Helpful Tips for Composing a Strong Portfolio

Evaluation Criteria

The readers of your portfolio are all experienced teachers of college composition, and when we evaluate the portfolios for placement, we use the learning outcomes of English 111 as the guide. Before submitting your portfolio, you should consider whether your writing demonstrates these outcomes.

The learning outcomes of English 111 are that students will:

  • Demonstrate an ability to write effectively for different contexts, audiences, purposes, and genres (particularly academic contexts, audiences, purposes, and genres) and demonstrate their awareness of audiences’ multiple perspectives.
  • Conduct research-based inquiries to explore their own ideas, to engage different perspectives, and to develop findings into sustained arguments.
  • Perform critical, close reading, making arguments using textual citation as evidence and demonstrating their understanding of the historical and cultural complexity of texts—how texts can be read differently in different rhetorical, historical, and cultural contexts.
  • Locate, evaluate, integrate, and cite secondary sources of information effectively and ethically, using appropriate academic citation methods.
  • Produce effectively organized writing that is stylistically appropriate and that meets conventional expectations for particular audiences in specific contexts, also showing evidence of careful proofreading and attention to mechanics that are appropriate to audience and context.
  • Reflect critically on their own composing practices and rhetorical decisions.

Suggestions from Portfolio Evaluators

We asked our portfolio evaluators to share some advice they would give to students who submit to the Portfolio Writing Program.

Be mindful of your tone and style.

Portfolio readers suggest that students need to show mature and insightful thinking and writing. They should also present themselves naturally, not artificially. Evaluators suggest that students should not be afraid to use “I,” and that “their own voice(s) should not be drowned by research.”

We encourage you to “write as yourself,” not as the student you think college professors want you to be. We look for evidence that you think about how you fit into the world, about how issues you write about relate to your personal situations (social, racial, gendered, economic, regional, religious, etc.). Instructors suggest repeatedly: “Consider your audience of portfolio readers. We’re real people who can see through stereotypic, immature arguments. We appreciate critical thinking and self-awareness in each piece, not just description.”

Portfolio evaluators are interested in what you think and see and how you see those things in relation to broader issues and concerns. Evaluators tell students to “think about how the pieces you write connect, and talk about them as a whole, not just as random pieces.” Also, “think seriously about ambiguities, feelings, and problems. Revise, rewrite and show that you are thinking about your audience.”

Be aware of the affordances of different genres. 

While a digital project is not required as part of your portfolio, digital and multimodal rhetoric is an integral part of English 111’s goals and outcomes. If digital projects (video, web sites, audio, blogs, etc.) are part of the work that you do, including it for your Writer’s Choice selection, or creating one of your other texts as a digital project may be helpful as part of the evaluation process. Remember that it is not enough to simply publish a text-only work as a piece of digital writing (for instance, an essay posted on a blog); rather, it is important to keep in mind and use the affordances that a different genre can offer as a way of strengthening your argument, demonstrating an important concept, reaching a particular audience, or other rhetorical considerations. If you include a digital project, you may choose to use some of the space in your portfolio to describe your project and the choices that you made within it.

Consider submitting a variety of genres.

It is helpful to demonstrate ability in more than one genre. In years past, portfolios consisting of only one genre, such as all literary analyses or all personal narratives, have not been rated as highly as portfolios that are mixed genres. Thus, if your Persuasive Research Essay is based upon a literary text, you might consider a rhetorical analysis of a political speech, for instance, as your Analysis of a Text, and a short video project for your Writer’s Choice. By varying the types of genres you submit, you demonstrate ability in a range of areas, thus strengthening the potential to receive higher scores from evaluators.

Avoid using college application essays.

While it may be tempting to reuse an essay that was successful in another context, the essays that are usually written for college applications tend to be general overviews of personal and academic experiences that do not effectively speak to the criteria for the Portfolio Writing Program. Even when an essay like this is well written, "The college application essay does not tend to add to a portfolio in a meaningful way, as the audience, purpose, and genre do not significantly demonstrate a writer’s ability within the context of the requirements of the first-year composition courses at Miami."

Remember the importance of the reflective letter.

The most common advice our raters suggest concerns the reflective letter. This initial piece is obviously an important part of the portfolio, much more than just a cover letter. Part of what we mean when we say “reflective” is that we want you to situate yourself for your readers. Reflect on how your own positioning (e.g., in terms of race, class, gender, etc.) influence your writing. Describe the audiences and purposes for each of your texts that you have selected and how you drafted and revised your work to best meet the rhetorical contexts to which you write. One evaluator insists, “Give much more attention to the reflective letter. It should be reflective (many were not) and interesting,” and “go beyond simple summary of what is in the collection. Reflect on how the pieces reveal something about you as a writer and how they are connected.” The reflective letter sets the tone for the whole portfolio and creates a first and lasting impression. Many successful letters strike a balance between confidence and humility; many show awareness of strengths and limitations, as well as awareness that writing has consequences (beyond getting credit for English 111 at Miami).

Use the full 6–12 page single-spaced allotment.

We strongly urge you to take full advantage of the page limit and develop your pieces fully. All evaluators notice whether or not a student’s portfolio has enough “substance.” With this in mind, we ask that students use the page limit and make it work. Longer portfolios (that stay within the page limit) tend to offer analysis and discuss the complexity of issues. Exceptionally brief portfolios rarely earn placement credit because they do not fully develop, support, and sustain a writer’s position.

Develop your writing with specific detail.

Use many details, examples, and illustrations to develop and explain your points. Readers prefer concreteness to vagueness and showing to telling. When appropriate, use dialogue and narrative examples and scenes to help develop your work. As one rater suggests, “Look at a lot of examples in our Example Portfolios and try to figure out why they are good pieces. Usually, it’s not because of the topic but because of how the writer develops the topic.”

Maintain a connection to your project's audience and aim.

Be aware of “hot button” topics and make sure you can take them on in a way that is focused and thoughtful. Also, when using outside sources, work from your own viewpoint instead of simply retelling other peoples’ ideas. When you use outside sources, be sure to use proper in-text documentation and to have properly formatted Works Cited or References pages, so readers know that you know how to give appropriate credit to other writers when you use their ideas.

Be creative.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Include pieces in a variety of styles if possible. Portfolio evaluators say, “forget formulas” emphasizing that “a good five-paragraph theme has no greater chance than a good paper with any other structure… Life is too short to cram into five paragraphs!” Several raters have mentioned that they want a writer to “take chances, use humor—show different sides of yourself! Take time to ask yourself: ‘How can I make this more interesting? More engaging?’ and then take time to revise. No one wants to be bored.”

Revise your portfolio carefully.

Most professional writers see revision as going well beyond changing words and correcting grammar. Give yourself plenty of time to spend reading and re-reading your work, thinking of ways to offer fresher examples and more compelling arguments. Revising also means considering your audience: “Go over your pieces and ‘re-see’ them for this audience and situation.”

Value appearance and correctness.

Of course content is most important, but after taking the time to do the writing, you need to spend time polishing and correcting the work. Both spell check and get a trusted person to proofread. Give pieces titles, number pages, and use a legible, plain typeface or font. Remember the formatting guidelines—use a 12-point font, single-space your documents, and use one-inch margins.