A Holistic Approach
Processes and Practices
Thoughtful, evidence-based graduate admissions processes support the mission of the University and strengthen the workforce. These practices should increase the likelihood that a student admitted to a graduate program program will be among those most likely to succeed as a degree candidate and to make meaningful contributions to the learning environments and to society as a whole. In the School of Biological Sciences, we have adopted a holistic review process of applicants, which considers the broad range of candidate qualifications, including “noncognitive” or personal attributes that contribute to success. This is driven by evidence that traditional, quantitative metric-based qualifications may (1) inaccurately predict success in graduate school, and (2) selectively disadvantage students from underrepresented groups. A holistic approach to admissions is an effective alternative approach to considering race as a factor (disallowed in the State of California under Prop 209).
Strategies to Diversify Graduate Applicant Pool
Identify and make personal contact with department chairs and program directors at minority serving institutions (e.g. HSI’s and HBCU’s). Genuinely get to know them and what they’re looking for in programs they recommend to their students. Ask questions and actively listen. Remember that with the current climate and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement there’s an abundance of folks reaching out to them to just give them information about their programs, but very few who are trying to listen and understand.
Inform in Abundance
Providing information prominently helps applicants gain confidence in the application process. This should go beyond resources provided by UCI’s Graduate Division and should include specific guidance on the personal statement as well as FAQ. Invite prospective students and program directors to open house orientation sessions to provide information about the program, network, and answer questions. Invite faculty and ask them to show a single slide featuring the work of one of their students.
Provide Access to Educational Content
Provide access to educational content provided by your program such as annual trainee meeting, seminars, colloquia, etc. Students can get a feel for the program’s inclusive atmosphere this way. For example, are students able to ask questions freely? Do students introduce speakers?
Minority-Serving Conferences and Organizations
Ensure active presence at major conferences highlighting the work of minoritized students, e.g. SACNAS and ABRCMS. Actively advertise for your booth and create social and fun networking activities. Remember that you’re competing with other programs! Use social media and popular hashtags for organizations and networks (e.g. #BlackinNeuro) to connect and inform about your program.
Provide High Quality Materials and Information
Provide program directors and department chairs with high quality professionally designed print and digital materials that can be distributed to interested students and displayed prominently in department common spaces. This should include data and track record in terms of success outcomes and compositional diversity, and not just information about program requirements. Remember that you’re selling and competing!
Communicate a Message of Belonging
You want to communicate to prospective applicants an honest and cohesive message that includes the program training philosophy and its core values, the program’s compositional diversity (students and mentoring faculty), the program’s track record in supporting minoritized students, job outcomes for program graduates, as well as structures and programs in place that promote inclusion and/or support the success and career development of minoritized students.
Change the Narrative
Instead of focusing on academic requirements and a background in biology, make it clear that you’re looking for students from unique backgrounds and who have had diverse experiences. Communicate that ideal candidates bring their unique perspectives to the program.
Consider Contributions to Diversity
Ask questions about contributions to diversity in the application process instead of a just relying on a more general reflective personal statement. This makes it clear you’re looking for those who are passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion.
Connect with current minority faculty, graduate students and postdocs and ask them to spread the word about your program. Connect with alumni who are now postdocs or faculty at other institutions who can be ambassadors for the program and ask them to recommend the program to their trainees.
Admissions in the Context of Prop 209
Can we target specific race or gender in recruitment?
You can use outreach to reach certain groups if the program’s benefits are also available to other groups and the special efforts to reach the targeted groups are necessary. This includes targeting efforts within a more general program of outreach to communicate to specific groups, using those special efforts to “level the informational playing field.” Outreach directly to HBCU’s is an example of such targeted outreach.
Can race or gender be used as admissions criteria?
You may choose to advance goals like diversity and equity using a broad range of admissions criteria that are not based on an individual’s race or gender. For example, holistic review in admissions considers income level, first-generation status, disadvantages overcome, and the impact of an applicant’s background on academic achievement. Factors in selection may include applicants’ ability to contribute to a diverse educational or working environment, and/or their potential for leadership in increasing equitable access to higher education, etc.
Challenges with Equity in Graduate Admissions
There are a number of challenges with graduate student admissions that should be considered by every admissions committee.
- There is abundant evidence that many of the assumptions about merit, excellence, intelligence, and mindsets that STEM faculty hold are gendered and racialized.
- There is an explicit bias towards metrics of conventional achievement e.g. GPA without considering context.
- An undisciplined review process allows implicit bias to impact judgment.
- There are well established linguistic and stylistic gender biases in letters of recommendation.
- Language used in admissions committees’ deliberations often gendered and racialized.
To address these issues, here are some strategies to consider:
- Devote adequate time for the review process and sufficient time for reviewing each application
- Ensure everyone on the committee understands the impact of implicit bias (take the test)
- Make sure each application is reviewed by at least two faculty members
- Appoint diverse groups of faculty as reviewers
- Avoid premature ranking (anchoring bias)
- Use clear and shared criteria formalized in a rubric (sample rubric)
- Analyze all materials for all applicants
- Apply a bias interrupter – appoint a DEI-trained team member to detect and stop bias in its tracks
- Be prepared to explain and justify your decisions
Holistic Review Recommendations in Graduate Admissions
Gather and analyze program-specific data on graduate admissions to identify gender- and race-based patterns in admitted and rejected student characteristics and to test whether student outcomes support prevailing assumptions about predictors of success.
Provide the review committee with context needed to evaluate students appropriately, both at a general level e.g. quality of undergraduate education at Minority-Serving Institutions, and specific e.g. information to help contextualize key criteria in applicant files, such as available opportunities, societal influences, backgrounds and experiences. Holistic review also calls attention to inequities in student outcomes and conventional measures of excellence, is race-conscious and aware of the social and historical context of American higher education.
Provide the review committee with rubrics for evaluating applicants so that admissions criteria are more transparent and consistently applied. Recall that the holistic review is (1) comprehensive, involving numerous and diverse criteria that consider the whole person and their potential, and (2) systematic and based on shared, predefined criteria that allow for flexibility and nuance, safeguards to promote equity and limit bias, and thoughtful training for decision-makers. Here is a Sample Holistic Review Rubric.