Holistic approach considers whole students, aims for fairness in grad admissions

A group of engineering students stands over a table with a scale model of a building and trees, a central woman reaches over pointing at an architectural detail.

In an effort to create balance and increase fairness in graduate admissions, the College of Engineering in 2021 instituted holistic evaluations for all doctoral and most master’s program applicants.

A more holistic view of admissions has been gaining momentum in recent years throughout Oregon State University and at other institutions across the country. This approach considers the “whole student,” and touches on all facets of the process. It augments traditional measures of academic achievement with increased consideration of the unique qualities that each applicant can bring to a particular program.

This balanced method helps to lessen the impact of subjective variability among evaluators, leveling the field for applicants while enhancing equity, diversity, and inclusion, according to Glencora Borradaile, professor of computer science and associate dean for graduate programs in the college.

“Since 2018, more and more of our programs are looking not just at each applicant’s transcripts, not just their reference letters, but everything together to gauge their level of preparation and suitability to the program they’ve applied to,” Borradaile said.

A rubric is used to evaluate each applicant. Typically, a College of Engineering rubric consists of four to six elements, such as academic preparation; research experience or potential; motivation and resilience; and contributions to and awareness of equity, diversity, and inclusion. A matrix in the rubric allows for evaluation of the applicant’s achievement in each area as high, medium, or low.

“It doesn’t matter whether a faculty member is a hard scorer or an easy scorer, because they’ll be working with the same rubric for a given applicant,” Borradaile said. “This process removes or greatly decreases the kinds of biases that we know exist in the assessment of graduate applicants.”

For example, some research indicates that women tend to be evaluated on their accomplishments, while men tend to be evaluated on their potential.

“One’s potential is usually greater than one’s accomplishments,” Borradaile said. “But with a holistic approach, everyone is evaluated using this common rubric. Since we’ve already written down what we’re looking for in a candidate, ideally different faculty reviewing the same application will come to the same conclusion.”

April 12, 2024