Recently, HEI’s own Kelly Rifelj attended a learning event on “Connecting Holistic Admissions, Diversity & Student Success.” Below, she shares some key takeaways regarding this important work.
Reimagining the graduate school admissions process to expand the talent pool of current students and future researchers will take intentional changes. Many graduate schools are already attempting to use the holistic admissions process to achieve diversity and student success in their programs. In the online learning event, Connecting Holistic Admissions, Diversity & Student Success, Dr. Carlos Grijalva* shared practical steps for implementing a process that considers the most comprehensive assessment of an applicant to achieve these student success and diversity goals.
The holistic admissions process includes establishing and training a diverse team to collect and evaluate the evidence provided by applicants. This collection is led by preset principles that a graduate school’s admission committee defines in advance. To organize this process, Dr. Grijalva presents 5 steps from planning the admissions process to understanding if the goals of the holistic admissions process are met. Structuring the process helps to mitigate biases that might show up in any of these 5 steps.
Step 1: Prepare for the Admissions Process
To have a successful selection process the committee needs to know what they want to accomplish in the end and how they will define success (e.g., increasing diversity or retention) and evidence of that success (e.g., a goal retention rate). From this process, the committee can set guiding principles that put everyone on the same page and clarify expectations. Guiding Principles inform every step and synchronize the process, beginning with the committee structure and setup and through the application and outreach process.
- For committee work:
- Structure the committee to have a diversity of viewpoints (e.g., include junior and senior faculty).
- Provide formal training for new staff on the committee on the holistic admissions process.
- Consider these questions as you build your guiding principles: a) What is currently most important to your graduate program(s)? b) Have you mapped the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to successfully navigate your graduate programs onto each element of your holistic admissions portfolio?
- For applications and outreach:
- Review your application so that the difference between the Statement of Purpose (e.g., career aspirations) and the Purpose Statement (e.g., barriers overcome) are specific and clearly defined.
- Partner with HBCUs or other MSIs to bring students to campus and meet faculty.
Step 2: Collect Applicant Information
Once the guiding principles are determined and the graduate school program enrollment goals are understood, the next step is to collect evidence from the documentation that students provide. It is important to collect similar, specific, and comparable information (e.g., standardized tests) on all applicants. This documentation provides data on the extent an applicant has the cognitive and academic skills, resilience and passions, and other characteristics to perform in your program.
Here is an example of common elements found in graduate school applications and the associated evidence they provide:
A graduate school program may have the goal of increasing the number of international students in their program. Below are a few recommendations from ETS on how to find comparable information.
- For international students: look for comparability to your institution (e.g., International Handbook of Universities Yearbook) and methods to evaluate their English language proficiency (e.g., TOEFL).
Step 3: Review Applicant Files
All parts of the application come together to begin the conversation about an applicant. However, the order of the materials presented is important to avoid framing bias. For example, students with more resources at more prestigious institutions may have better letters of recommendation because they can spend more time meeting with professors and afford to take unpaid research opportunities. Moreover, their test scores may be higher because they have the time and resources to take GRE prep coursework. By looking first at application elements that tell a personal story, the committee has the context to understand the whole applicant. Look at if the applicant has the drive to do the academic work and not only for evidence that they’ve already done it.
- Review all applicant’s documents in the same order.
- Read an applicant’s letters of recommendation or personal statement first so their personal barriers influence your interpretation of other items such as test scores.
- Look for evidence of persistence in the personal statement and of how far the student has traveled to get where they are now.
- Be aware of a bias toward giving preferences for students from higher-resourced and more prestigious institutions.
Step 4: Select Applicants
Student socioeconomic advantage can be relevant in every aspect of the admissions process. And because of this, applicant selection is not only an art (e.g., passions and interests of the applicant) and a science (e.g., GRE scores), but it is also a collaborative process in conversation with colleagues. This collaboration around all the elements of a student’s application will hopefully create a dialogue where different interpretations can be reviewed and consensus made.
- Decide how the committee will weigh criteria such as GPA and letters of recommendation.
- Keep in mind that an applicant’s score is only part of the conversation.
- Consider the mixture of students as an entire class.
- Build a rubric for consistency between evaluators.
- Avoid using cut-off scores.
Step 5: Evaluate the Admissions Process
Finally, take the time to understand how well the process worked and if the committee met its goals. It can be impossible to guess in advance which students will drop out due to life circumstances, but there may be value in talking with past students to see if any patterns emerge. Ask if there is any need to refine the goals of the committee.
- Go back to step 1 to the original goals of the committee and ask if those goals were met and if those goals need to be refined (e.g., diversity in the class composition).
- Conduct exit surveys or interviews with students who leave the program.
For further reading: Resource: Navigating Holistic Admissions Digital Guide
* Carlos Grijalva is ETS Graduate Education Advisor, Emeritus Professor, Behavioral Neuroscience, and Former Associate Dean, UCLA.