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Insider Tips for Preparing an Art and Design Portfolio

A few tips to consider when compiling a college admission art portfolio, so that you might give it the "wow factor" the admission office is looking for.

Submitting a college application is stressful enough, but if you’re interested in majoring in an art or design field, you’ll also need to compile samples of your work into a portfolio.

Most art and design programs require a collection of your best work along with the usual college application to give the college admission office insights into your artistic strengths and interests and for merit or talent scholarship consideration.

Here are a few tips to consider when compiling a portfolio so that you might give it the “wow factor” a college admission office is looking for.

Start at the beginning

If you are staring at a pile of art and design projects with no idea where to start, you’re not alone. Take a deep breath and start at the beginning. Find 10–20 pieces that highlight all-around abilities and show your personality and willingness to dedicate time to a project. The pieces selected must be original ideas, not “borrowed” or copied from others’ works.

When deciding which pieces to include, look at your work as a group: What can each contribute to the portfolio? What does each communicate to the reviewer? Does the piece showcase a skill set? Order is important too: The first piece in the portfolio should make a strong statement and set the tone for the rest of the presentation. The following pieces should show ability, with the most expressive works placed in the middle. Once the pieces have been selected and arranged, make sure everything is labeled properly and easy to read.

Ask for help and be open to the advice

The portfolio should only include your best work. Remember, more is not necessarily better. Ask teachers, colleagues, and friends for their opinion on the portfolio before it’s submitted. It’s tough to judge your own work, so don’t be shy about asking for help.

Most colleges encourage in-person preliminary portfolio reviews during the junior or senior year of high school. It’s a great opportunity to share your art projects and ask for guidance on pieces to include in a portfolio. And the college you’re interested in or a college near you may offer a course on portfolio development for high school students. Also consider attending a National Portfolio Day event, where 50–70 colleges are typically represented. You’ll have a chance to ask questions and receive informal portfolio reviews.

Give ’em what they want

You should know the portfolio requirements for each college to which you want to apply. A portfolio for one college most likely cannot be used again for another college. Many schools want to see at least one drawing from life since nearly all art and design colleges require such classes. Some schools want to see a certain number of works affiliated with your chosen major. All like the works to be recent. Fortunately, plenty of resources exist for students to create a portfolio that will boost confidence in current skills and pave the way to a life in art and design.

When it’s time to submit the portfolio, be sure to follow all submission guidelines and never miss a deadline. If you have questions about the submission guidelines, call the college. It’s better to ask than to have your portfolio disqualified. Even if you’re in a time crunch, it is worth the time and effort to ensure the pieces selected are arranged well and professionally presented—it may mean the difference between the application being accepted or rejected.

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