Improving Graduate Admissions Through Holistic Evaluation

FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences and Education is seeking to improve the admissions process for their graduate student body through the use of holistic admissions.
Holistic admissions are a form of evaluation where applicants are not solely judged based on their test scores and GPA, but instead their unique skills and experiences are also considered. The purpose of this method is to identify candidates that have great potential but may not qualify using standard metrics.
"A Ph.D. program is very different from getting a Bachelor’s degree,” writes computer scientist Ronald Azuma in a guide for prospective or novice graduate students. “And you must treat it as a strange type of job. Initiative, tenacity, flexibility, interpersonal skills, organizational skills, and communication skills are all critical and not things that universities typically test for in selecting incoming students."

Caroline Simpson, a physics professor who is associate director of AWED and equity advisor of CASE, spoke about the development of this initiative. Brian Raue, another physics professor, and the current Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, is responsible for the formation of the CASE Holistic Admissions and Retention in Graduate Education, or CHASE for short. Simpson is also involved in this initiative, along with Asia Eaton, an associate professor of psychology, and Melissa McCartney, an assistant professor of biology and a faculty fellow of AWED.


Caroline Simpson and Brian Raue

Data has shown that the GRE, the standardized test that is traditionally an admissions requirement for many graduate schools, has zero ability to predict success in graduate school. The purpose of a Ph.D. is to teach students how to do independent research. This requires many soft skills, which are skills that are common to all professions, rather than hard skills, which are specific to certain professions. Soft skills include proficiency in qualities like communication, leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking, and time management. These skills do not always correlate with test scores. GRE scores weakly correlate with the first year GPA of graduate students, and it instead most successfully predicts attributes like race, gender, and ethnicity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the conversation around holistic admissions and the GRE. During the pandemic, the GRE requirement was suspended by many graduate schools, including at FIU. This led to an increase in applicants, as the cost of taking the GRE often serves as a monetary barrier for many prospective students. 
Dean Raue was able to create a CASE Distinguished Graduate Fellowship program that incoming graduate students to various CASE departments could apply for. The CHASE committee began by looking at what other schools are doing with holistic admissions. The committee looked at graphs from every department’s admissions, and found that there was no correlation between GPA, GRE scores, and the time it took to earn a degree.
With holistic admissions, there is a focus on looking at candidates who may be excellent but may not look good on paper at first. The aim is to judge qualities for success without solely relying on test scores. One such quality is creativity, which comes from different perspectives and cannot be scored on a standardized metric.
For the fellowship, students were asked to provide a statement on different skills with their applications, with questions about topics like research or artistic experience, contributions to diversity, leadership experience, and creativity. These statements were judged against a rubric created by the committee, which fielded applicants based on whether their research interests lined up with departmental needs, and judged them according to their stated strengths to determine who would fit best into the program.
Based on the first year of the program (2021-2022), the committee decided to revise the rubric. The rubric that CASE is currently using has been suggested as a template for other departments to use in the future, but the decision on whether to use it or not is up to the individual departments.
The ultimate goal of holistic admissions is ensuring success, as well as financial and academic support for students in order to reach their full potential. CASE is the largest college at FIU, so there is hope that by adopting holistic admissions, it will set an example for the other schools in the university to follow.