices for admissions review.

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Admissions Committees

Guidance on establishing admissions goals, guiding principles, and criteria for making admission decisions. These resources include a timeline of activities that should be part of effective admissions practices.  

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Evaluation Rubrics

How to develop a classification system that employs consistent evaluation criteria across committee members and across applications. This section of the toolkit describes best practices and offers examples. 

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Reasons to include an interview in the admissions review and ways to create an equitable interview processes that is effective for your program.

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International Applicants

Information about the unique challenges of admitting international applicants. These considerations often go beyond academic qualifications, including visa requirements, English language proficiency, and more.

Additional Information and Resources

Supreme Court 2023 Admissions Decisions

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard/UNC cases regarding the universities’ consideration of race as a factor in undergraduate admissions; a single decision covered both cases and emerged from the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This decision has implications for admissions procedures within higher education.

Chancellor Mnookin wrote in her June 29, 2023 message to campus, “The ruling will require some modifications to aspects of our current admissions practices; we will, of course, adapt our practices to comply with the law. At the same time, I want to reiterate that our commitment to the value of diversity within our community, including racial diversity, remains a bedrock value of the institution.” In this document, the Graduate School provides guidance to graduate programs at University of Wisconsin-Madison regarding appropriate approaches and procedures. We will preserve the University’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion while staying within the limits of the law.

Under the Court’s decision, universities may not consider “race for race’s sake” in admissions decision processes. However, the Court noted that universities are not prohibited “from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” The Court made clear that a student “must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.” Thus, “a benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination.” Likewise, “a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university.”

Permissible and Impermissible Actions based on 2023 Supreme Court Decisions

The recent Supreme Court decisions in the cases of SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC prohibit the consideration of "race for race's sake."  While the full decision provides more detailed guidance on what is and isn't permissible, in general:

  • It is not permissible to consider an applicant's race, in and of itself, as a factor—positively or negatively—in an admissions decision. While applicants' reported race and ethnicity will not be transmitted to admissions committees, applicants are still free to share information about their racial or ethnic identity in their personal statements. Even where applicants choose to share this information, admissions committees may not consider race independently as a factor for or against selection.
  • It is permissible to consider a race-neutral but identity-related accomplishment or experience as a factor in making admissions decisions. If, for instance, a student has taken on a leadership role in a Black fraternity or organized a mentoring program through a student group focusing on promoting diversity in STEM, admissions committees may consider this information as evidence of students' involvement, engagement, leadership, or preparation for graduate school.
  • It is similarly permissible to consider applicants' personal statement stories about confronting or overcoming identity-based challenges such as racial discrimination as evidence of applicants' perseverance and determination or as an explanation of possible concerns in an applicant's undergraduate record.

Self-disclosed Race by Applicant

Race and ethnicity (descriptive data) will be masked in the application data available to admissions reviewers but applicants may still disclose race or ethnicity in a statement or essay response.

If race is disclosed, it can be considered only for the experience or value related to the individual’s traits (e.g., motivation, perseverance).  Additionally, guidance from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) indicates that institutions can continue to pursue inclusive practices, including “valuing and rewarding” characteristics consistent with the institution’s mission.  U.S. Department of Education and Justice, Policy Letter re SFFA Ruling (August 14, 2023).[1] These characteristics could include: “hard work, achievement, intellectual curiosity, potential and determination.” Additionally, the guidance expressly advises that “schools can consider the ways that a student’s background, including experiences with race, have shaped their lives and the unique contributions they can make to campus.” 

Additional Links and Guides

UW-Madison Graduate School Resources

Other Resources

Holistic Review

Holistic Toolkits

Implicit Bias


KeywordsHolistic Admissions, Toolkit, Graduate Admissions,   Doc ID131840
OwnerKatie B.GroupGraduate School
Created2023-10-03 08:50:39Updated2024-07-10 14:44:27
SitesGraduate School
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