Why Application Portfolios Are Here to Stay

Are application portfolios a niche tool for art schools, or will they become an integral component in the future of college admissions? At the 2020 Common Application Virtual Summit, undergraduate admissions officers discussed why more programs should incorporate portfolios, and shared best practices for how to do so effectively. Becky Chassin, Assistant Dean Undergraduate Admission at University of Southern California, Tiffiney George, Senior Director of Admission at Brown University, and Caroline Ward, Assistant Dean of Admission at William and Mary University, explored how institutions can use portfolios to gain a clearer picture of their applicants. Here are some highlights from the panel.

For the arts… and more

Traditionally, arts programs have used portfolios as a creative supplement to help distinguish and identify exceptional students and determine who would thrive in their programs. Now video interviews, presentations and the sharing of “learning artifacts” are among the emerging uses of portfolios outside of traditional disciplines — including business and STEM fields — particularly in the context of test-optional and holistic admissions policies. A business innovation department at USC enables applicants to submit a video pitch of a product, an idea or innovation via SlideRoom, according to Chassin.

Quantitative and qualitative measurements

As with application writing samples or personal statements, portfolios are a qualitative element, but to facilitate expedient reviews schools utilize the customizable rubric tools — along with free-form comments — within SlideRoom to aggregate feedback into a single data point within a holistic process. Ward created a “guiding document” for faculty, providing tips on utilizing SlideRoom and how to efficiently review applicant portfolios. While also enabling open ended feedback, William and Mary implements a 0-5 rating scale. When the aggregate scores hit the 4-5 range they take that “very seriously” in conjunction with other application elements. “That tipping point in the portfolio piece is always very helpful.”

Departmental collaboration for successful cohorts

Portfolio supplements provide a way for undergraduate admissions offices to collaborate with individual departments to admit the best cohort possible. “While our office needs to understand things students have submitted through the Common App, our faculty partners give us feedback on the portfolios” says Chassin. “They’re the ones who know best about what they are seeking from the students with respect to their discipline. So if we are recommending students from a pure admissions perspective, then [the consideration turns to] who are we bringing in this cohort to work together.”

Merit on creativity and ideas, not “production”

In order to level the playing field, programs typically let applicants know they’re not going to be judged on the production quality of their portfolio submissions, but rather on the ideas behind what they’ve done. These undergraduate admissions officers work with individual programs to customize their questions and guidance in order to help applicants and reviewers fine-tune their focus on the most relevant criteria.

Application portfolios can only help applicants

While a strong score in a portfolio review is always beneficial, a lower score doesn’t necessarily have a negative effect on an application — particularly when the portfolio submission is optional. On the other hand, a portfolio revealing that an applicant is technically proficient is no guarantee of admission if other components of the application cause reviewers to believe the applicant’s academic philosophy is not aligned with that of the program. “We look at those [portfolio] supplements, and the faculty comments and feedback,” said George, “but we’re not going to make a decision one way or the other solely based on what the ratings are.”

Undergraduate admissions and the pandemic’s immediate and long-term impacts

As higher education adapts to a post-pandemic environment, immediate considerations are expediting several trends around portfolios. Ward opined that in the near future, restrictions on gatherings will create different contexts for auditions (i.e., at home vs. a performance hall) or may force applicants to rely on a range of older works. In addition, a new dynamic on the emphasis of the optional portfolio supplement as part of their holistic review is emerging. George added that while just under 10% of Brown’s applicants currently submit a portfolio, there is consideration about “expanding those options” to a broader number of programs.

“We’ll be monitoring if more students choose to do a video portfolio or interview. Ultimately, we want to give students the opportunity to share more of themselves and their stories in lots of different ways.”

View the on-demand version of the webinar, Are Applicant Portfolios Here To Stay?. Watch it now to avoid using yesterday’s strategies to meet tomorrow’s recruitment and admissions goals.

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