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Authentic Student Work in College Admissions: Lessons From the Ross School of Business

By Larkin Willis Monica Martinez
High school student pointing to a chart on a whiteboard.

As part of efforts to create more effective and equitable admission systems, a growing number of colleges and universities are developing holistic review practices. Such practices involve “consideration of multiple, intersecting factors—academic, nonacademic, and contextual—that enter the mix and uniquely combine to define each individual applicant.” Admission professionals have come to recognize the potential of widening the admission criteria beyond standard academic measures—such as high school transcripts, grade point average, and summative scores on college entrance exams. More holistic measures can help them understand student contexts, mindsets, and “college-ready” competencies, such as higher-order thinking skills, effective communication, productive collaboration, and intellectual curiosity.

To develop holistic review processes, admission professionals are changing the ways they structure applications for undergraduate admissions. This case study examines how the Stephen M. Ross School of Business (Ross School) at the University of Michigan requests, collects, and reviews portfolios of student work along with traditional application materials. The first section presents the rationale for the new holistic review process, the second shares insights the portfolios provide the Ross School, and the third details how admission professionals at the Ross School built it. The case illuminates the use of student-generated portfolios as one possible model for other higher education systems seeking to evolve their holistic admission processes.

University of Michigan Ross School of Business

The Ross School is a professional school within the University of Michigan, which U.S. News & World Report ranks among the best public state university systems in the nation. In addition to its graduate-level offerings, the Ross School offers a top-ranked Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA).

In fall 2016, the Ross School changed its undergraduate application to include a student-created admissions portfolio. The Ross School developed the admissions portfolio to meet four key objectives for holistic review:

  1. To differentiate academically indistinguishable applicants
  2. To attract and select applicants who are intentional about business school
  3. To assess readiness for an action-based pedagogy
  4. To widen the range of experiences students can include in their application to capture multiple forms of excellence

The Ross Admissions Portfolio consists of two components: a Business Case Discussion and an Artifact. The Business Case Discussion is a 500-word essay designed to capture an applicant’s understanding of business. Applicants must identify and pose a solution to a business-related issue that is personally meaningful. The Artifact is a 250-word essay that accompanies a multimedia file meant to demonstrate how an applicant has applied prior learning. Submissions include academic projects, extracurricular or community programs, newspaper articles or awards highlighting an achievement, personal blogs or websites, or photographs representing meaningful experiences within or beyond high school. Every first-year applicant to the BBA program is required to create a Ross Admissions Portfolio in addition to the undergraduate application materials required by the University of Michigan.

Building the Class: Insights From Portfolio Review

The admissions portfolio has supported the Ross Undergraduate Admissions team to advance its four key objectives.

The Ross Admissions Portfolio helps the admissions team attract and select applicants who are intentional about business school by providing an opportunity to demonstrate in detail their intentions for pursuing a business degree, rather than drafting a general statement of interest. Current students reported that the Ross Admissions Portfolio provided valuable insight into program culture, pedagogy, and community that attracted them to apply.

The Business Case Discussion provides insight that helps the Ross Undergraduate Admissions team understand applicants’ business mindsets, defined collaboratively with BBA faculty and students. The best submissions demonstrate cognitive skills including clarity of writing, problem definition, problem-solving, and content knowledge, in addition to intrapersonal skills including self-awareness and the ability to draw personal connections to a topic.

The Artifact captures a range of learning experiences that occur within and beyond the classroom walls—such as bench science, research papers, performing arts, and community service projects—that helps the Ross Undergraduate Admissions team understand the learning habits and mindsets that applicants would bring into the action-based pedagogy of the program. The best submissions describe learning experiences that engage skills needed for college success, such as self-awareness, motivation, goal setting, persistence, problem-solving, collaboration, and leadership.

The Ross Admissions Portfolio adds context to their review, which the Ross Undergraduate Admissions team uses to inform holistic decisions about building a diverse and inclusive class. Application readers noted that transcripts and lists of extracurricular activities often reflect systemic disparities by emphasizing what applicants from under-resourced high schools with limited opportunities lack. The admissions portfolio enables applicants to demonstrate their interests and skills across a broader range of topics and experiences, which helps level the playing field and create a fuller picture of applicants’ individual strengths.

The admissions portfolio enables applicants to demonstrate their interests and skills across a broader range of topics and experiences, which helps level the playing field and create a fuller picture of applicants’ individual strengths.

The admissions portfolio enables applicants to demonstrate their interests and skills across a broader range of topics and experiences, which helps level the playing field and create a fuller picture of applicants’ individual strengths.

Building the System: Processes and Capacity for Portfolio Review

The Ross undergraduate admission process comprises three stages. First, the University of Michigan’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions identifies competitive students through the general admission process. Second, the Ross Undergraduate Admissions team further differentiates the most competitive applicants in a rubric-centric review. Final admission decisions are based on a culmination of these evaluations.

