In our recent coverage of the Coalition Locker—a student portfolio for use in college admissions —we raised concerns about the lack of guidelines for admissions portfolios. Evaluation standards would make it easier for students and families to understand what to include, but is it reasonable to expect to standardize what diverse institutions look for in applicants? Is there a minimum standard or set of artifacts that aligns with skills and competencies that all colleges would value?

Eduventures reached out to technology vendors to understand what is currently state of the art in portfolio reviews. Over 30 vendors provide portfolios to P-12 schools or higher education institutions and take incredibly diverse approaches to supporting teaching and learning. Very few solutions are currently used for college admissions. Those that are supplement—rather than supplant—a traditional admissions application.

While most portfolio vendors allow for mapping student artifacts to learning objectives and workplace skills, none of the vendors that we reviewed offers off-the-shelf mappings for admissions criteria. Rather, institutions that wish to review portfolios for admissions must also create rubrics, outcomes, and competency levels that will be applied to curated portfolio artifacts. All of this said, it seems impossible to standardize admissions portfolio content but reasonable to standardize the review process.

Standardizing the Review Process

After we published our last article, the Common Application contacted us directly to inform us about its existing partnership with Learning Machine. Through this partnership, Common App includes Learning Machine’s Slideroom product, which focuses exclusively on admissions and job applications, as a  supplement in the application process. Common App member schools use it to supplement the general application with a more interactive assessment of students, usually those applying to selective fine arts or STEM programs. Slideroom became the exclusive portfolio provider for the Common App four years ago. Its growth has been spurred by rapid adoption among art schools, and it now has over 150 schools using its portfolios as part of a holistic undergraduate admissions process.

According to Learning Machine CEO Chris Jagers, the demands that a portfolio system places on students to curate their work encourages them to be active participants in telling the story of their educational outcomes. He notes that his platform does not and will not prescribe to institutions how to evaluate the portfolio. This says more about how the Common App handles relationships with its member institutions than it does about opportunities to standardize evaluations across the broader market.

Defining Learning Objectives

For institutions, the first step in evaluating admissions portfolios is defining the set of learning objectives they want students to demonstrate. While mapping to these objectives presents a real cost during implementation, this process provides institutions with a deeper understanding of what they are truly looking for in their next class. Many institutions already use subjective evaluation criteria for admissions applications and student essays. The mere act of creating a list of discrete skills and academic outcomes that applicants should demonstrate gives institutions an opportunity to reassess their priorities for academic and emotional fit.

Not only is learning objective mapping not a common practice across programs, but those that do are also not sharing their rubrics or lists of competencies with peers. If our goal is standardization, then this is the primary obstacle. Our conversations with Common App member schools confirmed that there is a lack of crowdsourcing for admissions portfolio rubrics. Each institution determines its own rubrics for evaluation criteria and does not share them with other member schools.

There is no equivalent to the successful Predictive Analytics Reporting (PAR) framework underway in admissions. Members are not asking organizations like the Common Application or Coalition to facilitate such a conversation. One reason may be that institutions still feel they must treat the criteria they use to evaluate applicants like a black box, obscured from the applicants and set apart as an untouchable differentiator among selective peers.

Our Recommendations

Even without shared rubrics, institutions can still standardize the review process. We propose that institutions incorporating portfolios into their admissions processes implement the following best practices for portfolio review:

  • Define learning objectives. In addition to establishing the requirements for general admissions, define a set of competencies for selective programs and majors (e.g., fine arts, STEM) as needed.
  • Leverage existing workflows. Apply the same reviewer workflow in place for admissions applications to reviewing portfolios. Based on the subject matter of portfolio artifacts, you may need additional reviewers, but the core workflow should remain the same.
  • Integrate evaluations with CRM. Integrating the outcomes of portfolio evaluations into your admissions CRM will frame your institution’s message segmentation and follow-up activities.
  • Involve current students and alumni. Enrollment management professionals are always looking for ways to involve current students in the admissions process. Along with alumni, they can provide a valuable perspective to assess fit, passion, and maturity in prospective students.
  • Use an iterative process. After the initial review, request additional artifacts from applicants to fill in gaps or better articulate learning outcomes. An iterative process will bridge the early adoption phase while students, guidance counselors, and parents become more familiar with the process.
  • Compare to prior outcomes. Evaluate the results of admissions application-only reviews against those for portfolio reviews. Determine whether your portfolio evaluation criteria are consistent with your traditional application review process and refine your criteria accordingly.

Above all else, clearly communicate your institution’s evaluation criteria to prospective students, guidance counselors, and parents as early as possible in the admissions process. In all of the steps your institution undertakes to implement admissions portfolios, share clear expectations with your admissions prospects to improve the quality of the artifacts and reflections that you ultimately receive.