NACAC 2016: Admissions Portfolios – Lessons from Early Adopters

At this year’s NACAC conference, we hosted a panel discussion about the growing importance of portfolios within admissions. While art schools have always asked for artifacts of achievement, STEM fields are beginning to experiment with this admissions practice. We asked representatives from MIT and Carnegie Mellon to share some lessons they have learned over the past few years. The themes that emerged included logistics, evaluation, and the general motivation behind recognizing creativity in all fields.
Chris Peterson, MIT Assistant Director of Admissions, led by sharing a few examples of “maker” portfolios. These ranged from 3-dimensional chess boards to software apps (shown above). While these projects aren’t a replacement for traditional academic achievement, they help MIT understand the whole person clearly, which in turn improves their ability to make admissions decisions. In Peterson’s words:

What is called “making” is really just a baseline human activity of being creative. As admissions officers, guidance counselors, and others, we’re all shepherding students who are creative people and who are trying to figure out ways to communicate and make sense of that creativity — and have institutions put appropriate value on it, in the way that we do for other things.

After explaining MIT’s motivation to include portfolios, Mr. Peterson went on to discuss the logistics of this endeavor. He said, “It takes a little work to get a volunteer base setup … but it saves the admissions office time and brings more rigor and confidence to the [admissions] work that you do.” This volunteer base includes about 21 faculty and alumni with expertise in different fields. Self-selected applicants submit portfolios via MIT’s SlideRoom account, which are then routed to specific volunteers. Each of these people leaves ratings, based on 3 dimensions of assessment, and a narrative comment. Then, these evaluations are exported into their system for reading applications, so officers can get a better sense of the whole person.

Throughout this process, MIT has been proactive in sharing data related to Maker Portfolios. The slide below shows 20% annual growth in portfolios submitted, as well as a variety of metrics in regard to higher application rates, cross-admit rates and yield rates.

Daragh Byrne, faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, extended the discussion by addressing the tension between qualitative and quantitative assessments: When people encounter portfolios for the first time, particularly in engineering or computer science, they see it as an entirely subjective way of reviewing work … that doesn’t provide the rigor that other assessment criteria hold. I think once people are embedded in the process of portfolio review, that perception goes away. And once you get hands on with the work, it’s a much more tacit way of understanding, through the work, how [the student] has actualized knowledge and encoded the things they’ve actually learned into physical things. In addition to his work at Carnegie Mellon, Daragh also heads the Make School Alliance, which includes 78 colleges and universities, across 32 states, that are committed to supporting the maker movement on their campuses and in their communities. This is part of a larger effort to recognize and encourage the project-based work to help strengthen learning outcomes: Portfolios are ultimately about the learning experience. By collecting artifacts as they go, it increases the opportunities for self-reflection, peer-reflection, and feedback. And that strengthens the overall outcome of the project. The slide below outlines the various ways schools can support making, which includes considering portfolios during admissions; expanding access to new spaces and equipment; introducing new scholarships; and generally encouraging the act of making within the classroom and within their community.

Other panelists included Dale Dougherty, CEO of Maker Media, and Natalie Smolenski, head of Learning Machine Research. Our next post will showcase their discussion about the shifting conception of creativity within admissions, classrooms, and society at large.

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