Admissions Fundamentals Series

How admission decisions are made

It’s very helpful to understand the thought process, challenges, and dilemmas that admission offices face. It may help you reverse-engineer the process so that your application can make their job a little easier.

It is important to note that the criteria admission offices use to admit applicants have changed over the decades. As the changes in global economies, politics, and social environments accelerate, we see admission criteria changing every about three years.  Sometimes it is a rapid and drastic change such as “test-optional” due to the Covid pandemic. Another simple reason to keep changing the criteria is the rising number of applicants and intensifying competition each year for admission to prestigious CUPS. This happens because of at least three significant factors: 1) as high-paying jobs are getting crowded in high-tech domains (think Google, Tesla, Moderna, FinTech), more people are seeking more degrees and from elite colleges, 2) previously the ‘secrets’ of a good application available to those who can pay for fancy coaching, are now widely available, and 3) more resources and tools are available to study, score, and prepare the applications better. An application that was outstanding five years back may now be considered average because many more applicants are using the same strategies. As a result, the admission offices need to recalibrate their criteria frequently.


The US admission process to BS/MS/Ph.D. program is unique compared to other countries. Globally, general aptitude test(s) based on national curricula are used exclusively for admission. These tests are legendary in the respective countries but are routinely blamed for student stress, rote learning habits, and lack of emphasis on creativity, innovation, and job preparedness. By contrast, 95% of US CUPS use holistic admissions which include standardized test(s) and grades as an objective measure of aptitude, just like many other countries, but also add ‘subjective’ variables to assess leadership, personality, social consciousness, etc. Both, the one-test-to-rule-them-all and the holistic admission, systems have had their share of pros and cons and, sometimes, controversies. Nonetheless, elements of the holistic admission process are slowly being adapted to other countries including Australia, China, Hong Kong, France, Japan, and South Korea. Notably, Hong Kong’s elite universities appear to be the closest to their US counterparts for holistic admission criteria. We see that applicants from these countries are more familiar with and are better prepared for holistic admission to US CUPS. Applicants from other countries, where holistic admissions are not a norm, require a better understanding of the process.


Whereas ‘holistic’ is a relatively recent word in the admissions lingo, the concept has existed in various form sat least since 1900s. It has been used for both positive and negative intentions. It has been used to identify the most promising students who went on to become great leaders in their respective fields. In the early 1900s, it was also used for discrimination against Jewish applicants. Now the system is used to promote diversity and prohibit race-conscious admissions. The current version of the holistic admissions attempts to uphold “a student who has made exceptional progress in troubled circumstances” (in the words of University of California President Richard Atkinson). It’s a step in the right direction. But the question remains: what exactly is holistic admission used to make admission decisions? For starters, different admission offices use different definitions of holistic review. No wonder to an average student the process is opaque, untrustworthy, subjective, and filled with special interest.

Components of the holistic application package

Holistic review is applied to all BS, MS, and Ph.D. applicants, although with some variation at each level. Its constituent components and relative importance are shown in the table below.  

For each item, the admissions office is looking for multiple pieces of evidence to support your claims. So, always remember: “show, don’t tell.” Rather than saying, “I am a hard-working person, ”it’s more believable to show that you could excel at academics despite doing multiple extracurricular activities.

And to reiterate for the hundredth time, do not try to cheat. CUPS have demonstrated enough times that they can prospectively or retroactively rescind admissions or degrees granted, even after years.


Now, let’s break down the table above:  

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Academic accomplishments: GPA, Standardized Test Scores, and Rigor of courses taken

A history of raw academic power comforts the admission office that you will be able to handle the intended program coursework. This is true for BS, MS, or Ph.D. applicants. More elite a CUPS, more challenging is their coursework, and they want to make sure that students can handle it. We know BS/MS/Ph.D. courses that cover 1-3 years of course material in one semester. Admissions offices want to see that you have challenged yourself by taking the most challenging courses available to you (Rigor), and you have excelled in those (GPA). Most times admissions offices know about the reputation and structure of your school. In the cases, they are not aware of it, standardized test scores become a more reliable measure. Standardized test scores are designed to provide a level field for all test takers despite their backgrounds. Still, having a great GPA in progressively challenging courses is the most comfort to the admissions offices.

Non-academic Factors (personal efforts)

These are the non-academic factors(NAFs) that are developed through the personal efforts of the applicant. Contrast these with the NAF below over which there is no personal control viz. First-generation, Racial minority, Legacy, Financial Income, and Geography status. NAF where your personal efforts can make a big difference are:

Extracurricular activities – like community involvement, job/work experience, Research accomplishments, and Athletic Talent. What extracurricular activities do you participate and to what extent tells the admission office a lot about you.

Applicant interest – CUPS like to feel desired. This is especially important for Ph.D. applicants who are strongly suggested to show interest in the research that one or a group of professors are conducting.

Recommendations – tells admission office what your superiors say about you.

Essays – is the only critical place where you are expected to tell your side of the story. The admissions office wants to know how you see the world.

Interviews – are generally conducted by alumni or the current staff. This activity assesses if you would be a good fit in the typical group characteristic of the CUPS.

