Student Projects and College Admissions

A group of researchers within the ranks of college admissions is calling for changes to the admissions process that would emphasize the review of student projects.

The initiative is called, ‘Reimagining College Access’ and is a joint project of the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and the Education Counsel, a Washington based consulting firm, with the intent of determining ‘more complex gauges of student learning’ to better determine ‘admissions, course placement, and advising.’  

Consequently,  three task forces have been enlisted  to create standards so that universities can quickly ‘judge the quality of portfolios’, develop an existing network of universities with solid criteria to assess submissions, and ‘create an online space’ to store student work.

The assumption behind this movement is that current admissions criteria do not sufficiently measure applicant capabilities

It’s true that a big leap occurs between high school and college. In high school teachers generally teach to the test and the job of the student is to absorb the material. Unfortunately, that is not what colleges or the world of work is looking for among promising candidates. Both want highly motivated workers with substantial initiative and creativity who will make substantive contributions to whatever they undertake.  

At a meeting a month ago, the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and Stanford Professor of Education Linda Darling-Hammond provided a sample of a proposed project evaluation for admissions consideration. On the first page was a summary sheet of the student’s application: GPA, test scores, class rank, and key activities. Additionally, there was space for a quick evaluation summary of the performance assessment: ‘advanced,’ ‘developing,’ or ‘proficient’ for each of the student’s performance assessments (there can apparently be more than one). 

Clicking on an icon on the first page would allow a reviewer to watch videos of the assessment, such as the student actually presenting a project to an inquiring panel of judges. 

Already schools statewide in New Hampshire, a consortium of schools in New York, and California’s Envision Schools, which incorporates project-based learning, require student project assessments and the defense of the projects before panels of teachers and students. 

While Stu Schmill, the dean of admissions at MIT, posited that applicants can already submit ‘maker portfolios’ with their applications, he mentioned that he’d review the proposal of LPI as it continued through the vetting process. 

One issue among the admissions professionals was that such a system for submissions of ‘students’ projects’ already exists.  The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, with a membership of 130 elite institutions offers students a ‘virtual locker’ in which to save important projects developed throughout high school. Moreover, these students might share these projects with member schools to gain feedback as to the appropriateness and applicability of their efforts. 

For those highly motivated students there are contests aplenty to demonstrate special talents. In history there is the Concord Review, which encourages adept students to submit annotated essays on whatever historical topic they wish. For the sciences there is the Google and Siemen-Intel Science Fairs. For the artistic, who already have to submit a portfolio of work for admission evaluation, there is Scholastic or the CSSSA programs to develop and demonstrate talent.   

A second issue was if such projects should remain voluntary or be required across the entire applicant pool.  Some students hold up well under inquiries from judges, others might not have the fortitude to do as well.  Sometimes interviews are tools to detect student confidence and people skills. Now, making and defending a project will become a deciding factor. 

Projects are a way of demonstrating capabilities and competencies that might not be otherwise discovered.  Whether making them mandatory and universal improves the admissions process is anyone’s guess, but it might warrant a try.