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Holistic Review of Applications for Admission to Graduate Degree Programs

The Value of Holistic Review of Applications

In the holistic review process every aspect of the application materials is given careful consideration as an indicator that the applicant possesses qualities known to contribute to successful degree completion. This is also known as full file review. Such a review seeks to determine if the applicant has not only the academic qualifications for admission but also the skills and experiences that support the conduct of research and facilitate degree completion.

Holistic review ensures that no single factor leads to either accepting the student or excluding the student from admission. One of its key values is the opportunity to recognize that an applicant’s strength in one area might offset a weakness in another. By carefully weighing strengths, achievements, and the ways in which an applicant might contribute to the educational environment of the graduate degree program, evaluators increase the likelihood that they offer admission to those most likely to succeed.

The more limited mode of assessing applicants for admission uses only a few attributes which are numerically quantified, often into grids of grades and test scores. This practice ranks applicants based on a sharply truncated understanding of their full range of abilities, and overlooks valuable indicators of preparedness, potential for degree completion, and the contributions the applicant could make to the degree program.

How to Measure the Applicant’s Qualifications

The credentials considered in holistic review include academic qualifications that can be gauged by indicators in multiple parts of the application. Such measures can include the cumulative grade point average in the wider context of the academic record; the curricular rigor in prior institutions attended; scholarly promise in the statement of academic purpose; demonstrated excellence in prior research experience(s); letters of recommendation; and, correspondence between research interests and available faculty expertise.

Moreover, the process of holistic review places the applicant’s academic skills and achievements in the wider context of other factors known to affect the student’s ability to successfully complete the graduate degree program. This ability can be indicated by leadership experience; the nature and progression of extracurricular involvement; a demonstrated passion for and commitment to the disciplinary interests; sustained community engagement; research activity both on and off campus; and special talents shown to be employed effectively.

Use of Holistic Review in Higher Education

A wide range of higher education organizations use holistic review because positive outcomes, such as higher completion rates and shorter time to degree, are seen when academic achievement as well as related skills and experiences are taken into account during the admissions process. The application and review process for National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships use this holistic approach. Similarly, the Gates Millennium Scholars Program uses full file review to select students for both the graduate and undergraduate awards.

Examples of peer institutions that encourage holistic review in the admissions process for graduate degree programs are the University of California at Los Angeles, University of Minnesota, and University of Texas at Austin. Similarly, at the University of Michigan, admissions committees for many Rackham graduate degree programs take a holistic approach, including Applied Physics, Creative Writing, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, History, Program in Biomedical Sciences, Psychology, Public Policy, and Romance Languages & Literatures.

Factors to Consider In the Holistic Review Process

The admissions process is rigorous and individualized. It requires faculty to make fine distinctions among large numbers of highly qualified applicants, and so the ability to consistently assess all information presented in the application is vitally important.

The applicant’s merit is evaluated on the basis of both achievement and potential in light of how these factors have been influenced by the opportunities and challenges experienced by the individual. Essentially, the components in holistic review fall into three categories. These are the applicant’s:

  • academic performance to date;
  • potential for contributing to research and scholarship; and,
  • persistence in and commitment to educational success.

Each category is assessed by a combination of quantitative and qualitative measures found in different parts of the application. Note that as of the 2022-2023 admissions cycle, the GRE general test will not be included as part of doctoral admissions, while some master’s programs may still use it.

The examples included in the list below are not definitive, nor are they given in any order of importance.

Academic Performance

  • Rank in class
  • Overall GPA and GPA in major
  • Written communication skills
  • Curriculum in prior degree programs
  • Progression of academic performance over time
  • Standardized test scores
  • Foreign language fluency

Research Potential

  • Research activity on and off campus
  • Relevant work experience
  • Creativity in problem-solving
  • Aptitude for planning and organization
  • Scholarly engagement outside of coursework

Persistence and Commitment

  • Indices of leadership
  • Recognition of achievements over time
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Community involvement or service
  • Special talents or skills
  • Personal and professional ethics
  • Learning differences
  • Educational, cultural and geographic background

Locating These Qualifications in the Rackham Admissions Application

The application for admission to Rackham graduate degree programs has been designed to facilitate holistic review so that admissions committees can easily identify indicators of the applicant’s academic abilities and potential for success. Many sections of the application are useful for locating information about all categories described above.

