Holistic Admissions

In our commitment to excellence in graduate education, the Graduate School at the University of Washington offers on-going workshops and trainings for faculty and staff to promote understanding of issues pertaining to traditional admissions practices as well as understanding of the rationale and benefits in implementing holistic admissions review. Holistic admissions review refers to practices that promote an inclusive and rigorous graduate application review process that evaluates applicants through a variety of methods, rather than prioritizing GPA, standardized test scores such as GRE scores, or former school of attendance. In its 2016 report, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) notes that reliance upon measures such as GPA and standardized test scores may not accurately predict success in graduate school.

The following Promising Practices recommendations from the Graduate School are the result of reviewing holistic admissions review literature and studies, and interviewing departments across the UW:

  • Attend institutional, regional, or national conferences or recruitment fair to recruits diverse potential applicants
  • Conduct a simple study on past trends of applicants, students, and alumni, and pay attention to any underrepresented population
  • Clearly state on the admission webpage details outlining how the program implements the holistic admission process
  • Form an admission review committee, representing diverse perspectives from across the department/program (consider asking student representatives and program alumni to serve on the committee)
  • Include narratives in required admission materials (e.g., essay, personal statement) to assess non-cognitive skills and past experiences, and provide clear instructions as to how these materials may impact admission decisions
  • Create and update an admission manual and guidelines for review committee members (to account for annual committee member turnover)
  • Provide and update an annual orientation session for admission review committee members, which should include implicit bias training
  • Assign at least two reviewers for each applicant to provide an accurate assessment of the applicant
  • Decide whether or not the GRE score should be a required component of the admission review process (and if so, define how it is used and what weight it carries in the final decision)
  • Be clear of the desired qualifications of candidates, and make them transparent to potential applicants
  • Develop an admission review rubric that reflects departmental values, and discuss the rubric with review committee members to achieve a shared understanding of department/program mission, focus, and diversity, inclusion, and equity
  • Record the scores, rank the candidates, and schedule at least one admission committee meeting to discuss the merit of the committee’s rankings and decisions
  • Prior to the admission review process, consider organizing an implicit bias[1] training with reviewers to help reviewers identify any potential biases.
  • When pre-screening is required (due to a large number of applicants), clearly define the process and do not use a single indicator for excluding an applicant (e.g., GRE score, GPA, undergraduate institution)
  • Developing evidence-based practices, such as collecting data on applicants’ experiences to capture changes before and after implementing a particular practice.
  • Matching student services to the diverse needs of admitted students, so they are fully and comprehensively supported as UW students

The Graduate School has developed two documents to help inform decisions and practices regarding holistic admissions review:

General information and salient literature for holistic admission standards. Below are links to further resources that focus on holistic admissions.

  • Holistic Review in Graduate Admissions (2016). This report released by the Council of Graduate Schools offers a legal rationale for holistic admissions, as well as a summary of existing resources and the experiences of individual institutions. The “Supporting Holistic Review: Priorities for Graduate Institutions and Programs” and “Existing Resources” sections may be of particular interest.
  • Posselt, J.R. (2016). Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping. Harvard University Press. This is a ground-breaking book. Drawing on firsthand observations of admission committees and interviews with faculty in 10 top-ranked doctoral programs in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, Posselt exposes the processes and limitations of admissions committees. In addition, she challenges a prevailing paradigm of reliance upon GRE scores and GPAs in admission practices.
  • Using GRE Scores in Holistic Admissions. Many graduate programs have stopped requiring the GRE while others use it as part of their holistic review. This resource was put together by the Educational Testing Service to explore how GRE scores could fit into holistic admission reviews.

Powerpoint presentations and other materials from several workshops on Holistic Admissions for faculty and staff organized by the Graduate School are available below. These are helpful in providing historical context in the movement towards holistic admissions review and understanding some of the strengths and challenges.

  • University of Washington Julie Posselt 2018 (ppt)
  • University of Washington David Payne fall 2018 (ppt)
  • Connecting Graduate Admissions Practices with Goals: Questions to Consider—ETS & GRE (pdf)
  • Holistic Admissions Workshop winter 2017 (ppt)
  • Holistic Admissions – Context, Strengths and Challenges (ppt)
  • UW Holistic Admissions – Adapting During a Pandemic (ppt)

Evaluations for holistic admissions. These are links to general resources that focus on different ways to evaluate the holistic admissions process. Each link has a brief description of what you can expect from that resource. Please note: the type of materials included in a Holistic review of applicants can vary from discipline to discipline.


Kent, J.D. and McCarthy, M.T. (2016). Holistic Review in Graduate Admissions: A Report from the Council of Graduate Schools. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

Benderly, B.L. (2017). GREs don’t predict grad school success. What does? Science. Retrieved from https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2017/06/gres-dont-predict-grad-schoolsuccess-what-does

Glazer, G., Danek, J., Michaels, J., Bankston, K., Fair, M., Johnson, S. & Nivet, M. (2014). Holistic admissions in the health professions: findings from a national survey. Urban
Universities for HEALTH. Washington, DC.