2 years ago
Admissions Advice

Does anyone know how the test-optional holistic approach really works?

Does anyone know how the test-optional holistic approach really works? How do prestigious colleges compare applicants with and without test scores? Let's set aside for a moment the race factor, socioeconomic status, and any potential hooks. As an illustration: Jane, Anna, and Michele are friends who attend the same high school and take the same AP classes. Jane has a 3.9 GPA, a 1550 SAT score, and four 4s and one 5 on her AP exams. Anna has a 3.9 GPA, submitted all 5s AP results, but no SAT scores. Michelle has a 4.0 GPA, submitted the 1550 SAT, and did not submit any AP exams. How are these three girls compared to one another in terms of admission under the test-optional holistic approach?


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Accepted Answer
2 years ago[edited]

If all three girls apply to the same college, say Harvard, depending on all the other data points they enter into their common app, will determine who is the best candidate.

You only mention 3 data points albeit important ones but a school like Harvard has a admissions rubric of over 200 data points. So based on what you wrote, NO one has a clear advantage over the other.

At Harvard, the academic rating is scored 1 through 5. Only 1% of admits get a score of 1 because to get a 1 you have to have evidence of world class scholarship like winning the Nobel Peace Prize like Malala Yousafzai. To get a 2+, 2 or 2- you have to have superb grades like 3.90-4.00 unweighted, a 1500+ SAT or 33+ ACT and some clear evidence of Intellectual Curiosity. So all these 3 probably pass the academic index with similar scores. At Harvard once you get pass a 3.90 GPA or 1500/33, you get don't get bumped to the next tier for a higher GPA or test score. The difference between someone submitting a 1500 and 1600 might be the difference between a 2 and a 2+. Since they all took the same AP courses, they all have the same course rigor. But again the difference between applicant 1 or 2, and the 3rd who didn't submit test scores might be the difference between a 2+ and a 2. Since we don't know which of the 3 challenged themselves academically outside of the classroom with supervised research, an academic internship that aligns with their major, taking college courses, we can't score any of them as a clear winner. If the 3rd applicant is the clear winner in Intellectual Vitality even though they didn't submit AP test scores, that would be a big plus to the AOs reading their file.

At Harvard, other categories of the score card are the following:

ECs, Community Services, Employment and Family Rating. Like academics, it's nearly impossible to score a 1. Perhaps if one won the US Presidential Scholarship honors, or are a 2500 rated Chess Grand Master. Most successful admits score in the 2s again. To get a 2+, 2 or 2- you have to have Top Leadership Position like School President, Editor of the Newspaper, Team Captain, Serve on a community board, Start a non-profit, Fund raise 6 or 7 figures for a charity, win a national writing, or arts competition. Family rating might have to do with whether or not you are a legacy or not. And whether Harvard views your admission as a positive cash flow proposition because your family has already and will continue to endow Harvard with donations.

Teacher Recommendations are scored 1 through 5.

Athletic Ratings are scored 1 through 5

Your Personal Character Rating is scored 1 through 5

And your Interview is scored 1 through 5.

So you can see that holistic means a quite lengthy detailed and complicated process. If you are over-confident and brag on your essays or come across too entitled, you will be dinged on your score card. If you show up to your interview and do all the talking and are oblivious to interviewers intent and line of questioning, you will be dinged.

And lets say you make through the first reader but the first reader is not really sure about the consistency of your answers and doubts you wrote your common app and supplemental essays. Then, Harvard will bring in a 2nd reader. They might do some background research on you. They might pull up your social media and google search your awards, honors and things you mentioned in your common app. If your narrative is you are some sort of social justice warrior but all your Insta. posts are you partying with your White friends on the lake drinking and toking spliffs, then your file will probably not make it to committee but the deny pile.

From Harvard's lens, a holistic review has to align with the goals and admission strategy they have put forth that their Board of Trustees has sanctioned. So lets say before anything is read by anyone, the Admission team has a mandate to fulfill. They might have loose targets they are trying to achieve for the incoming class plus they have specific slots they have to fill in order to keep the big machine running.

So the wish list might look something like this for the Class of 2026:

-No more than 40% ALDCs which are legacy, recruited athletes, development/deans list VIPS (Min Donor cutoff $10MM) , and children of faculty.

-20% first gen. applicants whose parents have not attended an Ivy league college before.

-40% persons of color as defined as Black, LatinX, Indigenous, or Mixed Race

-25% Asian admits

-35% White

-7% - Non-CIS admits including trans applicants

-Humanities 15%, Social Sciences 25%, Biological Sciences 20%

Physical Sciences, 7.5%, Engineering 10%

Computer Science 10%, Math 7.5%, Undecided


-55% Grant Aid, 25% Pell Aid

-50% Male/50% Female plus or minus 1%

-50% Public HS, 50% Private High School (60 max from Ten Schools Admissions Org (top 10 boarding schools).

-10% International students

-Yield Goal 85%

-SCREA admit goal 40% of freshman class.

-Shopping list might include a first Chair Viola, 2nd chair Violin, 2nd Chair Cellist, Bassoon, Oboe, French horn, Harpist. 2 girls for the Harvard Dance Team, 10 a capella singers, 1 beekeeper, 1 master class street dancer, experts in debate, constitutional law, and few satirical journalists to write for the Lampoon.

Why did I write all this? Because most HS applicants do not understand that every college is challenged each year to put together the best 3 ring circus they can possibly orchestrate. It's not a perfect situation because they'll win some and they'll lose some. I don't know what the measure of success is. Maybe it's 95%

So you can see that based on your questions the possible outcomes for the 3 applicants are XXX,XXO,XOO,XOX,OXO,OXX,OOO,OOX depending on what other data points they have and want Harvard wants.

I hope this answers your question.

2 years ago

Hi, thank you for asking your question. @CameronBameron has already done a tremendous job answering this question, so I will defer to them. However, note that a lot more factors weight into decisions including essays, extracurriculars, letter of recommendations and demographics to name few.

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