Skip to content ↓
MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

In Praise Of Holistic Admissions by Chris Peterson SM '13

not an admissions machine

In last week’s blog entry Diversity or Merit? I included the following quote:


One of the most important things about college is its role as a socializing institution. College is a place where you meet all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and you learn from each other. It is, properly constituted, an environment which fosters intellectual, ideological, and social cross-pollination. You need diversity – broadly defined – for college to matter.


I hope that this quote is somewhat self-evident. When I said college was a “socializing institution”, I didn’t mean that it’s a place to idly chat with people (although it is that). I mean it is an environment within which one undergoes socialization. And so we have to take a great deal of care in constituting the class, because whom it is composed of will greatly affect your experience within it.

This leads me to another point I’d like to discuss, which is the importance of the idea of “holistic admissions.” We have a holistic admissions process here at MIT, and we talk about it a lot. But what does it mean? Why do we have it? And what does it do for our class?

When we say that we have a holistic admissions process it essentially means that our admissions process takes into account many different factors, and that we understand that it is the interaction of these myriad factors which constitutes the applicant. We deploy “holistic” to differentiate against admissions systems which only consider so-called “objective academic data” (and I am air-quoting so hard I might sprain a knuckle) in their admissions process.

Sometimes, holistic academic processes are criticized as being misguided. “Academic merit”, it is suggested, should be the sole dispositive factor controlling the admissions process.

Suppose, for a moment, we didn’t have a holistic process. Suppose that we wanted to build an application system around “merit”, defined, as it always seems to be, by test scores and grades. (I’d certainly contest this definition, but will concede it here for the sake of argument).

We could build a working admissions system around this premise. A very simple version might look something like this: create an index by multiplying SAT score and GPA. Rank-order the list by the highest product of the two, admit the top 1,000 students automatically and deny the rest.

Would this really be a better admissions process? Well, I guess I could go home pretty early to get a full night’s rest after turning on the Admissions Machine the day after applications are due. Then again, I’d probably not sleep very well if this is all I did. And the students we admitted wouldn’t feel as home here. Because what we try to do is build a community, and an admissions machine cannot produce a community. It can only produce a bunch of test scores and GPAs crammed into classrooms.

Even worse, such a system would produce a very thin slice of the population, because the segment of students perched atop the SATs are a comparatively homogenous bunch. SAT scores are strongly correlated with parent income, and parent income is strongly correlated with their parent’s income. Now obviously there are many factors at play here, but the trend is clear: the (multigenerationally) wealthier you are, the higher you score. All of this is to say that, if scores were all we cared about, our campus would be overwhelmingly socioeconomically similar.

That’s limiting. It’s limiting because of the scope of issues and problems which people have experienced, and it’s limiting because of the solutions which are likely to come to the minds of people. In short, it lends itself to group think and experential echo chambers. At that point, it’s not a college as a socializing institution: it’s a Great Gatsby garden party.

I think that most people intuitively understand this. I think that most people intuitively agree with the idea that the best function of an admissions office is to constitute a class of sufficiently prepared individuals who have a diversity of skills, experiences, knowledge, background, who can all learn from each other. That there is something important about considering things besides test scores and grades – things like teacher letters, essays, and backgrounds – in a holistic process.

Now, in a holistic – and fundamentally subjective process – not everyone is going to agree with every decision we make. Some people would strike a slightly different balance in terms of class composition. Students who were admitted tend to think the schools that admitted them made the right decision; students who were not admitted quite understandably disagree.

Point is: when people bring up hypothetical comparison cases, saying “well this person got in, and this person didn’t, and that’s not a good decision”, it’s really just arguing over the margins. Folks aren’t really disagreeing with the overall model of holistic admissions. They just don’t like the marginal output that any particular iteration of the process might produce. But they all agree in principle.  Because selective college admissions is about finding the right mix of students who will, as a collective, form the best class that can be admitted to that particular university at that particular time.

In fact, in a certain sense you could say that our job, as an admissions office, is emphatically not to admit the “best students” to MIT, but rather to admit those applicants who will become the best MIT students. We are selecting the right mix of ingredients from which MIT graduates will be produced. This is why, incidentally, David put so much emphasis on making the most of your opportunities. Because we don’t care about what you’ve done so far as much as we care about what you’re going to do at MIT.

