Advice for aspiring Computer Science and Engineering Majors

The notion of a holistic application process that includes work samples or a full-blown portfolio has long been common practice in schools of architecture, the visual arts, and music. On the other hand, the STEM fields have traditionally stuck to the “meat and potatoes” of the application, selecting applicants mainly on the basis of high test scores and academic achievement.

A shift occurred in 2013, when MIT launched so-called Maker Portfolios—an addendum to the application that highlighted “technical creativity” as evidenced by “one project completed outside of school, internships, work, or extracurricular activities.In the first two years of its existence, over 1,000 of the roughly 20,000 applicants to MIT elected to submit Maker Portfolios. Not only does this number continue to rise at MIT but now the Maker Portfolio is becoming an increasingly important part of the application process at other selective schools with top CS and engineering departments. (side note — to see our lists of top colleges for CS and various engineering disciplines, visit our Dataverse)

Which schools consider Maker Portfolios?

It’s a growing list, but many of the nation’s most selective engineering and computer science programs are encouraging applicants to submit supplementary “maker” materials. MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Tufts, and Washington University in St. Louis all now encourage applicants to submit a Maker Portfolio. While this practice is likely to spread in the coming years at highly-selective colleges and universities, it is unlikely to become commonplace at larger and/or less selective institutions. Materials of this nature take a significant amount of time to review, and resource-strapped admissions offices are already pressed for time. In the case of a school like UCLA that receives 100,000+ applications each year, such individualized attention simply may never be feasible.

What if I haven’t built anything amazing yet?

Mozart wrote his first symphony at eight years old. Bobby Fischer was a chess grandmaster at fifteen. Relative late bloomer, Blaise Pascal invented the calculator at the ripe old age of nineteen and was still waitlisted at Carnegie Mellon…okay, just kidding on the last part.

Most teenagers, even those brilliant enough to be serious candidates for admission at the likes of MIT have not yet invented an app that will change the world or uncovered a genetically engineered food product that will solve world hunger. Your best accomplishments in life lay ahead of you and trust us, colleges know this. Therefore, it is okay to showcase a website that you are still working on or even an invention that you tinkered with that ultimately failed. What matters is that you demonstrate your passion for making things and your desire to be an energetic problem-solver.

When should I create a Maker Portfolio?

We recommend that you start thinking seriously about your project during your junior year. If you are someone whose passion is computer science or engineering, you are probably already engaged in “maker” activities whether it’s through a coding club at your high school or a competitive robotics team. Begin to brainstorm how what you love to do could best be communicated to an admissions committee through this medium. Starting early will also give you a chance to document the visual evidence of the early stages of whatever you’re building, which will come in handy when it’s time to create a portfolio.

What does a good Maker Portfolio look like?

The first criteria worth digesting is that your Maker Portfolio is not going to be a three-hour marathon like Godfather II or Spartacus. You are aiming for more like a 3-5 minute attention-grabbing sprint (time limits vary by institution), more in the vein of a polished music video or a gone-viral sneezing panda on YouTube.

Our first example is from an application to MIT. In this video, the applicant first expresses why he is passionate about using coding to solve problems, and then shows the viewer websites that he has created toward this aim. Note that this “maker” does a fantastic job of telling a story in a succinct and engaging way through simple text with a visual accompaniment.

Tufts, very kindly, has selected two sample Maker Portfolios for us that wowed their admissions committee.  In the first, an applicant explains a problem she sought to solve: visually impaired individuals had a difficult time telling their currency apart. Then, she explains how she went about solving the problem through technology. The second sample also deals with creating devices for people with disabilities but instead of a video, the applicant shared presentation boards along with a detailed narrative to explain her role in these impressive creations.

Key Takeaways
  • Portfolios are no longer solely the realm of prospective art and architecture students. They are becoming more common for CS and engineering applicants at elite schools.
  • Don’t worry if what you have “made” is incomplete, a failure, or simply not earth-shattering. You are demonstrating not only your skills as a maker but also, in MIT’s own words, “how you learn, create, and problem-solve in an unstructured environment.”
  • Start brainstorming prior to senior year so you a) plan your “maker” narrative, and b) begin to visually document important steps in your process.
  • Look at examples of successful Maker Portfolios to guide you. The examples that we provided will give you a taste of the format, subject matter, and the various ways to tell a compelling story.
Andrew Belasco

A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.