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By: Scott Cline on June 29th, 2017

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Top 10 Tips for Creating the Best Art Portfolio

Graduate Programs | Portfolio | For Undergraduates

You've decided to get serious about art school. But before you can prepare for an exciting journey that will hone your skills and push you to achieve things you never thought possible, you've got to take an important first step in the admission process: creating your portfolio.

After reviewing countless student portfolios, we wanted to offer some tips for compiling your portfolio. This advice will help you create a portfolio that showcases your technical, creative, and conceptual abilities and separates you from other applicants.

1. Read the criteria closely

Every school has its own set of requirements for a portfolio. Take a close look at what each school you apply for is requesting from applicants - how many pieces, what format, when it’s due, and so on. Make sure your portfolio submission meets every requirement.

2. Organize examples effectively

The way you arrange the different pieces in your portfolio reflects on your presentation skills and thought process. If you are conscientious about the order in which your work is presented, admissions counselors will be able to better understand your work’s narrative and focus on your skill set.  

3. Write clear, concise labels

Most art schools want some basic information about selections in your portfolio. A title, date, and description of the medium are standard. If more information is requested, elaborate without being excessive.

4. Be ready to discuss each piece

Whether it's during an interview, a portfolio presentation, or even in an email, you may have to answer questions or explain parts of your work. You don't need to memorize the details of each selection, but it won't hurt to revisit the works and remember their creation process. This is especially important if you're including works from years ago.

5. Tell stories

Showcasing your technical ability is important, but you should also include works in your portfolio that show your storytelling skills. Think about the deeper meaning of each example. If you can tie this meaning to a specific experience or unique attribute that sets you apart from other applicants, even better.

6. Don’t get hung up on quantity

As long as you generally meet the minimum requirements mentioned in the school’s application, you shouldn't be overly concerned about how many works are in your portfolio. More pieces could help, but not at the expense of your standards of quality.

7. Get outside advice

Creating an art portfolio makes you think a lot about your own work. It's easy to get boxed in by your perception and let it cloud your judgment. Seeking advice and opinions on your work from a trusted advisor will broaden your perspective and help you see your portfolio in a new light. Attending a National Portfolio Day in your area is a great way to get input on your portfolio.

8. Showcase your technical ability

Technical skills are what allow an artist to communicate the message or meaning of a piece. They also give admissions counselors a sense of your potential. Art schools understand that young students still have growing and learning to do, but they also want to see a foundational level of technique that can be developed in school.

9. Don't choose cliché examples

Your portfolio should include pieces that art schools won't see from every other applicant. One type of work we see in portfolios often are still lifes – while pictures of fruit or flowers can show technical ability, they’re unlikely to tell a story or have a “concept”. You should include them, just include some other examples along with them.

10. Show how you'd like to develop

Art schools know that even the best-qualified applicants still have a lot of learning to do, and they appreciate prospective students who have a sense of direction. It's not required, but if there are areas you'd like to direct your future art career towards – animation or graphic design, for example – include these kinds of pieces in your portfolio. If acceptable, explain these focus areas and why you chose them.

Your portfolio shows art schools that you are a creative, well-rounded, technically capable artist. If you take your time, edit carefully, and seek outside help, you can compile a wonderful portfolio that shows off your abilities and helps you get into the art school of your dreams.

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About Scott Cline

Dr. Scott Cline is vice president of enrollment at California College of the Arts, where he leads the financial aid and undergraduate admissions offices. He has worked at CCA for over six years, previously as director and associate director of financial aid.

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