As Booker T. Washington wrote:

“Success is to be measured not so much by the positions that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles one has overcome trying to succeed.” 

The idea is best understood with a metaphor drawn from my favorite sport of football:

MIT isn’t the end zone.

It’s where you get the ball when you start the next drive.

30 responses to “In Praise Of Holistic Admissions”

  1. m_quinn says:

    @Chris P

    What a great day for professional application writers! MIT has forgotten the lessons which brought about standardized testing in the first place: Create a level playing field for rich and poor, black, red, white, and brown. Now MIT is back to the good old subjective evaluation: “best applicant” is whatever WE say it is.

    Congratulations …

  2. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:


    I know how much you love trolling the blogs, given that you’ve been doing it since last March.

    But for the benefit of other visitors who may read this post:

    Standardized tests don’t, and never have, created a level playing field. As I pointed out above – the greatest predictor of performance on standardized tests is parental income. In other words, there is certainly not a “level playing field” on standardized tests for rich and poor applicants.

    The way that we use standardized tests is as one of several factors – along with grades, letters, and other things – to establish an applicant’s preparation for MIT. And once we are convinced that an applicant is sufficiently prepared for MIT, we look at a myriad of other things in a holistic process to determine our admission.

    I’m very, very proud of our process. I think we bring terrific students to MIT. There are always great students for whom we don’t have room, and that makes me sad. But overall, our student body, our community, is tremendously better off being constituted by our holistic admissions process.

  3. m_quinn says:

    @Chris P

    Chris: the process you’re now calling “Holistic” results in an Asian acceptance rate about 5 times the Asian population in the United States, and an African American acceptance rate at a miserable 50-60% of African American population in the US. You can call it “Holistic”; I can think of different names. I think the most troubling aspect of all this that you’re proud of it.

    Chris, would you call me a troll if I had never posted messages critical to MIT?


  4. I says:

    @m_quinn I think youre missing the point.

    Recent posts make a pretty good job of giving us a good idea how the admission process looks like. They give insight into what’s being looked for in applicants, they guide us well how to approach making the application. Message I get from these blogs is pretty straightforward: Be yourself, be honest and tell us about yourself.

    I don’t think it can get better than this. You are being asked to be yourself, there is no need to polish things up use fancy words and make things up in order to make yourself look good in the application.
    That’s my opinion atleast.

    If they are treating academics only to ensure that you can keep up, and rest of your application( interview, essays,recommendation letters) paint the picture that helps them to decide (I’d bet some money that they have some people who are really good at figuring you out based on what you wrote) whether to admit you or not.

    Sure, if decisions are based on series of essays there is always a possibility that somoone will hire professional writer. But I believe that percentage of people who get chosen that way is really low.

    There is plenty of other competitive schools with admissions that focus on “merit”

  5. Lyndsey (16?) says:

    I really like this way of looking at applications, personally. Here in England, university admissions are decided entirely on A level grades. We also have to write a ‘personal statement’ telling the department why we want to do their subject, but 3 of the 5 universities I’m applying to have admitted that they DON’T EVEN READ IT… They don’t care whether or not you will be happy at their university, as long as you achieve the best grades.

    Basically, I know that I will be offered a place at 3 of the 5 I am applying to purely because I am predicted AAA at A level, which I think is wrong. I don’t want to be admitted because I am high achieving, I want to be admitted because they think they will like me and I them.

  6. Or G. says:

    That was a delightful read. This post, like many before it regarding the application process, makes me want to study at MIT even more, I just keep getting overwhelmed by the fact that apart from having brilliant minds, you all project a very friendly attitude.

  7. Ken L. says:

    I think the issue is less a matter of using hollistic admissions instead of objective admissions, and more a problem of “how much”. In hollistic admission systems, academic merit is perceived to weigh less (not saying that it actually is less important), so people feel cheated when they realize that the 2400 SAT that they worked so hard to get is worth about the same as the 2250 that another person worked equally hard for. The whole “diversity” business only complicates this – I guess people tend to see college admissions as more of a reward for hard work and ability than as a matching process.