The Ross Undergraduate Admissions team developed and implemented the admissions portfolio in six steps.

Step 1: Align the portfolio to central admission processes. The Ross Undergraduate Admissions team created a process that incorporates additional evaluations without altering the application deadlines, review timeline, decision release, and deadline to accept applicants set by the University of Michigan Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

Step 2: Establish technological capacity. In the first year of implementation of the Ross Admissions Portfolio, the Ross School received nearly 5,000 Artifacts, including documents, images, videos, and audio files. The Information and Technology team uses SlideRoom to accept these pieces of media and then imports and transfers submissions to the application management system.

Step 3: Develop rubrics. To ensure reliable qualitative review, the Ross Undergraduate Admissions team developed rubrics with clear criteria and detailed performance indicators. The rubrics align with skills and mindsets students need to flourish in the Ross program and community—including critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and curiosity.

Step 4: Build reader capacity. The Ross School director of undergraduate admissions hires, trains, and coordinates a team of 20 to 25 short-term contractual professionals who apply rubrics to evaluate applications. Prior to the application reading cycle, all Ross application readers undergo calibration training. During the cycle, the Ross Admissions Review Committee moderates scoring to ensure the rubrics are reliably applied for fair evaluations.

Step 5: Conduct outreach. The Ross School engages prospective applicants through its admission website, public blogs, admission events, and opportunities to connect one-on-one with admission professionals and current students to demystify what makes an admissions portfolio successful.

Step 6: Iterate. During the first year of implementation in 2016, every submission was carefully reviewed by the Ross Admissions Review Committee to determine whether submissions met the goals and to identify adjustments needed to the guidance provided to students.

Summary of Key Findings and Implications

The 2022 Reimagining College Access tool, Performance Assessments in College Admission: Designing an Effective and Equitable Process, outlined a set of four recommended practices for those seeking to implement an admissions portfolio system:

  1. Know your “why” for requesting different and/or additional information.
  2. Determine which artifacts to request, choosing artifacts that will convey the desired information in the most usable format.
  3. Craft and refine an “ask” that is clear about expectations and intended use, while providing supports for students to be able to understand the goals and expectations of the portfolio.
  4. Conduct outreach and communicate the request to guidance and college counselors, students, and families to ensure all students and the adults supporting them know about this opportunity.

The Ross School experience demonstrates how college admission officers can put these practices into action and achieve the goals of capturing additional differentiating information about applicants and building a more diverse class. Through the development and implementation process, the Ross School took several key steps that supported this success:

  • The Ross School intentionally developed its admissions portfolio to solicit targeted information associated with student success in the undergraduate program. For instance, the Business Case Discussion solicits demonstrations of problem-solving, clarity of writing, problem definition, and content knowledge, which is aligned with the Ross School curriculum.
  • The Ross School implemented the admissions portfolio review within the overall undergraduate admission timeline and processes for the University of Michigan. Working within the existing structure allowed the school to add components without requiring university-wide change and buy-in, which could have slowed or stopped implementation.
  • The Ross School has invested in building reader capacity to conduct a holistic review of application materials. Ross application readers exercise the same skill set as essay readers and do not require subject matter expertise. However, the Ross School director of undergraduate admissions hosts annual calibration trainings, monthly meetings, and ongoing moderation reports to ensure each application receives careful, rubric-based holistic review. Investing in reader training allows the Ross School to have confidence in the reliability of the holistic review ratings.
  • The Ross School supports applicants in understanding the purpose and nature of the admissions portfolio. The Ross Undergraduate Admissions team conducts extensive outreach and provides information, criteria, and examples to demonstrate what makes an admissions portfolio successful and support students to apply. Educating applicants helps level the playing field among applicants and helps students produce portfolios that demonstrate the qualities that the Ross School seeks to evaluate.
  • The Ross School assessed implementation and made changes based on data. By assessing the admissions portfolios, the Ross Undergraduate Admissions team was able to make changes to its guidance for students, which resulted in stronger and better-targeted submissions. Former Ross Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs Lynn Perry Wooten encouraged other large public systems to execute a small change and then iterate. She added, “Once you start, success breeds success.”

The Ross Admissions Portfolio shows a promising example of what it takes to move beyond standard application processes that require applicants to represent themselves in a formulaic way. Additionally, this case study shows the vision, careful planning, and continuous improvement required for a higher education institution to successfully adapt existing admission processes to balance the efficiency of a standard review with the depth of a qualitative portfolio review.

Authentic Student Work in College Admissions: Lessons From the Ross School of Business by Larkin Willis and Monica R. Martinez is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Funding for this report was provided by the Stuart Foundation and Walton Family Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.