Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

How to Put Together a Portfolio For Your College Application

3 minute read


  1. Many Schools Now explicitly want to see student portfolios as a way of diversifying and college applications

  2. Don’t try to present your portfolio as a series of finished works. Instead, lean into the narrative that your skills have evolved and progressed over time

  3. Tools like Coalition for College are making it easier for students to compile a “digital locker” of material that can boost college applications

In our white paper on the data behind the Harvard Admissions Lawsuit, we traced the ascent of supplemental “portfolios” in college admissions. As a process of collecting and sharing creative works, portfolios have been used in professional fields like art, architecture, and design for centuries, to show “tangible evidence of accomplishments and skills that must be updated as a person changes and grows" [1].

Do Colleges Want to See Portfolios?

The widespread adoption of portfolios in college admissions accelerated rapidly after MIT’s introduction of Maker and Research Portfolios in 2013. This supplement gave MIT applicants a place to share details about an independent project—a computer program, a sculpture, a rocket—that otherwise may not have appeared on their applications. The program was a huge success by most measures, and many other schools followed suit. 

Here is just a small list of high-profile colleges that explicitly reference “Research Projects” in Supplementary Application Materials:

  • MIT

  • Yale

  • Columbia

  • Brown

  • Princeton

  • Dartmouth

  • UPenn

  • UChicago

  • Wesleyan

  • Bowdoin

In fact, these portfolios have become a crucial means of assembling a driven, diverse, and creative class of new students. Technological advancements have helped accelerate this change, allowing many schools to collect portfolio-style supplements. Organizations like the free college planning tool Coalition for College have standardized such material inputs as part of the admissions process, helping schools to perform holistic reviews of applicants through their research papers, creative pursuits, and passion projects. As of 2020-01, the Coalition, in use at 135 top schools, encourages applicants to include these types of materials in a digital “locker.” 

How to Build a Compelling Portfolio

Building a compelling portfolio, however, requires more than merely listing all activities a student did in high school. In order to craft a compelling narrative, an author needs to emphasize some things and remove others. “Think of portfolios as another mode of communication,” says Devin Dobrowolski, a practicing architect and formerly Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia and Director of the school's graduate architecture program. “Editing and composing them tells a clear story and can show confidence and clarity of thought.”  

Portfolio Example 1: Molly Miller’s Polygence project “Engineering Project on Wind Power Generation Utilizing Aerospace Transportation” and other engineering projects on her personal website. Molly is now a first year student at Stanford.

In his reviews of portfolios over the years, Dobrowolski frequently sees students try to present every project as a polished final product. The impulse is natural, but the results can be underwhelming. The most memorable examples, by contrast, often show the evolution of specific skills or creative thought processes, like a student who cited experience creating meals in a restaurant as the basis of their design language. Some of the best include instances of productive failure and resilience. “It’s not just evidence that you’re trying to get to the finish line to get accepted,” Dobrowolski explained, “but that you have the capacity to continue to thrive” after you’ve graduated. 

Portfolio Example 2: Matteo Farinacci’s Polygence project to create a digital creative portfolio with the help of his mentor Amira, who holds an MFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is an Adjunct Professor at Columbia College. “As I conclude my education I need to create a platform that represents all of my varied interests to present to potential universities and employers…In my portfolio I want the user to feel an organized flow while scrolling through the website. I plan to do this by seamlessly connecting my various interests into abstract categories based on the skills behind them.”

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What Makes For An Effective Portfolio?

While creating a compelling portfolio is, like so many things, a process honed over time through trial and error, there are still a number of steps anyone can follow to create edifying results. Pedagogical research has identified eight traits that define an effective portfolio [2]: 

  1. Self Reflection: Portfolios must involve personal reflection. Students need to look back on all their projects, recall occasions when they struggled, and, ideally, gain new clarity on what they must improve.

  2. Ownership: The portfolio is something that must be done by the student, not to them. Teachers or counselors can encourage students and give feedback but the student must themselves take the work seriously. 

