Portfolios for College Admissions?

Over the past decade, portfolios have become a standard part of the application process at many institutions of higher education. Schools of all sizes and selectivity rates use portfolios, but others have been holding back because of concerns about how to incorporate portfolio review into their application and evaluation process.

This post discusses some common fears and a few ways of thinking about portfolio supplements that may help an institution make a cost-benefit analysis in light of its particular needs. While portfolios are not panaceas, there are contexts in which portfolios enable an institution to find outstanding candidates they would have otherwise missed and better meet their admissions goals.

“Do portfolios add any value beyond the traditional application?”
The most fundamental hesitation many institutions have revolves around the need for portfolios in the first place. The belief may be that “a portfolio doesn’t tell us anything a traditional application can’t.” It is certainly true that applications can cover a lot of ground without a portfolio. And STEM fields have a long history of successfully relying on test scores to qualify applicants. However, what traditional applications lack is the ability to portray what the applicant can actually do—beyond writing essays and taking tests. While projects might include schoolwork, portfolios may also consist of projects done outside of the classroom. Such projects are powerful because they uniquely capture a person’s curiosity, commitment, skill level, and create a vivid portrait of how they learn.

“Is reviewing these additional materials even logistically possible?”
Most admissions officers are already overburdened. The thought of adding another component to an applicant’s folder is daunting. And it’s true that portfolio review does generally add an extra step to the evaluation process. However, the goal in all admissions processes is to efficiently determine whether an individual should be part of the incoming class. Seeing a project often provides clear insight into this question in less than a few minutes. The challenge then becomes how to structure the application review process to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Here are a few things MIT has recently shared about their approach:

  1. Make the portfolio optional and position it so that students first self-identify as having meaningful projects to share.
  1. Scope the requirement to be one major project and no more than 3 minutes of content.
  1. Use an online platform that integrates well into your larger admissions ecosystem.

If clearly presented, portfolios provide a remarkably efficient summary of that person’s passions and what makes them unique.

“Will our readers be qualified to review the specialized work that goes into portfolios?”

The degree of specialization needed for portfolio review can be calibrated on the basis of that institution’s evaluation process. Institutions of higher education generally have two main ways of structuring application evaluations: either at the department level or at the level of a central admissions office. In centralized review, what admissions officers and staff are looking for in applicants is general excellence. This can be evaluated without specialized knowledge of a discipline or project because it is a very high-level assessment—like an elevator pitch. Department-level review, on the other hand, is conducted by faculty who are looking for capabilities honed from intense specialization.

In either case, what matters is actually giving weight to an excellent portfolio by allowing it to count toward a positive overall score. Just as certain codes are used to positively affect special cases (AIME Winner, IMO Winner, Low SES, etc…), so too a portfolio may create a tangible difference for an overall application.

“Evaluating portfolios seems too subjective; how can that process be fair?”

Some contend that “evaluating portfolios is just too subjective and risky. Test scores are more ‘objective’ and easier to justify.” It is certainly the case that test scores will remain a quantitative pillar of the admissions decision-making process. And they are typically combined with GPA to create an Academic Index, a single number to balance the list of subjective evaluations that already go into admissions decisions like financial aid, demographics, essay responses and life experience, culture fit, and extracurricular activities—just to name a few. A portfolio gives reviewers additional, skill-based information to make their subjective evaluations more informed.

STEM fields in particular have a heritage of relying exclusively on test scores, which is increasingly outmoded for a society and an economy that demands creativity and continual, project-based reinvention. Further, these fields have become so competitive that it has become hard to distinguish among otherwise qualified applicants with great scores (which were never intended to make micro-distinctions between people). A portfolio provides a solid handle to make additional determinations. If someone has a 780 Math SAT and a mind-blowing portfolio, wouldn’t that be as good (or better) than someone who is simply able to perfectly conform to a standard with an 800?

“Will portfolios create an unfair advantage for wealthy kids?”

The societal reality is that wealth gives students an advantage in every educational performance outcome, including supposedly objective ones like test scores. This 2014 study from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, for example, shows how directly and strongly SAT scores are tied to income level. However, portfolios can sometimes mitigate this trend because production value can’t substitute for skill or grit. The long history of collecting portfolios within the arts is one testimony to their effectiveness and fairness.

Of course, the advantage of affluence is not a problem that can be solved at the level of college admissions; it requires long-term political and social solutions. However, admissions practices can help mediate the unequal effects of wealth and poverty by using all of the tools at their disposal to understand their applicants. Many students from poor and middle class backgrounds may outperform their wealthier peers on quantifiable performance metrics, and portfolios are no different. Not only could a portfolio by a student from a poor background greatly impress reviewers, but that portfolio may be the only way that applicant’s true potential shows up during the admissions process.

Rather than taking anything away from anyone, portfolios give applicants another powerful way to shine.

The costs and benefits to using portfolios in the admissions process outlined above provide a few different ways to think about common points of friction. Although portfolios cannot resolve all of the complexities and social inequalities that form the background against which college admissions proceeds, they are a valuable tool that helps institutions see their applicants in ways that are less mediated by abstract criteria and social preconceptions.

Portfolios, ultimately, enable institutions to get to know applicants on a far more personal level by seeing how they channel their energy and their deepest passions. They give institutions the tools to select students whose energy and drive will create a climate conducive to project-based learning and flourishing for all admitted students.

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