The Portfolio Model: A Successor to the Current College Application Process
Forgoing the Standardized Tests and GPA for Meaningful Work
What is the Portfolio Model for College Applications?
Numbers and archetypes. As a society we are obsessed with labels, in particular those placed on people: entrepreneur, empath, New York Times Best Selling Author, introvert, philanthropist, mother, barista, catholic, midwesterner, etc.In many cases we even seek out these labels whether it means taking a “What Parenting Style Will I Have?” questionnaire during the third trimester of a pregnancy or casually answering the questions of a buzzfeed style “What Superhero Am I?” quizz. While these labels and archetypes have infiltrated nearly every aspect of life, numerical labels, often in the form of rankings, are just as, if not more, ubiquitous. Whether they are NFL weekly power rankings or countries ranked by healthcare outcomes, rankings are an extremely popular mechanism for assessing and labeling value.
Unfortunately, this obsession with labels and rankings has bled into education, which has led to a variety of deleterious outcomes. In this article we will focus particularly on how this impacts the college application process, and a practical solution to this problem
First, how do rankings/ labels impact the college application process?
Students are aware that college admissions offices place a hefty premium on GPA, and class rank, and in order to give themselves the best chance at acceptance they are taking as many AP and Honors courses possible, despite their inherent interest in the content, simply to boost their GPA/ class rank - foregoing the opportunity to dive into a deep and meaningful project, or “regular” class that they enjoy in favor of dispassionately completing courses that will add a few hundredths of a point to their GPA
Parents and students, those that are fortunate enough to have the financial resources, spend an unimaginable amount of time and money preparing for standardized exams (ACT and SAT) all in hopes to boost a score that will go on their application - a score that colleges unduly use as a predictive metric for future college success.
With this in mind, what is the portfolio model?
In short, the portfolio model is a more holistic approach to the application process where a student’s attributes are showcased via a compilation of work that they have completed during high school. It is the substitute for the current SAT/ACT/GPA-centric application model that we currently have. The new portfolio model is drastically different as it can take the form of essays, presentations, short stories, art pieces, artifacts from projects etc.
It is easy to see that this would mean students would have drastically different portfolios based on not only what they did in high school, but also what program they wished to enter in college. Let’s explore a few examples of what this could look like for some popular majors/programs.
CAD style blueprints for parts required for the construction of a robotics competition
Analytical essay comparing the approach of Tesla vs Toyota with respect to 8620 Li+ battery vs potential solid state battery
Cost analysis of price for a part compared to added HP for a formula SAE vehicle
Essay recapping the internship/ shadow experience with a local engineer
Pre-health (pre-med, pre-physical therapy, nursing etc.)
In depth diagram of the processes of cellular respiration along with the interplay of different diseases such as diabetes
Analysis of healthcare systems: costs, benefits, challenges, potential solutions
Ethics essay on a medical related topic such as Physician Assisted Suicide
Essay analyzing the methods, findings, and conclusions of a recent primary research article
Essay on the shadowing experience of multiple physicians with different specialties
Log entries detailing the experience of volunteering at a local hospital
Business (marketing, economics, finance)
Analysis of a fortune 500 company incorporating product launches, acquisitions, debt, profit etc
Logged entries of reasoning behind trades during “Mock Stock Trading Week”
Essay detailing experience shadowing marketing professional
Compilation of knowledge accumulated during marketing internship
Analysis of branding of top companies among multiple different markets
Essay detailing current market trends and how select companies have handled disruptions and how those decisions relate to economic theories
Analytical essay examining the most popular psychology experiments: methods, results, conclusions, ethics, etc.
Analysis of recent primary research articles in psychology
Presentation of the new psychological treatments such as Ketamine Therapy, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, psilocybin therapy etc. discussing what the therapies are used for, mechanism of action, current data etc.
Essay discussing the causes of the opioid crisis and potential solutions based on evidence from what other countries have done to combat similar problems
Proposal for current high school to incorporate mental health screenings throughout the year for the upcoming year
What is so great about this type of application?
These portfolios give colleges a greater picture of what type of work (content and quality) each student has done, allowing them to analyze fit for their prospective program. The portfolios also encourage students to engage in high quality work. This high quality work mimics the type that is (or at least should be) done in college: long-term projects requiring a high degree of critical thinking, collaborative multi-faceted projects, and work that enables autonomy but has a real tangible impact.
How would this work in practice?
One of the biggest questions I receive around this method is “Okay, that sounds good, but how would that work? That would be so much work for admissions offices,” And there are two responses to that. First, even though we have for quite some time now, we should not bend the high school experience to meet the wishes of admissions departments. Second, the admissions departments would actually have less work. In this model admissions departments would not be receiving and reviewing applications. Professors would be the new reviewer of applications. At first this sounds like a whimsical ask of professors who already have a lot on their plate; however this would prove to be beneficial in the long run for them. First, the ask is surprisingly not as arduous as it would seem. After some “back of the envelope calculations” based on acceptance rates, applications, student faculty ratio etc. the typical profesor would only need to review somewhere between 20 and 30 applications. While this could mean the addition of an entire week of work for college professors, this cost would be outweighed by the increase in “fit” of students to their prospective school/program. While working on this piece, I interviewed multiple professors who explained that they have had to alter their freshman course curriculums in order to help “weed out” students who should not have been accepted. While this demonstrates a problem in and of itself, this “extra work” would be avoided if professors were the one’s admitting students. They would be looking at the work done by students, and decide whether or not that demonstrates the type of work/thinking required to succeed in that program. I would argue that this change is so imperative that even if it would have to be accompanied with a shortening of the semester in order to make up for the time spent combing through applications, it would be worth it. While this piece breaks nearly all conventions of writing - ending on the more controversial aspect of the proposed solution - it is crucial to analyze the plethora of benefits of this plan and openly discuss how this would occur and potential costs. And while the Portfolio model requires some perhaps unpopular changes up front, the long term benefits unequivocally outweigh the required changes.