Holistic review. If you are a senior in high school doing research on what colleges look for in your application, you’ve probably heard that term A LOT lately. But do you really know what it means?

A holistic application review means we look at the application itself, all required documents and all related information available to make an informed decision on your ability to be a successful, contributing member of our campus community. And here at CU Boulder, we take holistic review very seriously. This means we don’t make an admission decision based solely on a few numbers!

Before we dive in too far, I want to address the question on everyone’s mind: how are we evaluating your application in light of the current global pandemic? In short: don’t worry! We understand that for current high school seniors, your academic plans (and likely, many others) have been completely up-ended this year. Your final grades for Spring 2020 may not look how you would have liked; you may not be able to take the course load you planned to in your senior year; you may be balancing an adjustment to remote instruction while ALSO trying to keep up with your part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, family responsibilities and college applications. It’s a lot! This year has been especially challenging for many students and families, and you may not feel like you have had the opportunity to “put your best foot forward” in your application. We completely understand this, and will consider all of this information with thoughtfulness and empathy as we evaluate your application.

So, with that in mind – what goes into the holistic review? Let’s go through each application material and I’ll share with you some of the questions that we ask ourselves as we review each component and what exactly we are hoping to learn.

First, let’s be clear. The core of our review is academics. Why? We are an academic institution after all, and we want to ensure that you are going to be successful here if you’re admitted. It’s also important to know that we review all applications with their environment and educational context in mind. This means that when I look at the first section of the application, I am noting where you are from, where you attend school and other basic information about who you are. This helps set the context for the other components of your application.

High School Transcript

When reviewing your transcript, we focus on course selection, grade trend and individual classroom performance/grades.

Are you challenging yourself in your course selection? If there are AP/IB, Honors or dual enrollment courses offered at your school, did you take any? We certainly look positively on students who are willing to challenge themselves with upper-level coursework! Your school may not offer these traditional opportunities to pursue a rigorous curriculum. That’s okay, and we keep that in mind as we consider the school(s) you have attended and evaluate how you have challenged yourself academically, in context. That may not look the same for every student.

We also look at your grade trend over your high school career. Have you been performing consistently well throughout high school? Or perhaps you struggled a bit early on, but have since made some adjustments to your study habits or environment, and are doing better now. Both of these scenarios show perseverance and adaptability—powerful assets to your overall application.

How are you performing in individual classes? What grades are you achieving? Let’s take a moment to discuss GPA.

I am often asked about the minimum GPA needed to get admitted to CU Boulder, or what is a ‘good’ GPA. The answer I always provide is, it depends. I know, not quite the answer you were hoping for! But here’s the thing: grading scales, and thus GPAs, are not standardized across schools—so there isn’t a standard answer. Some schools might give 3 points of weight for an upper level course; other schools will give no weight at all. I have reviewed transcripts for students on 4.0, 5,0. 7.0 and 100-point grading scales. I have also seen transcripts where in lieu of grades, a narrative evaluation is provided. This is why context is key! We are more interested in what level of performance and academic potential is reflected by the GPA, than the number itself.

Academic Letter of Recommendation

We require one academic letter of recommendation. This may come from a teacher, counselor or another individual of your choosing who can provide more information about you in an academic setting.

These letters help us understand how you achieved that B in Chemistry. Are your lab reports outstanding? Are you a natural leader in group projects? Perhaps that A in Honors English is a result of putting your critical thinking skills on display in classroom discussions. The academic letter of recommendation lets us know who you are in the classroom day in and day out, and this enables us to understand what type of student you will be in our classrooms.

Standardized Test Scores

CU Boulder is test-optional for First-Year applicants graduating high school in Spring of 2021. If you choose to submit a SAT or ACT score, we will consider it as a part of our holistic review process, evaluating many factors. However, like many students – you many not have had access to take the SAT or ACT this year due to cancellations or public health concerns. That is ok! You will not be at a disadvantage in any way if you don’t have test scores. We will focus our evaluation on the many other aspects of your application. If provided, test scores are never considered in isolation – but rather, in context. Just like everything else in your application!


The Common Application provides space to list up to ten activities. Should you feel this format or space is not sufficient to share this information with us, you can submit an additional resume. We are primarily interested in learning how you spend your time outside of the classroom. Do you have a job? Are you involved in drama productions? Perhaps you’re an athlete! Are you engaged in community service?

We do not prefer some activities over others. We are genuinely interested in learning about who you are and how you spend your time. This gives us an idea of how you might be part of our community here at CU Boulder! Are you worried because you don’t have a million extracurricular activities on your resume because you worked throughout high school to support your family? Guess what, that is an extracurricular activity and something you should absolutely include on your application. Every student is unique and the resume or activities list helps tell your story.


We have two required essays – one is the Common Application personal essay, and the other is a CU Boulder specific essay (the writing supplement). Check out our previous post with tips on writing the college essay if you need some help getting started!

Your essays are the only place in your application where you get to “talk” directly to the admissions office (and yes, we do read them). You can tell us about yourself – your experiences, identities, passions, goals and more – in your own words. This is the best way we get to know you, and it helps put the rest of your application in context. Broadly, we are looking at two main things – your writing skills and academic potential in this area, and also to learn more about what you can contribute to our campus community as a Buff.

In Conclusion

As you’re working on your CU Boulder application and wondering why we’re requesting all that information, remember: holistic review. It’s because we want to get to know you. This is an opportunity for you to tell your story. The more you put into your application, the more we get out of it, and the better informed we are to make our admission decision. So, good luck! And as always, we are here if you need us.

Brittany Dye Assistant Director for the Office of Admissions at CU Boulder
Brittany Dye
Assistant Director
Office of Admissions