    That said, I personally lean towards a less objective approach – the post sums up the reasoning behind this pretty well. I like the way the article handles diversity too, but regardless of what anybody says, it’s only going to become more of a hot-button issue as admission rates drop across the board.

    Thanks for the NYTimes article about SAT Scores vs. family income, was a very interesting read. smile

  8. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:

    @k –

    You’re right that that article does not state that parental income predicts SAT score. However, some other articles in the academic literature do. The article I linked, however, does show the clear correlation which, irrespective of the underlying variables, demonstrates a trend.

    Now, you are of course correct that the underlying variables are what actually cause the variation in test scores. I don’t think making $500,000 magically makes you more able to take tests than making $50,000 or $5,000. It’s an interaction of traits which generally cause higher income (better education of the parents, for example) and also result from higher income (better schooling and test prep for the students). Still, the trend holds true: the wealthier you are, the better you do on the SATs.

    What I was trying to communicate was the idea that SATs aren’t a “level playing field” for students, because the topography of the field was, to a large degree, formed by their parents’ wealth or lack thereof (and the associated characteristics of that wealth or lack thereof).

    But you have brought up a very good point, and I’ll both change the language and look for some additional public sources to link to. Thanks!

  9. Emily says:

    I think the hollisitic approach is by far one of the better ways of adimiting people to collages, i’m from australia, and here after you complete a series of exams in different subjects you basically get ranked by your position in the state, and depending on your rank thats the uni and corse you can get into (that simplified obviously) so what it means that 98% of kids who are aiming for the high marks don’t do subjects that they are interested, they do the sciencens and math, and go to coaching colleges where they are taught from year 9 to memorise a huge stack of answers to any questions that are likely to be asked, so basically for a hugly superfical understanding of the content they are rewarded, and while I know the SAT’s and ACT’s are different, thats why I think it is important not to focus too much on them

  10. Heather(16?) says:

    @m_quinn. I just figured out what about what you said disturbed me. What you mentioned about how Asians are very overrepresented and African-Americans are underrepresented and how that shouldn’t be the case – I agree, in an ideal world. In an ideal world, that would be the case. However, we don’t live in an ideal world, and things don’t work out as they should.

    Would you suggest composing an MIT class in which the ethnic composition matches the composition of the U.S., then, so that Asians are not overrepresented and African-Americans are not represented? Let me put forth two flaws in that plan.

    First and foremost, MIT does not draw just from the U.S. It also takes international students. Now, how would you account for that in the ethnic composition? Use the ethnic composition of the world? Allot a certain percentage to international students, and adjust the other percentages accordingly? What happens when you then have a student that would have gotten in had the percentages been based purely on the ethnic composition of the U.S., but because the percentages were adjusted for international citizens, they didn’t get in – even though they were just as academically able as many of the other students, or perhaps even more academically able and driven than some of the other students, but didn’t get in because their ethnicity was already “full”?

    That starts to touch on my other point, which is actually more personal to me. Students would get into MIT who were much less academically able than some other applicants, simply because of their race. For instance, think about how the PSAT works things for their National Merit Scholarships. They allot each state a certain number of the top students, based on how many graduating seniors the state has. The cutoff score is then set to whatever score would admit the closest to that number of seniors (please, if I’m wrong on how this works, somebody correct me). This means that cutoff scores vary by state. They vary widely by state. Students make it into the National Merit Scholarships with scores 10-15 points lower than other students who didn’t make it in. The students who didn’t make it in are stuck knowing that even though they did better than many other students, they didn’t get in because they happened to live in the wrong state. This happened to me this year. If I’d lived in something like one of eight states, I wouldn’t have made it into the National Merit Scholarship Finalists. I happened to live in one of those eight states. So, because I live in the wrong place, I don’t get a chance to compete for scholarship money that other kids get because they happened to be born in the right place. Very similar situations would occur if MIT admitted students based on trying to keep the ethnic percentages close to what they are in the U.S. Some students would watch other students who are less academically able or motivated get in because they happened to be born the “right” color.

