When 18-year-old Gillian Pelkonen was applying to colleges last winter, she made sure to send not only her carefully crafted college essay, résumé and list of extracurriculars, but also a digital portfolio, which included links to a few songs she produced on SoundCloud and a video with snippets from five of her high school play performances.
Now a freshman at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, she credits her acceptance to her eclectic application.
“I wanted to let colleges know that I wasn’t just sitting in the library all day studying, but that I was also engaging with my community and spending a lot of time acting and singing,” says Pelkonen. “During application season, our guidance counselors kept reminding us that there are thousands of supersmart kids applying to college, so you really needed to stand out among the crowd.”
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They were absolutely right. As admissions officers continually search for the most well-rounded students, digital portfolios have increasingly become a way for the most unique applicants to distinguish themselves.
It’s called “portfolio-based review,” says Alexis Bauserman, the vice president of college counseling at The Princeton Review, and it’s on its way to becoming the new trend in college admissions she says.
Unlike the standard college application, which consists of transcripts, essays,test scores and a 150-character-limit to describe extracurriculars, portfolios allow kids to showcase their creativity through photos, videos and clips of their work.
“Social media was the beginning of the conversation,” Bauserman explains. It was obvious that kids could be defined by their social realms, many of which existed online, and so the next question became: “How do we make our applications more relevant to who they are as people, and less static?”
While many colleges have yet to begin opening “digital lockers” for their applicants, students have found a way around this by choosing to share links to their work.
Christine Chu has witnessed this firsthand at IvyWise, an organization that provides admissions-counseling services to high school students. She mentioned one high schooler in a fusion band who included a YouTube clip of his music in his application.
“Technology enables students to show more, but I think it’s also that students are doing a lot more,” says Chu. “They are increasingly more connected, traveling more, and doing more interesting things, so there’s a need for them to share more information about what they do.”
It’s also way for them to craft their online persona and establish a strong digital footprint.
“After all, going to college isn’t just about going to college — it’s about preparing for your career,” says Bauserman. “I like the idea of high school students dipping their toes in and presenting their professional selves online. It’s an interesting turn in what’s happening.”