The applicant’s past academic performance and potential for continued achievement are evident in the responses to sections in the Rackham Admissions Application with questions asking for:

  • Official (M-Pathways) and self-reported (Rackham Application) GPA
  • Official (M-Pathways) and self-reported (Rackham Application) transcript
  • Language proficiency
  • Postsecondary institutions attended
  • Awards and scholarships
  • Recommendations
  • Academic statement of purpose
  • Curriculum vitae or resume

Research potential is reflected in responses to a number of aspects of the application. These include:

  • Awards, scholarships, and co-curricular activities
  • Volunteer activities
  • Work experiences
  • Letters of recommendations from research mentors
  • Participation in undergraduate research programs such as the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP), Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC), TRIO McNair Scholars Program, and other undergraduate research programs
  • Academic statement of purpose
  • Curriculum vitae or resume

The Rackham Admissions Application also prompts prospective students to provide a wide spectrum of information that may well indicate the applicant’s persistence in and commitment to educational success, as well as their potential for contributing to the life of the academic community. These may be seen in responses to questions about:

  • Parental educational attainment
  • Citizenship and parents’ citizenship
  • Race and ethnicity (for U.S. citizens)
  • Native language(s)
  • Demonstrated commitment to diversity in academic and civic realms
  • Personal statement
  • Curriculum vitae or resume
  • Volunteer activities
  • Work experiences
  • Financial assistance and family hardship
  • Recommendations addressing student promise and achievement
  • Educational background that is underrepresented in graduate education, such as attending a Minority Serving Institution (MSI), single-gender college, or community college.

Examples from U-M Graduate Programs

Applied Physics

Applied Physics provides an opportunity for interdisciplinary training and research which is not readily accommodated by single-focus graduate programs. The admissions committee is most interested in research experience, letters of recommendation from advisors, and undergraduate and graduate academic performance. Applied Physics is committed to providing an opportunity to a diverse range of students whose research interests falls within its niche.

Creative Writing

The MFA Program in Creative Writing selects fiction writers and poets with demonstrated talent who intend to prepare for a lifetime of writing and professional publication. At the heart of the program are writing workshops, where students assemble as a community to read and comment on one another’s work in progress. The MFA Program is committed to bringing together writers who will enrich one another’s work with their diverse perspectives and aesthetics. A holistic application review with particular attention to the applicant’s writing portfolio, statement of academic purpose, personal statement, and letters of recommendation best allows the admissions committee to identify applicants with the maturity, passion, and persistence necessary to be effective classmates and successful writers.

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

The Admissions Committee is most interested in research experience, letters of recommendation, the academic statement of purpose, and undergraduate and graduate academic performance. The academic statement should demonstrate the applicant’s ability to discuss their research interests, and show a depth understanding, as well as a passion for the larger questions relating to the applicant’s area of interest. Unusually promising students whose backgrounds are substantially deficient in either the biological or physical sciences may receive special status for one or two terms in order to support their academic success. In addition to the quality of the application, the admissions committee takes into account the abilities of program faculty to mentor additional students in their labs.

Program in Biomedical Sciences

PIBS places emphasis on the student’s previous research experience in a research laboratory, an academic statement of purpose in which the applicant describes their research experience in detail, letters of recommendation from one or more research mentors who can speak to the applicant’s motivation and experience, science course grades, and the personal statement. Additionally, PIBS utilizes an interview weekend in which an applicant interviews with four or five faculty who look for more than book learning; faculty look for an understanding of what it means to be a researcher, for passion for research, and for commitment to complete the degree.


Psychology is committed to providing an opportunity to a diverse range of students. The holistic review of applications allows the faculty to select the best students who fit the research areas offered within the department. Application information that highly influences the decision to offer admission includes the previous institution, research interests, grade point average,, recommendations, statements and the experience or qualities that make the applicant eligible for the Rackham Merit Fellowship.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Alon, S., & Tienda, M. (2007). Diversity, Opportunity, and the Shifting Meritocracy in Higher Education. American Sociological Review, 72, 487-511.

Bastedo, M. N., Bowman, N. A., Glasener, K. M., Kelly, J. L. (2018). What are We Talking About When We Talk About Holistic Review? Selective College Admissions and its Effects on Low-SES Students. The Journal of Higher Education, 89, 782-805.

Hardigan, P. C., Lai, L. L., Arneson, D., & Robeson, A. (2001). Significance of Academic Merit, Test Scores, Interviews, and the Admissions Process: A Case Study. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 65, 40-44.

Micceri, T. (2002, June). Evidence Suggesting We Should Admit Students Who Score Extremely Low on GRE Subsets or the GMAT to Graduate School Programs. Paper presented at meeting of the Association for Institutional Research, Toronto, Canada.

Sedlacek, William E. (2004). Beyond the Big Test: Noncognitive Assessment in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sternberg, R. J., & Williams, W. M. (1997). Does the GRE predict meaningful success in the graduate training of psychologists? American Psychologist, 52(6), 630-641.