What Is a Digital Portfolio?

It is becoming more commonplace for parents to see the term “digital portfolio” on their child’s admission application. But what exactly is a digital portfolio? What does it consist of and what are the characteristics of one that leaves a lasting impression? 

From the student’s standpoint, a digital portfolio is nothing new. Many students are already familiar with this type of assignment and have the necessary skills to create content and presentations on their computer, phone, or tablet. For parents, however, it might not be as familiar. If you traveled back 15 years, you would never see the term “digital portfolio” on an application form. So how did the digital portfolio become a conventional method of evaluation in the modern era admission process? 

In the past, admission offices have relied on traditional methods of evaluating students, including interviews, teacher recommendations, student essays, transcripts, and standardized test scores. These methods all provide admission officers with valuable insights to holistically evaluate candidates. However, like most things, the admission process constantly evolves with regular changes to requirements, qualifications and application materials.

One of these changes involves standardized tests. At the college level, many major institutions have eliminated the SAT and ACT requirement. Earlier this year, all of the universities within the University of California college system voted voted unanimously to no longer require students to submit the SAT and ACT as part of their admission process. Similarly, many K-12 private and independent schools are taking note and reshaping their ideas about requiring standardized tests like the SSAT, PARC, and ISEE. 

Critics of standardized testing maintain that these tests favor students who can afford tutors, test-specific classes, and the support needed to attain higher scores. Consequently, this also means that these tests are unfavorable to students who do not have access to the extra help that leads to higher scores. Being aware of these inadequacies is the first step in making meaningful changes in the admission process. 

But haven’t these test scores been around forever? And don’t they demonstrate a student’s academic aptitude? Yes, standardized tests in schools have been around since 1901, but so has the systemic bias attached to these types of tests. And, yes, these tests do provide the admission teams a snapshot of a student’s academic ability, but so do transcripts, writing samples, and teacher recommendations. The question then becomes, if we can see the problems of standardized testing, how can we then replace it with something that is more useful and will provide meaningful data with which to evaluate a potential student? 

Tips for Creating an Effective Digital Portfolio

  • The amount of effort evident in a digital portfolio is key and makes an application stand out. Effort is easy to spot for an admission officer, so go the extra mile and do things like formatting the content to be easy to view.
  • Take advantage of easy-to-use and free tools like YouTube, Vimeo and Google Slides to host and share content
  • A website is also a great way to showcase your creativity and passion. Platforms like Wix.com allow you to create your own free website without knowing how to code 
  • Whatever platform you choose, be sure to set sharing permissions on assets so the Admission team is able to view the content
  • Maybe the best thing about the digital portfolio is that there is no wrong way to make one. It can truly be whatever you want it to be. 

Enter the digital portfolio. A digital portfolio is a collection of a student’s achievements, interests, and abilities. For a student, it is a powerful tool to showcase themselves in a creative, unique and personal way. For the Admission team, it allows us to see a student as the student sees themselves. Instead of relying only on grades, recommendations, and pre-planned interview questions, we now have a sharper lens into a student’s life and a perspective we would not be able to see during a one-hour interview or by reading a test score. New technology has given students an opportunity to make meaningful admission content that wouldn’t have been possible 15 years ago.

At Morristown-Beard School, the digital portfolio was introduced into the admission process in the 2018-2019 admission season. At the time, it was an optional opportunity for students. The 2020-2021 admission season has been different in a number of ways due to COVID-19. As a School, we decided to make standardized testing optional for this year. There were many reasons for this decision, some of them are mentioned above, but our main concern was safety for the students. Since we were not administering these standardized tests, we could not account for safety standards of testing sites, and we did not feel that it was necessary to put undue risk on students and their families to sit for these tests. Instead, in order to capture more information about an applicant, we made the digital portfolio a requirement.

The digital portfolio is obviously not an apples-to-apples comparison to a standardized test. It may not show problem solving or critical-thinking skills in the way a test may, but the opportunity to learn about a candidate from a range of submissions offers a very significant perspective. Remember, admission departments are experts when it comes to their school. They know the student body, the faculty, the programs, the history and future direction of the school. They also know what type of student would, and would not, be a good fit. This is where the digital portfolio really adds significant value. A digital portfolio shows us if there is alignment between the student and the school’s programs and culture and also adds that x-factor metric of, “Can we see this applicant at our school?” Of course, it is only one piece of an application, but an effective digital portfolio could move the needle for an applicant.

The digital portfolio will only become more prevalent as time goes on. As schools and universities are moving away from more conventional means of evaluation, they will need to find new ways to replace them. The digital portfolio is one of the first methods we have seen adapted to the new admission environment, but certainly it will not be the last. As the process evolves, there will be new and exciting ways for admission officers to evaluate applicants. For now, the digital portfolio is a good method to evaluate a student's passions, interests and activities that will ultimately display how they align to the schools’ ethos and values. 

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