What is holistic reading?

Susan Hartley Brisson

I’ve spent this past week in northern Virginia and Washington DC, visiting high schools and meeting with students who are interested in Olin.  At this point in the year, most students have already started their Common App and are in the throes of essay writing.  They’ve (hopefully) asked teachers to write letters of recommendation and requested transcripts from their school counselor.  The work that has gone into building a strong high school transcript and a compelling extracurricular resume isn’t exactly over (beware the dreaded “senior slump”), but most of that effort is in the rear view mirror; likewise, most standardized testing dates have come and gone, and while it’s not too late to squeeze in another attempt at either the SAT or the ACT (both offer a December exam that would make it by our January 1 deadline), by and large, that’s over too.

So, not surprisingly, students I meet these days are anxious to get a sense of how their application will stack up compared to others we receive.  Questions about cutoffs for standardized test scores and minimum GPAs (weighted?? Unweighted??) abound.  When I answer that we have a holistic admission practice at Olin College, I’m greeted by confusion at best and suspicion at worst. 

Suspicious Belle

We DO have a holistic admission practice at Olin.  And what that means is that a single piece of your application, whether it’s a disappointing result on the SAT or a C+ in sophomore English, will NOT break your application.  On the other side of the spectrum, off-the-charts testing results or a perfect 4.0 GPA won’t guarantee admission either. Holistic admission means that there is not an easy A+B=Admit and C+D=Deny. It’s more complicated and as a result, more human than that. It means that our admission decisions are the result of the complete picture we see of you, the applicant, and how that translates into a potential contribution as a member of the Olin community.

Holistic admission doesn’t mean that some things we ask for in the application are not important.  Trust me.  We are deliberate and purposeful in our application requirements.  We ask for everything we’ll need to make an informed and accurate assessment of your application.  Everything we ask for is considered carefully, thoroughly and thoughtfully.  We are looking at the whole package, the whole applicant, the whole person.  We look at all the things you’ve done in the classroom, in your community and your family.  We want to know about your likes and dislikes – what excites you and gives your life meaning – and we look for evidence of those passions in your recommendations and your own writing.  It all matters to us. 


All the pieces of the puzzle together make a whole picture!

So as you put the finishing touches on your own applications (one of which I sincerely hope will be heading to Olin!), please know that in holistic admission, everything counts. When I read applications, it’s not just about numbers or a litany of activities, but it’s about how all the parts fit together.  In reading your application, should you choose to send it, I’ll be looking at all you’ve sent, and it all will be interesting and important to me. 

I’m looking forward to it.  :-)

Posted in: Susan, FAQs, All Admission Staff Blogs