For art students applying to college, a lot hinges on a portfolio. Schools will look straight to the portfolio to get an idea of a student’s potential, what they have to say, and how far along they are in developing their ability to say it. Students with an outstanding academic record will be at a competitive disadvantage in the application process if their portfolio needs work. There are a few things you can do to make sure you are preparing – and using – your portfolio the right way.

What is a Portfolio?

It’s worth going back to the bare bones and simply reinforcing what a portfolio is. A portfolio demonstrates your technical ability and your artistic vision. It doesn’t necessarily show a school what you have made or what you can make: It should show a school what you have the potential to make and whether you are on the right track to realizing your artistic vision and even growing past it. With that in mind, don’t worry about including perfect works or necessarily the best works; it’s not a gallery exhibition, it’s an academic tool. Your portfolio is your work. “Show your work,” per the old mathematics idiom.

The Two Essential Parts of a Portfolio

Consider your portfolio in two parts. The first part should demonstrate the skills you have developed and are developing: drawing, painting, ability with color, for example – the skills required for your particular medium. Your portfolio should include 5 – 10 works that achieve this.

The next part should show your progress through a single creative theme or idea – it should show you pushing, mastering, even struggling with it. This will hopefully include at least one work that you feel represents you as an artist right now. It can be something you would consider exhibiting! This part of your portfolio should include 10 – 15 works. You might create 20 – 40 works on this theme or idea and then choose the ten (or so) that represent the best works and also represent the process and your progress through it to include in your portfolio.

What Your Portfolio Should Do

Though your portfolio should have two parts, keep in mind that some schools will want to see more of one part or the other. That’s why it’s important not to send the same portfolio to each school. Your portfolio should represent you, of course; but it should also represent where you fit in the schools you’re choosing. 

To achieve that, a portfolio needs to be tailored, at least a little (but not too much). Research the schools you’re interested in and learn what they look for in portfolios, what they’re looking for in new students. You can even learn who may be reviewing your portfolio. Building your portfolio and tailoring it for the application is where a college counselor dedicated to art students or with a strong background in the arts can be a great resource and a valuable ally.

About the author

Grace received a BFA from Tufts University and specializes in working with students interested in fine arts, visual arts, architecture and landscape architecture. Grace worked in admissions at Maine College of Art as well as the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, and is the director of an art gallery in Massachusetts, in addition to working with AcceptU students.

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