It’s almost impossible to achieve equitable college admissions outcomes and the subsequent success of students without first understanding what motivates passionate, highly qualified applicants. That’s one reason more colleges and universities are using application portfolios as they adopt holistic admissions policies and look beyond traditional metrics such as test scores, essays and letters of recommendation. It also explains why institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Wheaton College, participants in the Learning Policy Institute’s Reimagining College Access (RCA) initiative, leverage SlideRoom’s multimedia application platforms to accept and review supplemental materials as part of their admissions processes.
With several years and cohorts of implementation, these programs provided great insights and shareable best practices in a recent webinar.
Showing, not just telling
“The hands-on learning that students participate in is central to the MIT experience,” said Stu Schmill, Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services at MIT. “It was fairly clear to us some time ago that our application didn’t really allow our admissions officers to evaluate students in that context. We want to allow students to show us their talents. The traditional college application isn’t designed to do that.
“That’s where SlideRoom portfolios come in. We recognized that there’s a whole set of students doing projects or project-based work who didn’t have a platform to demonstrate what they’d done. Using the SlideRoom platform, we developed our Maker Portfolio, which students use to tell us about their projects.”
At Wheaton, according to Director of Admission Judy Purdy, the engagement benefits are similar: “We want to make clear to applicants that this is not necessarily additional work, but gives them an opportunity to showcase something they’ve already done — a class project or internship experience — in a way traditional application formats don’t allow. They are only used to help the students.”
Better inputs, better outputs
SlideRoom, which supports more than 30 different file types, optimizes the collection and review of portfolios that are submitted with applications, including those featuring rich media, video, images, audio and three-dimensional models.
After the first few application cycles, both MIT and Wheaton learned that a mindset change — from an open-ended call for materials to giving prompts for materials that reflect the qualities they want to measure — has enhanced the value of the assessments.
“We’ve learned to be more direct, and to understand the context in which students have done their projects in order to ascertain their motivations, resourcefulness, collaboration and communication skills and willingness to take risk,” observed Schmill. “That context has made all the difference for us in the value we get from the portfolio submissions.”
Wheaton used these lessons to evolve the model of traditional arts portfolios to the broader benefit of performance assessments for a greater set of academic disciplines. “We initially didn’t know how to ask the right questions or give prompts to get what we wanted to understand — their passion, creativity and leadership skills — particularly outside of traditional arts portfolios.”
Yielding to enrollment success
For time-crunched admissions offices, the prospect of another application element might appear daunting, but at these institutions the optional supplements benefit applicants and reviewers alike.
Purdy said, “Most of them only take a few minutes to review, but ultimately it provides more clarity. We don’t end up wondering so much. It helps us get to know the student a little bit better and helps sway some of the conversations to admit, waitlist or deny.”
She added that there are benefits, not just to admissions decisions, but enrollment management and student success initiatives as well.
“We very much consider this a yield opportunity. For accepted applicants, we follow up and discuss how what they are doing would contribute to the kind of life they would have at Wheaton. From the faculty perspective, they more easily identify which students would make a huge difference in their department. We then use the portfolios to understand how we can help them once they enroll at Wheaton to achieve their goals.”
Similarly, MIT involves faculty reviewers and outside alumni to help scale portfolio reviews and identify applicants who can thrive in their individual departments: “Something that one of our admissions officers thought was kind of boring, we would have a faculty member jumping up and down saying, ‘oh my god, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.’”
What amazing things will the next cohort of applicants create?
Interested in learning more? Watch the Learning Policy Institute’s on-demand webinar, Performance Assessment in College Admissions: How Students Show What They Know and Can Do.