I must have reviewed hundreds of portfolios over the years and there are always a number of recurring issues that arise when looking through students work. So to save repeating myself I thought it would be much easier to cover a number of areas you should consider while putting a portfolio together when applying for a degree course. But first let’s answer the question.

###What is a portfolio?

This can be a confusing question for some. The traditional answer used to be that a portfolio is a collection of paintings, drawings, sketches, photographs, etc, gathered together in a physical folder. This generally contains a selection of your best work across a range of different projects. Nowadays your portfolio can take on a number of forms. It can be the traditional form just explained or alternatively your portfolio could exist online. Your online portfolio could be in the form of a Tumblr site or a website you created yourself displaying. Whatever form it takes it should contain all of your own work. Alternatively you might have a showreel either online, on DVD or on a USB drive.

Whatever form your portfolio takes, the points below will help you show off your work to the best of its ability.

Mix it up – Show you can work in a range of different materials and media in 2D and 3D, if items are too fragile or big to bring include good quality photographs. A portfolio showing nothing but Manga* drawings no matter how good they are is not going to get you accepted. If you are applying for a specialist course that’s only looking for Manga* then I’m sure you will be fine otherwise, variety is definitely recommended. *insert style of your choice.

Keep it real – Try to include examples of drawings and paintings created from original source material – real-life objects both animate and inanimate if possible. These will showcase your draughtsmanship and give substance to any abstract work you may have.

Include sketchbooks – Always very important, you can get a real sense of how people work through their sketchbooks. What we don’t want to see are ‘scrapbooks’, that is, books filled with all manner of ‘stuff’ gathered from different sources and stuck into a book with no original material from the students themselves.

Go beyond the curriculum – I would definitely encourage students to include material that is not included as part of their A-Level or foundation-level requirements. Provided the quality is good enough, I always encourage my own students to do the same. It gives them a free platform to show off their particular interests and take creative risks without the fear of failure and, on many occasions, they will produce excellent results.

Don’t bring everything – You don’t need to bring absolutely every single drawing, painting, sculpture, photograph, etc. Choose a selection of work that shows your abilities off at their best. Show your stronger pieces at the beginning and end of the portfolio and leave out anything you are not happy with. If you are in an interview situation you might be questioned on what might be seen as a weaker piece and you will need to be able to defend why it’s in the portfolio.

Develop your own interests in artists, designers, photographers, etc beyond those covered at school or college – This is an annual point that comes up every time we review portfolios and we always see the regular artists, Hockney, Picasso, Dali, etc. While they are unarguably masters in their craft I would always encourage students to find their own sources of inspiration (and not just from Deviant Art). If you are being interviewed for a specific course this will be very important and may be expected to name a few artists, designers or photographers who inspire you in that particular area. It will show that you have a good awareness of the area you are interested in and it could give you the edge over the other interviewees.

Keep it clean – There’s nothing worse than a grubby portfolio filled with damaged, dirty and/or badly mounted material. Make sure your work is clean and neatly presented, it will not only make a very good first impression but it will make it easier to see your work.

Sketchbooks, on the other hand, are working documents so we don’t expect these to be pristine.

And that’s that, feel free to contact me with specific questions via my university email – p.mccormack[at]ulster.ac.uk