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Tips to make an art portfolio for college

What should be in an art school application portfolio? How do you present a portfolio? What gives you the best chance of being accepted by the art school of your dreams? This article explains how to make an art portfolio for college or university and is packed with tips from leading art and design school admissions staff from around the world. It is written for those who are in the process of creating an application portfolio for a foundation course, certificate, associate or undergraduate degree and contains advice for specific art-related areas, such as Architecture, Fine Art, Graphic Design, Illustration, Interior Design, Animation, Game Design, Film and other creative, visual art-based courses. It is presented along with art and design portfolio examples from students who have recently gained acceptance to a range of art schools from around the world, creating a 9,000 word document that helps guide you through the application process.

What is an art school application portfolio?

In addition to meeting academic requirements, Art and Design Schools, Universities and Colleges typically require a practical art portfolio as part of the application process (this is often accompanied by a personal statement and/or an art school interview – more on this soon). So what is this?

The University of the Arts London gives the following definition of an application portfolio:

A portfolio is a collection of your work, which shows how your skills and ideas have developed over a period of time. It demonstrates your creativity, personality, abilities and commitment, and helps us to evaluate your potential.

Just as every art student is different (with individual strengths, experiences, passions and ideas) every art school has different requirements and expectations. While some universities and colleges have strict criteria when it comes to preparing a portfolio, others are open and flexible. This variation in expectations can leave students uncertain about how to proceed. Even when criteria is clear, applicants may feel overwhelmed and wonder what to draw/paint/make/create, which mediums to use and how to best select and present their work.

Producing an art portfolio is not to be taken lightly. Top art schools often accept very small percentages of applicants. Understanding how to produce a great portfolio is crucial. Although it is impossible to generate a list of criteria that are appropriate for all applicants in every circumstance (there is unfortunately no guaranteed magic formula for creating a winning art portfolio) this article highlights tips from experienced admissions staff and makes general recommendations to help you produce the best university or art college application possible.

A step-by-step guide to creating an art portfolio for college or university

Research carefully and record the art portfolio requirements for a number of courses that interest you

Deciding which art or design school is for you is a big decision (our upcoming article ‘how to find the best art school in the world’ will help with this). While you consider your options, it is advisable to apply to a number of different schools, in case you are not accepted into your first choice. There is no shame in applying to college or university and not getting in (many highly successful individuals are not accepted into their university of first choice); but being left with no place to go because you didn’t apply to enough schools is an easily avoidable circumstance!

Create a list of art or design schools that you would be prepared to attend and find their admissions criteria (you can search for art schools in California and New Zealand on this website – more areas coming soon). All university and college art portfolio requirements are different. Record the exact admissions requirements carefully, well in advance, as deadlines can be earlier than you expect and portfolios take a long time to prepare. Print these out, highlight key information and keep on-hand, so that you can refer to them as needed throughout the application process.

In particular, keep careful records of:

  • Open Day times
  • Application and Portfolio due date/s. If you are currently studying Art at high school, check how the portfolio due dates compare to your own coursework deadlines and exam timetable. In some cases there may be issues with work needing to be in two places at one (i.e. submitted for assessment at high school and delivered to an art school in hardcopy at the same time). This occurs particularly for students studying international qualifications or applying to art schools in different countries, so you need to prepare for this in advance. Mark the deadlines of the schools that you are applying to clearly on your calendar.
  • Size and format of work required
  • Whether only finished pieces are expected, or whether sketchbooks, development and process work are also welcome (some schools require only finished pieces, particularly in the US; others love to see development work as well).
  • Whether submissions are digital, hardcopy reproductions or original artwork. If copies of work must be sent in, find out whether these should be colour photocopies, slides or photographs etc. Find out whether there are specific criteria for time based media (animation/moving image/video/interactive website design and so on).
  • Labelling and presentation requirements. Many art schools have precise portfolio presentation requirements, with work labelled or identified in certain formats, with details about titles, dates and materials used, for example. Digital portfolio submission may use online tools such as SlideRoom.
  • Whether there are special requirements for international or out-of-state applicants. If you are applying from another location, there may be special application criteria for you. For example, some colleges may accept international portfolios via email, instead of delivered in person.
  • Whether supplementary material is needed, for example, a personal statement or written essay (more on this soon). Art schools typically have academic requirements set by the university or college as a whole, which may require a separate application form and a different deadline. You may also be asked to submit images of work or objects that have influenced your work or teacher recommendations, testimonials or reports (only include these if specifically requested).
  • Requirements about what to draw / include. Many art and design schools leave applicants free to select what to include within their portfolio. Unless specifically stated, the portfolio should contain primarily visual artwork, not art history assignments, artist analysis or extensive annotation. You may have to submit a combination of personal artwork, work produced in high school classes and/or ‘home tests’, exams or assignments set by the art school you are applying to. In the RISD application portfolio, for example, applicants must respond to three set assignments, such as ‘observe and draw a bicycle, or an interior space’.