    I understand that things like this happen now, and that denied applicants have to watch other applicants they feel are less qualified be admitted now. I would say that we have to watch two things on that: first of all, most people overestimate their own abilities and qualifications, and underestimate others. That’s why it’s important to have more objective judges for the application process. Secondly, these things happen now. I would say, though, that they would probably occur much more often if MIT changed systems.

  11. Dimitris says:

    Hey Chris,

    Very interesting post! I would like to ask from you, if it’s possible to write a blog post regarding the international applicant’s admission process. We (all) know that it differs from that of the domestic ones and I would really like to read your thoughts.

    Thanks. grin

  12. k says:

    I read the article you cited from the NY Times…It doesn’t state that parental income necessarily predicts SAT scores, merely that there is a correlation (not causation) between the two factors. The statistics used in the article do not take into account many other confounding variables, such as level of parental education and culture/ethnicity, and relies on high school students to accurately and honestly self report income, which in itself is subject to response bias. While I do agree that wealthier families are better able to afford SAT prep classes and better educational opportunities, in my opinion, this article would not be good evidence to prove your point.

  13. m_quinn says:


    Yes, MIT student population should look like the source region of the pool of applicants. If MIT becomes a truly international university then the profile of the admitted should be a snapshot of the racial make up of the World. As it is now, MIT is primarily an American institution which admits ~10% (I think) international students.

    I think that, in this context, “Holistic” means injecting the personal, subjective value systems of MIT admissions folk into the process of judging the worthiness of applicants. In this scheme, the “means” justify the “end” – if you don’t like the outcome – if diversity sucks, and whole states are “not represented” – well that’s just too bad … MIT admissions folks feel … good about it.

    I think that MIT has painted itself into an ethics corner …


  14. Adarsh says:

    Though I can’t say that I love this process one hundred percent, it’s definitely one of the best out here.

    This process is what is responsible for the huge gap between the IIT’s and the MIT.

    In the IIT’s, it’s more about who gets the highest marks in the entrance exam that they conduct, they don’t take the ‘holistic’ factors into consideration. The result of that is wide-open for the whole world to see.

    This admission process plays a major role in MIT being called one of the world’s finest institutions and I hope that it doesn’t change even though if it means that I am not going to be admitted.

  15. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:


    “I think that, in this context, “Holistic” means injecting the personal, subjective value systems of MIT admissions folk into the process of judging the worthiness of applicants.”

    Yes, I think that’s exactly what we do. That’s what I was trying to communicate what we do. That’s exactly what holistic admissions is: all of the folks in the office coming together and trying really hard to build the best class of students that we can, from the pool of sufficiently prepared applicants we have. And that is necessarily the product of subjective judgments as to what the best class would be and who would best compose it.

    But we have a lot of different people in the office, from many different backgrounds. And anyone who has been admitted to MIT has been seen, via our multiple levels of multiple committees, by almost everyone who works for us. So the process is subjective, but it is redundantly subjective. When a student has been admitted to MIT, it means that just about everyone in the office thinks they are awesome. And we basically trust that if all of the highly-trained, experienced folks in our office, all of whom have particular interests and expertise, agree that someone is awesome, than we should do everything we can to admit them.

    It’s not perfect. Sometimes there are students that we want to admit who we can’t. Sometimes there are students that we do admit who go elsewhere. Sometimes the students who would have been perfect for MIT don’t apply to us.

    I definitely don’t “feel good” when any of this happens. I don’t “feel good” when students who really wanted to come to MIT don’t get in. I don’t “feel good” when kids who apply aren’t admitted, or when, at the end of our process, something important isn’t sufficiently represented.

    What I do feel good about is that we have the best process, hands down, that it is possible to have in the imperfect world in which we live. That as soon as decisions come out, we spend the entire rest of the year figuring out how to make our process better, more robust, more accurate, more informative, more meaningful, more accessible. And that I’ve seen a lot of admissions processes, and been on the applicant end of a few myself, and that I think we have the best one out there. That is why I feel good.

  16. lucille(16?) says:

    I’ve been reading these admissions blogs often lately, and what I’ve read makes me somwhat believe in the fairness of college admissions and somewhat doubt the fairness. I suppose, as in most aspects of life, perfect fairness is not completely achievable, but most colleges do their best.

