The Deciding Factor

The Case for Holistic Review as a Measure of Student Success

Study fielded by Adobe | Published September 23, 2020

In June 2020, Adobe surveyed:

Decision Makers

250 U.S. college admissions decision makers


250 U.S. high school college placement counselors


1000 U.S. high school students

to find out how these skills are reflected in the college application process.

What did we learn?

The trend of holistic review in college admissions has been accelerated with the loss of hard, academic metrics as the result of COVID-19.


of colleges have temporarily or permanently waived standardized testing requirements


Have no formal evaluation plan in place in the face of scattered high school grading schemes


“We’re going to see test scores be optional at the vast majority of institutions…It’s going to grant more access for a lot of students.

- Brett Reardon, Admissions at Indiana University

“I feel like [colleges/universities] could be doing a better job at looking at the student holistically, especially now, with all of the changes happening. I feel like just looking at a students’ transcripts with their backgrounds is not efficient anymore. They have to know the whole student.”

- Stacy Cerda, Counselor at Poinciana High School

In the past few years, skills like creativity and communication have become more important factors for college admissions...

Factors that have become more important over the last 3-5 years
(Shown: ‘More important’)
  • Interview
  • Skills like communication and creativity
  • Showing personality/authenticity
  • GPA
  • Extracurricular participation
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Social media posts
  • Essay
  • Portfolios or personal websites with students’ work
Alison Herget

“Over the last few years, we see more and more applicants who meet our academic qualifications. The challenge is how do you distinguish between those applicants? It's become more important to look at other factors in the admissions process to be able to distinguish between candidates.”

- Alison Herget, Admissions at Villanova University

...because these skills are recognized as critically important to measuring students’ success both in college and their future careers.

Creative skills are important to student success…

(Shown: ‘Very important’ and ‘Somewhat important’)

chart-1-2 chart-1

What needs to happen?

Audiences agree colleges need a better way to evaluate student candidates using a holistic review process that goes beyond rigid metrics like test scores and GPA.

Colleges need a better way to evaluate candidates than just test scores, GPAs, and other “hard skills” measures.




of Admissions agree their university needs additional tools to evaluate candidates beyond standardized test scores


of Admissions agree colleges need to take a more holistic approach to evaluating student applications

Including creative, communication, and digital skills in the evaluation process can help make admissions more equitable by encouraging a larger, more diverse applicant pool.


Evaluating students’ creative skills, in addition to their hard skills, would make our admissions process more equitable.


“Allowing students to use other ways to showcase and advocate for themselves in college admissions is a great way to make more students apply. It’s frustrating evaluating these students when you’re supposed to have a certain GPA or test score and they might not, but I can see they’re excellent in other places.”

- Dejah Greene, Admissions at Howard University
Alison Herget

“I hope that universities are able to make the admissions process more available to as many populations as possible so they can recruit a more diverse applicant pool and ultimately get those students to enroll and show up on their campuses”

- Alison Herget, Admissions at Villanova University

What makes holistic review challenging?

Despite their importance, creative skills are not demonstrated very well in the college applications that admissions officers and counselors review.

Perceived importance of skills vs. demonstration in applications
(Shown: ‘Very important’ and ‘Very well’)



These challenges are compounded by the limited time admissions officers have to review each student’s application for a measure of success.

Students spend
29 hours
preparing their college applications, on average


College admission officers spend
11 minutes
The average amount of time a college admissions officer spends evaluating each application

And 83% review 400+ applications each cycle


“A lot of students are being ignored or swept under the rug in terms of evaluation because there’s not enough staff. You can’t say you’re doing a well-rounded evaluation if you only have six people in your office and thousands of applicants to go through. There needs to be [more] support for admissions so those students can get a better and equal evaluations.”

- Dejah Greene, Admissions at Howard University

What changes need to be
made to bridge this gap?

First, every effort should be made to foster creativity in the classroom — with focus on creative skills across the K-12 curricula.

Students wholeheartedly agree as seen in these survey results:


Second, the application and admissions process needs to evolve.

  • Better ways to evaluate candidates than just test scores and GPAs.
  • A standardized way to evaluate creative skills — solutions such as AI/text analysis and reviewing students’ portfolios.
  • More time and staff for both admissions decision makers and college placement counselors, who face these challenges:
Julie Kampschroeder

“I have 800 juniors and seniors…If you don’t have a counselor who knows how to help guide you in that process, especially when you’re first-generation, low-income, the odds are vastly against you.”

- Julie Kampschroeder, Counselor at Ritenour High School

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