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Credit: Catherine Liang

Year after year, Penn’s acceptance rate declines. But what exactly made only 8.39 percent of this year’s applicant pool qualified to attend our university?

Penn’s Class of 2022 surely demonstrated impressive GPAs, SAT scores, and class ranks. But grades alone are not only insufficient, they may not even be the most important pillar of a hopeful applicant’s file.

Characteristic of United States college admissions, “holistic evaluation” processes take into account a student’s academic performance, extracurricular involvements, personal essays, and teachers’ evaluations. According the Penn Admissions website, Penn evaluates “applicants’ record of academic excellence and intellectual curiosity, range of interests and hobbies, leadership skills, and potential impact on our campus.”

This American system does not come without controversy. It has been described as unpredictable, illogical, and arbitrary.

More emphasis on academic performance would be wise and necessary. But, here’s why the holistic admissions system is a step above the rest: It aligns with, and reaffirms, the purpose of education.

The main discrepancy between American colleges and universities overseas is whether extracurricular involvements are taken into account. Acceptance into a university in New Zealand, where I went to high school, is solely based on meeting an academic scoring threshold. Each field of study has a different score requirement, which is the sole criterion in university admissions.

This is characteristic of many universities across the world. Singaporean students, equipped with examination results, could accurately predict their admissions decisions, until Yale-NUS College opened its doors in 2011, introducing Singapore to an American-based holistic admissions system.

“The purpose of university is to provide an education, and the purpose of education extends far beyond classroom learning.”

And Penn doesn’t just scrutinize extracurricular activities in order to keep its class size small — even selective universities in the United Kingdom only care about academic performance. The University of Cambridge admits students “based solely on academic criteria.” The University of Oxford advises that “extracurricular activities are only helpful in so far as they demonstrate the selection criteria for your course.”

Some argue that the main crux of university is to take classes and earn a degree, and therefore, academic excellence is key to success. But, the purpose of university is to provide an education, and the purpose of education extends far beyond classroom learning.

Therefore, there is no point in comparing admissions systems without evaluating the purpose of education, a widely debated idea. In 2015, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker expressed that the University of Wisconsin’s mission should be to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

But, it is rudimentary to purport that education is exclusively for career advancement. The primary purpose of education is to develop students into contributing citizens. Career advancement is merely one branch on the tree of meaningful citizenship, along with character and values.

Credit: Christine Lam

By solely valuing grades in the admissions process, universities tell students that education is only academic. By only setting numeric entrance requirements, they define themselves as specialized vocational training grounds, only designed to pump out graduates for specific workforces. Ultimately, by not paying attention to applicants’ non-academic pursuits, universities disregard the role of education in shaping a student’s character, values, and attitudes, which are all necessary contributors to meaningful citizenship.

Holistic admissions values diversity in extracurricular interests, which leads to a vibrant campus. A vibrant campus is reflective of our multifaceted society after graduation. And learning how to thrive in this real environment is learning how to contribute to a real society, which is the true purpose of education.

“By not paying attention to applicants’ non-academic pursuits, universities disregard the role of education in shaping a student’s character, values, and attitudes, which are all necessary contributors to meaningful citizenship.”

Beyond extracurricular activities, holistic review tends to also place emphasis on personal stories through essays. Admittedly, judging students based on personal statements can be arbitrary and opaque, and admissions committees must restrain the influence of these stories.

But, usually the essay prompts for the personal story present a chance to explain a non-academic pursuit. This can provide major insight into a candidate’s educational potential, as long as admissions committees properly balance this subjective component with the other objective application elements.

Additionally, holistic review also proves best for those still convinced that careers should be at the forefront of education. The admissions office “look[s] beyond GPAs and test scores” to find a “potential Penn classmate, leader, roommate, and citizen.” Learning to thrive in these varied roles not only directly constitutes meaningful citizenship, but is actually essential for career advancement too. Increasingly, employers look for qualities learned outside the classroom instead of solely seeking specific academic skill sets.

Universities are not merely academic institutions; they are educational, and holistic admissions affirms the true purpose of education. While academia is integral to universities and admissions officers must appropriately balance each component of an application, it is a grave mistake to disregard non-academic pursuits. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Americans have been trailblazing in so many fields for so many decades.

LUCY HU is a College sophomore from Auckland, New Zealand, studying political science. Her email address is lucyhu@sas.upenn.edu.

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