First Impressions: Online Portfolios Pack Punch

Helping students create digital professional profiles.
First Impressions: Online Portfolios Pack Punch

WHEN STUDENTS at the Naveen Jindal School of Management (JSOM) at the University of Texas at Dallas enroll in the required course Advanced Business Communication, most don’t realize that they’ll finish the semester with game-changing résumés.

During the class, each must complete a Professional Online Portfolio (POP), which could be the most persuasive piece of their job-hunting arsenal. As part of the course since it was first offered in fall 2013, the POP requires all soon-to-be graduating JSOM students to tackle oral presentations, teamwork, and technology, as well as learn to become more professionally savvy. Each semester, the course enrolls approximately 500 students in 14 sections.

In today’s job market, online portfolios have become crucial for business students, says McClain Watson, who directs the school’s business communication programs. He also teaches the course and developed the POP project. “How do employers get from 60 résumés to six?” he asks. “They Google your name.”

Students use free web platforms such as Wix, Weebly, or Moonfruit to create and host their POPs. Each POP must include a PDF of the student’s résumé, a video introduction to give employers a sense of the student’s verbal skills and poise, links to at least three class or work projects, a professional photo, contact information, and links to the student’s Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

Each POP also must include links to sources representing two professional or personal interests—perhaps a video from a study abroad trip or volunteer project, or a summary of an internship with photos of the student on the job. Although the type of POP content is prescribed, students have wide latitude in design and presentation.

By developing their POPs, students are able to better identify their strengths. “I didn’t think I’d have a lot to talk about, but that was hardly the case,” says Salik Shariff, a management information systems major who completed the class last year. “It allowed me to open up. It basically forced the shyness out of me.”

Just as important, students also take to heart the need for them to create—and manage—their online presence. Caleb Ward, a finance major who completed the class last spring, learned that “first impressions no longer happen when you shake someone’s hand, but when they Google your name to see if you may be a suitable applicant.”

There’s no requirement for their sites to stay live after the class is over, but most students keep them up, Watson says. Students direct potential employers to their POPs with links from their LinkedIn and Facebook profiles; they include links to them on business cards, cover letters, and résumés, and even in their text messages. Watson believes that these professional presentations give employers “a 360-degree sense of contributions” that students could make as employees, beyond their credentials to their communication skills and comportment.

“At the start of the assignment, students think it’s just a website,” Watson says. “As they work on it and see the potential value, they say, ‘This matters because it’s my name and my future.’”

For other faculty interested in starting similar projects for their students, Watson offers two pieces of advice. First, because most students don’t take Advanced Business Communications until their junior or senior years, freshmen and sophomores “must be told loudly and often to keep their projects, spreadsheets, PowerPoints, and other materials from semester to semester, so they have material to feature on their POPs,” says Watson. Otherwise, “many of them trash their files at the end of each semester, which leaves them unable to feature their best work.”

Second, POPs must be graded with the mindset that they belong to the students, not the professor. “We want students to own their POPs and not treat the project like ‘just another grade.’ This requires giving students a lot of leeway with what they do on the site,” says Watson. “We want them thinking like networking-minded professionals who are sharing their stories in the way they want to share them, not in the way the teacher wants them to be shared.” That can make grading a tricky balance between allowing students to express their personalities and assuring that their sites present them in a professional light.

With hundreds of thousands of business students graduating each year, “if all you have is a GPA, résumé, and cover letter, you might get lucky,” Watson says. “But you don’t want to have to rely on getting lucky.”

Jeanne Spreier is a member of the PR/Communications office at the Naveen Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas.