Choosing the best candidates for admission to graduate school at James Madison University

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SUMMARY: JMU’s graduate programs are on a mission to recruit well-qualified students, even when those students have diverse backgrounds and experiences that do not fit traditional molds. The challenge lies in creating an admissions process that invites students to demonstrate their strengths and potential for success in graduate school through a variety of application materials beyond test scores and transcripts.

By Alyse Lehrke, Strategic Leadership doctoral student at James Madison University

On October 23-24, The Graduate School welcomed three guest consultants to speak on holistic review processes in graduate admissions, thanks to an IDEA (Innovative Efforts Award) grant. The consultants included Jerry Weinberg, Associate Provost for Research and Dean of the Graduate School at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, along with Molly McCracken and Cathlin Sullivan, Holistic Review Specialists at Kira Talent in Toronto, Ontario. Together, these expert consultants shared important insights and facilitated timely discussions among the graduate faculty, program directors, academic unit heads, and others who attended the lecture and workshop sessions.

Jerry Weinberg, who also heads up the holistic review research committee for the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), started off the lecture with an introduction to the specific admissions goals of graduate programs across the country and the ways holistic review practices can meet them. These national findings, based on a current research project that will be published by CGS in the near future, were augmented by the results of an internal survey of graduate programs at JMU.

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While each graduate program’s goals and needs are unique in some ways, there are many common themes. The three top qualities JMU programs are looking for in an applicant include (in order of importance): 1) candidates who have had excellent prior academic performance, 2) excellent analytical and critical thinking skills, and 3) readiness for the rigor of graduate education.  Some programs are also seeking candidates with strong disciplinary knowledge. Many programs, especially those that prepare students for professional practice, are especially interested in admitting candidates that can demonstrate their professionalism, oral communication, persistence, adaptability, flexibility, dependability, integrity, collegiality, and ability to work under stress.

Most programs identified a combination of cognitive and non-cognitive qualities that they considered important. The ability to develop an admissions process that captures the best information about an applicant for evaluating these qualities is where holistic review can offer a robust solution. Molly McCracken and Cathlin Sullivan, Holistic Review Specialists at Kira Talent in Toronto, Ontario, shared their knowledge and experience from working with several graduate programs to develop and implement holistic review processes that suit specific program goals. For example, during the workshops, program representatives were encouraged to identify sources of information that may reveal the desired candidate characteristics, mapping program goals to application materials like personal statements and evaluation processes like rubrics.   

Workshop attendees explored their current methods for selecting candidates and examined how well these methods serve program goals in identifying well-qualified individuals without inadvertently excluding candidates with non-traditional backgrounds. For example, the application packets of individuals who spent time in the workforce prior to returning to graduate school or individuals who stepped out of paid work to raise a family will likely look very different than academically-focused students presenting recent test scores, research projects, and GPAs. However, each individual may have the skills and drive to be successful in graduate school and beyond.

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While most JMU programs consider several sources of information when selecting candidates (including transcripts, test scores, resumes, personal statements, writing samples, and letters of recommendation), graduate faculty are committed to ensuring their program’s admissions processes are aligned with the program’s goals and provide methods for identifying top applicants from a variety of backgrounds. Further, the application materials that programs collect and review as part of the admissions decision-making process should tell the applicant’s story, whether it follows a traditional or nontraditional script, in a way that promotes diversity and reduces bias.

The Graduate School hopes these discussions will spark ongoing conversation and change, empowering programs to design their recruiting and admissions practices using a holistic approach that assesses the qualities of each applicant in a multi-faceted way. These changes will foster greater student diversity within each program and will contribute to the overall diversity of the collective student body at JMU.


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Published: Monday, October 29, 2018

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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