Admissions Spotlight: Zarinah James on Holistic Admissions


Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Admissions Spotlight is a series dedicated to the Admissions office and their thoughts and stories. Admissions deans and counselors do an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work in putting together this community and we wanted to offer them a space to write about those experiences. Admissions counselors were invited to share anecdotes from their travels across the world, opinions on topics ranging from the state of higher education to multicultural recruitment, and generally shed light on the admissions process. This week’s inaugural piece about what a ‘holistic approach’ to admissions really means was written by Zarinah James, the Associate Dean of Admissions. She can be contacted at zjames2@swarthmore.edu.


“Be honest.  With so many applications to get through, do you really look at everything?”  Admissions officers are asked this question by prospective applicants every year.  For institutions that review applications holistically, the short answer is, “Yes”.  If a student imagines the existence of an equation that neatly calculates an “A” for Admit and “D” for Deny, this response does not crack that code.

There are institutions that base their admissions decisions primarily on GPAs and test scores and they are public about that sliding scale.  However, colleges that use a holistic admissions process do not rely solely on those numbers.  And the more selective a college, the less an admissions committee can depend on GPAs and test scores as the only factors in making admissions decisions.

The reality for many colleges is that the vast majority of applicants have done strong academic work at their high schools.  Admissions committees are tasked to make nuanced decisions among students who, at a glance, have very similar academic credentials.   In a holistic application review, it is an admissions officer’s responsibility not only to understand the full context of this academic achievement, but also what makes a student “tick” and the personal attributes and experiences he or she can bring to a campus community.

While we evaluate a transcript’s trends in course selection, rigor, and grades (a GPA provides little information on its own) and standardized test scores, we are spending as much time reading recommendation letters, extracurricular activities descriptions, essays, interviews, and other supplemental materials.  Admissions committees are eager to learn about students’ academic interests, extracurricular pursuits, and their thoughts on issues in response to essay prompts.

We learn how students have impacted classroom dynamics from their counselors and teachers, as well as how they have overcome obstacles and challenges.  We see students who lead, support, and innovate in environments as local as their own households to communities around the world.  We read essays that range from the comical to the poignant.  A student’s engagement with the resources and people around them is just as important as how well he or she has academically succeeded in the classroom.

Simply put, every part of the application matters in understanding a student’s potential fit with a particular institution’s priorities for shaping its incoming class.

Holistic admissions is a bit like developing chapters of a greater story for each applicant.  Decisions are not made based on a single factor in a vacuum.  The process is as multifaceted as the individuals who are involved – students, counselors, teachers, mentors, admissions officers, and campus partners.  It should also reflect and support a college’s mission and community.  The admissions office is privileged to get to know students’ stories through months of reading and discussing their applications.  We look forward to seeing how the new first-year class will share those stories with the rest of the campus each fall.



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