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Holistic Review in Graduate Admissions: What We Need to Know

The pathway to becoming a scientist leads through graduate school, and graduate admissions committees are the gatekeepers. How do they determine who will be successful in a research career and who will not? Admission processes vary widely by discipline and are often opaque, but we do know that the top two strongest predictors of admission to graduate school in general are GRE scores and the selectivity of the student’s undergraduate institution.

Though these factors may determine admission, do they really predict success in graduate school and beyond? The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which produces the GRE, cautions departments against relying too heavily on GRE scores alone, stating that the test “does not and cannot measure all the qualities that are important in predicting success in graduate study,” such as motivation, grit, and a sense of curiosity that can drive scientific discovery. Furthermore, GRE scores correlate strongly with race, ethnicity and gender, placing underrepresented students at a disadvantage in the process and potentially shutting out those with potential to excel.

An emerging solution is holistic review, a university admissions strategy that assesses an applicant’s unique experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores. Evidence supports the use of holistic review in undergraduate admissions and in the health professions, but the extent to which graduate programs are using the practice (and using it right) is less well-known.  Universities and research funders like the NIH and NSF have become increasingly aware of the role of admissions in shaping the future scientific workforce, making this topic ripe for further inquiry and discussion.


On November 3, from 12:00-1:00 p.m. Eastern Time USU, APLU and the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) will host a webinar on holistic review in graduate admissions to explore what we know and what we don’t know about the practice, and how we can fill critical gaps in evidence. Because of the urgent need for diversity in science fields, we will highlight some of the things schools might look for during the admissions process that predict achievement in these disciplines. We’ll also talk about a proposed pilot of holistic review in the graduate school context. If you’re interested in admissions, diversity in STEM, or graduate student success generally, this webinar is for you.

Speakers include:

  1. Courtney Ferrell Aklin, Ph.D., Chief of Staff, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

  2. Julia Kent, Ph.D., Assistant Vice President for Communications, Advancement and Best Practices at the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). She has conducted research on a broad range of topics in graduate education, including PhD career pathways, diversity issues, and graduate admissions processes, as well as a Hobsons-supported initiative on holistic review in graduate admissions.

  3. Ambika Mathur, Ph.D. Associate Provost for Scientific Workforce Training, Development and Diversity, and Dean of the Graduate School at Wayne State University. Dr. Mathur has worked extensively to develop a diverse workforce at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. She serves as a PI on a five year $21 million NIH grant to develop a pipeline for underrepresented students into graduate programs (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity, BUILD).

  4. Keivan G. Stassun, Ph.D., Stevenson Endowed Professor of Physics & Astronomy and Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Research at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Stassun is also founding director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program, through which Fisk has become the top producer of African American master’s degrees in physics and Vanderbilt has become the top producer of PhDs to underrepresented minorities in physics, astronomy, and materials science. He is co-author of the Nature article A Test that Fails, which describes how reducing emphasis on the GRE and increasing attention toward other qualities that predict success in graduate school will improve diversity in STEM fields.

We hope you can join us on November 3 for an engaging conversation on the opportunities and challenges of using holistic review to strengthen diversity in the scientific research workforce. Click here to register


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