More often than not, prospective students applying to college submit everything they can, from additional recommendation letters to additional essays and sometimes even gifts (no, the gifts won’t help you). When it comes to arts supplements, however, this “Why not?” type of thinking may actually hurt your application.
To help illustrate how submitting an arts portfolio may hurt you, let’s examine the process that the package is graded. We gained insight from a Cornell admissions officer on how they rank arts packages. The music recording or visual arts aren’t graded by the admissions officers themselves, but instead sent to the music department or respective professors who are experts in their fields. There, the work is graded on a scale from 1-4, with 4 being the highest. Attaining a 4 is extremely difficult and only given to the top of the top applicants, such as members of the National Youth Orchestra or equivalent level of skill. Your application will not be benefitted unless you are able to achieve a 3 or 4 rating; this is no easy task.
Different colleges have different rating systems, but generally the process of sending the materials to the appropriate departments is the same. Another college admissions officer noted that the arts portfolio should not be thought of as adding material that positively improves your application. Instead, it is just another angle in which you can be evaluated, and if the skill level demonstrated in the submission does not match your achievements then it may devalue your awards.
Let’s take a look at the thought process from an admissions officers’ perspective. How would I compare a student cellist who is first chair of a competitive high school orchestra, such as Stuyvesant High School, versus another student cellist who is first chair of a statewide orchestra of a less populous state like Alaska? Both achievements are impressive, but it is difficult to “rank” these two students, especially with variation in the skill level from year to year and potential politics that may take place in deciding who is first chair. An arts portfolio equalizes the playing field by letting this evaluation fall into the hands of a professor who has been teaching the subject for many years.
While you may be the first violinist of your high school orchestra, keep in mind that there are over 10,000 others with the same designation, and that is not including international prodigies. Generally, unless you believe you can achieve a top designation rating on your arts portfolio, the competition to be the “arts guy” in college admissions may be too intense to benefit your application and may detract from the on-paper awards you have achieved.