  3. Curation: Project examples should be thoughtfully selected. An exhaustive list of all efforts defeats the purpose of the purpose of the exercise. 

  4. Clarity: Each featured project should have a clear rationale. What personal trait or belief does an individual project convey to the reviewer? Why did the student choose to work on that specific issue or idea? 

  5. Development: Building on the point above, these projects should show personal development when placed in the portfolio. It’s important for this reason that the selected examples are not all from the student’s final year of high school or university. When considered in succession, they should show increasing maturity.

  6. Growth: Similarly, the portfolio on the whole should illustrate intellectual growth. This means later project examples should tackle more sophisticated issues than earlier ones. 

  7. Focus: While not a requirement, more advanced students or those applying to specialized programs can select projects with a consistent focus or long-term goal.

  8. Precedent: Finally, strong portfolios are molded by example. There are many great resources for students to explore on this front. Admissions departments that accept portfolios often publish noteworthy examples This can also provide young people an opportunity to reach out to teachers, mentors, parents, or professionals in their fields of interest to ask for examples or even to listen to their career narratives. 

Admission Success and Portfolios

An emerging field of research indicates lots of potential benefits to students who engage in this kind of portfolio creation. Some studies show the positive influence of portfolios and the reflective practices they require of learners. If a student diligently engages in each of these steps, their portfolio can be a success even before they submit it to colleges. Creating a portfolio through the steps above can lead to a thoughtful accounting of the choices students made, reminding them of how their decisions led to where they are now. 

Research by business school professors Adam Galinsky and Laura Kray has explored how such moments provide opportunities for “counterfactual thinking” by asking college students to imagine how things might have turned out differently if they had gone to a different school [3]. This simple exercise made participants rate their college experience as more meaningful. They were more likely to endorse statements like coming to that college has “added meaning to my life,” and helped define who they were. 

Galinsky and Kray’s research suggests that reflecting on experience with this what-if mindset requires a greater investment in the “sense-making” process than merely thinking about the meaning of the experience. In other words, when we take the time to recognize how our past decisions have changed the course of our lives, we seem to strengthen an internal locus of control and thereby the feeling that we can positively influence the direction our lives will take in the future. 

From an admissions perspective, these kinds of portfolios are becoming increasingly common in the college application process. As noted above, hundreds of schools are adopting the digital lockers offered by Coalition for College or adding Research Portfolio supplements to their application criteria. An article from Blue Ivy Coaching, an academic consulting company, notes that students vying for competitive degrees “need portfolios for admission.” In addition to citing MIT’s maker portfolios for engineering students, they also list other examples where portfolio’s are crucial for admission: 

  • Columbia University’s Computer Science Program, for which strong applicants can submit a Maker Portfolio of up to 4 media items documenting their projects. 

  • NYU’s Game Design BFA, which requires students to submit a creative portfolio of 5 short essays or 1 or more creative projects. 

  • The Fashion Institute of Technology’s Toy Design program, to which applicants have submitted visual portfolio’s showcasing their design and problem solving skills. 

  • The Pratt Institute, which like most others creative professional degree granting schools requires portfolios for all applicants to the photography, fashion design, design, and architecture programs. 

All of these signals indicate that students applying to competitive programs or colleges will gain a significant advantage by crafting and submitting a portfolio documenting their creative and academic work. 


  1.  Tierney, Robert J, Mark A. Carter, and Laura E. Desai. Portfolio Assessment in the Reading-Writing Classroom. Christopher-Gordon Publishers 1991.

  2. This list is based on the rubric described in Paulson, F. Leon, Pearl R. Paulson, Carol A. Meyer. “What Makes a Portfolio a Portfolio? Eight thoughtful guidelines will help educators encourage self-directed learning.” Educational Leadership. Vol. 48. No. 5. Feb 1991, pp. 60-63.

  3. Galinsky, Adam D., Laura Kray. “From Thinking About What Might Have Been to Sharing What We Know: The Role of Counterfactual Mind-Sets in Information Sharing in Groups.” SSRN. 15 Apr 2002. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.305163

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