Through all these activities, the admissions office derives and assigns multiple adjectives to you. It could include creativity, style, motivation, engagement, professionalism, teamwork, leadership, management, organization, and many others. Each admissions office is looking for a particular blend of these adjectives. Some adjectives are prioritized higher than others. In the end, each student in a batch has very similar primary key adjectives, determined to be essential by the admissions office, with varying secondary adjectives.

Non-academic Factors (Contextual)

These are NAFs over which you do not have any control but are very important to the admissions office. These include being a first-generation student, a racial minority, or a legacy applicant. Your family income, school context, and geography are other factors that are taken into consideration.

Different admission offices view holistic review differently

All admissions offices use a combination of these factors for a holistic review; however, the precise mix differs depending on the CUPS’ overall thought process or that year’s priorities. Broadly speaking, CUPS use either Context, Person, or File as the basis of their holistic review. These are subtle differences but make a big impact on the outcomes.

Context-based holistic review is the most comprehensive version of holistic admissions and is most common among elite CUPS, especially for BS and MS admissions. It aspires to put all the academic and non-academic factors in the context of the socioeconomic resources available to the applicant. The idea is to evaluate the applicant accounting for the deviations in society. For example, an applicant who could barely afford fees to take a standardized test one time and had no real guidance on the strategies but who still did quite well would be assessed more favorably than someone who scored the same but could easily afford thousands of dollars worth of private tutoring. The thought process in the context-based holistic review is that candidates who could well despite adverse circumstances likely will do even better in an environment of ample opportunities.

Person-based holistic review does NOT take into account the context of the applicant but sees the applicant as an individual with a unique character and personality and attempts to predict how the applicant, if admitted, could improve the student community. This is a kind of matchmaking of the personalities of the applicant with that of the CUPS. Here the admission offices are looking for applicants with personalities and characteristics who can be academically successful in the typical rigor of the institute, can be happy in the environment, fit into the personality of the campus, and contribute to improving the student community experience.

File-based holistic review evaluates the applicant at the face value of what is submitted in the application file. All factors in the file presented are considered but, for each applicant, admission offices can choose to focus a particular part of the application to make the admission decision.

We know that this, by no means, makes the application process any easier to understand. It may even raise even more questions than being answered. How a particular admissions office makes decisions and which method they prefer is quite opaque. As if that was not complicated enough, surveys show that even within the same admission offices the definition of holistic review may differ among individual admission officers.

As one can guess, even after having outstanding academic and non-academic qualifications, it’s quite difficult to predict the chances of admissions to elite CUPS.

Harvard College's Admission Process

Let’s take an example of how applicants are selected for undergraduate admissions at Harvard College

Harvard College received 35,000applicants in 2019 and 52,000 in 2021. Let’s assume that the number of applicants would be about 60,000 in near future.

The college targets to admit about 2,000students with the expectation that about 1,600, or 80%, will matriculate. Admitting 2,000 from 60,000 applicants will put the acceptance rate at = (2,000/60,000)*100= 3.33%, another low from the current about 5.2%. For simplicity, let’s say that between 3 to 5 per 100 applicants are accepted.

Here is a kicker. Among the 2019 applicant pool, more than 8,000 had perfect GPA, 3,400 had perfect math SAT, and 2,700had perfect verbal SAT scores. Considering even the applicants at 90% percentile scores will add thousands more applicants with outstanding academic performance. Clearly, excellent academic performance is not sufficient enough.

Hereafter it gets interesting.

They start doing the Whole-Context holistic review.

The admission office has a staff of about 40. Together they make collective judgments about each applicant.

The applications are divided into groups depending on the geographic location of the applicant’s previous school. The geographic group of applicants is assigned to a subcommittee of 4-8 admission officers with knowledge about in the schools in that area. Note here that your first competition is among other applicants from your same region. Some regions are more competitive than others. Beware if you are from a region with uber-competitive applicants.

The whole-context review takes into account the academic factors (i.e. transcripts, GPA, the rigor of courses, standardized test scores) and non-academic factors influenced by personal efforts (i.e. extracurricular activities, a personal statement, supplemental essays, letters of recommendations)in the context of the non-academic factors beyond an applicant’s control (i.e. family background, personal circumstances, place of birth, citizenship, disciplinary or criminal history, race, siblings’ educations, and parents’ education, occupation, and marital status).

Gleaned from these documents, they start adding adjectives about the applicant’s personality, intellectual curiosity, character, intelligence, perspective, and skillset. They attempt to understand an applicant’s future potential.

Each application is read by at least 2 admission officers who score the applicant’s academics, extracurriculars, personality, and recommendations on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being the strongest rating. The ratings can be fine-tuned with the addition of “+”(stronger) and “-“ (weaker) attributes to each rating. That opens up 2 more levels to each rating. For example, 3+, 3, and 3-. In this way, each application is reduced down to a single numerical value.

All the applications are then evaluated together to select the high-scoring applications that would make an interesting class of Harvard College.

Note that these were the procedures in the recent past. The admissions office can change its procedures and approach anytime. There are many more nuances in evaluating an application and making the final decision but those would take many more pages of this article. Our advisors can guide you on how to prepare for these nuances when you get there.