    I think the best thing for a first-year applicant like me to do is worry less about the equality of it all, and just focus on making my application as reflective of myself as possible. It’s all that I can really control, anyhow.

    (And these blogs just stress me out very badly…)

  17. Deborah says:

    Admissions logic
    Admissions dream
    To create a place with the persons needed
    to grow to face the challenges we all face

  18. missy says:

    @ k

    Sounds like you are in the middle of your AP Statistics class! Although you understand confounding variables and the fact that correlation cannot show causation, you attempted to explain the “cause” of the correlation.

    Although I’m sure that some people with higher incomes spend money on prep courses for the SAT, this is not what causes the high correlation between SAT scores and incomes. The “advantage” starts before conception. Educated parents tend to be healthier to begin with, have good prenatal care and are in a better position to offer their offspring a nurturing environment.

    One of the most fundamental differences, IMO, it the conversations that go on at the dinner table (or lack of). Might this affect the level of a child’s vocabulary starting at a very young age? How about those trips to the museum? Travel to exotic places? Dinner parties with the heads of corporations, politicians, professors? It is so much more than just good schools and access to tutors

  19. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:

    Exactly, missy. That’s what I meant by “the topography of the playing field.”

  20. Brandon J. says:

    There’s an odd coincidence here. Near the end of this post, you mention “making the most of your opportunities”. One of my essays happens to be titled “Opportunities lost”, and it’s about how I regret not taking full advantage of an amazing opportunity I had (FIRST Robotics ftw!), and how I plan to change that for this upcoming season. It’s almost as if I wrote in it response to that paragraph. I doubt it will be a problem, but that’s still odd, like maybe I chose my topic TOO well.

    More generally on-topic, I don’t see how a really selective college CAN have a purely merit based admissions process. As I’ve heard many times before, so many of the students are so qualified academically, you pretty much have to judge based on other criteria.

    As to the issue of misrepresentation of race… Find a college that isn’t that way. It’s a regrettable fact that African-Americans, on average, are not as educated and otherwise qualified to go to a school like MIT, and Asians are generally more so. I think it would be more faie to compare MIT’s accepted students with their applicant pool, since schools like MIT are highly self-selecting.

  21. m_quinn says:

    Well, that’s just great …

    Now one’s chances of admission can turn on things like Chris P getting a bad breakfast burrito.


  22. k says:

    Those were supposed to be just a few of the advantages of being born into a wealthy family, but point taken. If this is true, then, shouldn’t you expect applicants from wealthier families to score higher and give more slack to poorer applicants? It seems to me as though it’s just being used to see if you clear a certain score, then you move on, but what about the kids who score high and come from a disadvantaged background or those who score lower than the average applicant and are from a relatively wealthy background? As far as I’ve read from your previous posts you guys don’t compare applicants side to side, but does it not matter that two applicants from similar backgrounds score, say 200 points apart on the SAT I? I know there are other factors that affect how well a person does on the SAT, but since you cited wealth as the most strongly correlated factor I’m interested in hearing what you have to say.

  23. Anthony L. '15 says:

    I’m not going to bother with anything else in this thread because it shouldn’t concern me as an admit, but one thing stood out to me.

    m_quinn: complaining about the “Asian acceptance rate about 5 times the Asian population in the United States”

    I find this really, really funny.

    You know why?

    Because it seems to imply that m_quinn would prefer using standardized test scores instead of the current process, and I’m nearly certain if MIT based admissions on standardized test scores, the Asian acceptance rate would be /higher/.

    I don’t have the data, and SAT obviously doesn’t release much of anything to the public, but this is what my intuition tells me. Maybe a somewhat stereotype-influenced intuition, but there’s probably truth behind it.

  24. k says:

    I don’t mean that you give them allowances so much as they wouldn’t be prepared, but I was talking more about a 2100 as opposed to say, a 2300. Both applicants would likely be able to succeed at MIT, but there is still a disparity between the scores.

  25. Brandon J. says:

    Well, I think the way they mean it to be is that the difference doesn’t matter that much at high scores. It still makes a difference, of course, but as long as it’s reasonably high, they can get in based on their essays, recs, extra-curriculars, etc. And not even a 2400/36 can get in without everything else.

  26. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:

    @k –

    ” It seems to me as though it’s just being used to see if you clear a certain score, then you move on, but what about the kids who score high and come from a disadvantaged background or those who score lower than the average applicant and are from a relatively wealthy background?”

    Good question! We do sometimes take such things into account. For example, when a student from a particular background does unusually well on a test, we might take it into account. If a poor, first-generation URM student from the ACT belt pulls an 800 on the math, well, that’s more striking because it’s very, very, very unusual. Because of the indeterminacy of the tests we tend to not put as much weight on it as other things, but at the margins, in the outliers, as you observe, it can help provide some additional context as well. You’re right that we don’t compare applicants side by side, but we do understand the interaction of factors, the context in which a student applies.

    I think one of the reasons I love this job so much is that much of it is almost applied anthropology and sociology. By which I mean that it is my job, as an admissions officer at a school like MIT, to be well-versed in understanding not only what classes and clubs a student may take, but to understand as much as possible about the context an applicant applies from. When I read an application I usually have a couple of tabs at the ready with official U.S. census data, school reports, and things like this. It’s helpful to know – is this student applying from a town which was hit very hard by the recession? Is this student applying from a town where almost no one goes to college? Or is this student applying from a town where everyone goes to prestigious schools? Each applicant is their own person, of course; they aren’t defined by their surroundings. But the surroundings can help me, as an admissions officer, understand that student’s experiences, their options, their opportunities, and their orientation somewhat more.

    The point I was trying to make with scores is essentially that there exists a point after which we basically think you can do the work at MIT and so the returns accrued by each marginal point on the SAT diminish markedly. It’s not to say there isn’t a difference between a 2400 and a 2100 as much as it is to say that that difference doesn’t matter as much as, say, the difference between an 1800 and a 2100, even though they are both 300 points apart.

  27. missy says:

    I think it has been made pretty clear by MIT admissions that a 2400 is not necessarily “better” than a 2200. Both students are smart enough to succeed at MIT. As Chris has pointed out life is not fair. Granting “more slack” to poor applicants would serve no one as those students would not be prepared to succeed at MIT. Children born to wealthy parents have an advantage in life, there is no doubt about it.

  28. Karthik Chinni says:

    Ok chris let us think that there is a hypothetical student who got just 1600 in SAT but after looking eveything else like his subject test scores were high and his essays,teacher letters were also good. Then would MIT accept him.??????? I don’t think so because generally MIT accepts the those who are around 2000 in their SAT’S and I don’t think this is holistic process

  29. jim says:

    All these taking about the correlation between the test scores, income, and the level of parent’s education really bothers me. In many cases, this is not true. MY son fits in all three; high test scores from a 200k income family with highly educated parents. However, we have not sent him to any test preparation classes and we can’t even make him study for any standard test that he has taken. When I offered to buy preparation books, he told me: do it if you want to read them. He tuned his MIT EA in last night. I have no clue what he put on his application since he did every thing himself. I think the only things he came to me for answers were when did I get my degrees and where. He almost never does any study on standard test and he has never taken any test twice because he thinks that is a waste of his time. He’d rather use the few hours of test taking to catch up the sleep he missed due to busy life between school work and all the after school activities he is involved. So don’t assume kids from well off families will necessarily take all the advantage they have got. Many I know don’t even have that high of test scores or GPA as their peers from a lower income families. I am worried this kind of clouds just makes my son’s road to MIT unfairly harder. The fact he is an Asian boy even making things worse……


  30. Heather ('16?) says:


    I understand what you’re saying, but there is a correlation between income, level of parents’ education, and test scores. Of course it doesn’t fit everyone, but the correlation exists. I would hypothesize that’s because of the parents’ attitude towards education, since people with more education tend to place more value on education (from my personal experience), and people with more education also tend to be more upper class and such… Of course there are always exceptions. We’re people, not robots. Unfortunately, it is necessary to acknowledge that such a correlation exists – AND acknowledge that there are exceptions. That’s perhaps the most important part.