IvyWise Resources

Creating an Impactful Art Portfolio for College Admissions

By Kelly, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor and Former Admissions Officer at Stanford University  

Are you an aspiring artist considering applying to art or design programs? Chances are, you’ve seen an application requirement for a portfolio to highlight your creative background. The portfolio can often be as important as (and in some cases even outshine) the overall college application. Many factors come into play when understanding what admissions seek in telling your creative story through your portfolio.  

What is an Art Portfolio? 

An art portfolio includes examples of your work to show off your artistic skill, proficiency, style, and interests. This can include anything from photos and paintings to sculptures and videos. This is usually submitted in addition to your regular college application and any supplements required for the school or program to which you are applying. The portfolio is often a required part of your application to certain arts majors and programs.  

Research your schools of interest to determine their admissions and portfolio requirements and examples, as they often differ across schools. Because of this, it’s almost like building a whole new application for each school. 

Not only students interested in applying to arts programs can submit a portfolio. Many schools offer the option to submit a supplemental creative arts portfolio in visual and performing arts, as well as design and sometimes creative writing. Adding a compelling portfolio to your application to highlight your creativity could give your profile a competitive edge, provide more context into your passions, and showcase a talent that may not be gathered in the rest of your application.  

What Do You Include in an Art Portfolio? 

Overall, you’ll need 12-20 pieces total for the portfolio as most schools require a minimum of eight pieces. When selecting the pieces for your portfolio, the focus should not be on quantity, but rather on quality, cohesion, and impact. 

Most schools will want the focus of your portfolio to be on your personal artwork that reflects your imagination, style, process and willingness to experiment, in addition to your exploration and mastery of your mediums (through skills such as good composition, design and use of color) – so typically these works should cover the majority of your portfolio. 

Focus on recent works as much as possible, ideally within the past two years. Some schools will require you to create/submit a new work (or works) based on a specific theme they choose, so also account for extra time needed to develop new works.  

Often, schools will ask to see observational art included in the portfolio to highlight your understanding of form and space and as a foundation for becoming a painter, illustrator, animator or designer. Be sure to have two to three pieces to consider for this option that will demonstrate your sketching skills and how you see the world. Some more traditional art programs may require specific themes too, such as landscape or portrait works. 

Tips for Putting Together Your Art Portfolio 

There’s a lot of strategy that students should consider when putting together an arts portfolio. You want to make sure that your portfolio is an accurate representation of your skills and interest as well as who you are as an artist. Here are some additional tips to keep in mind when pulling together your portfolio:  

Show Variety 

If your work is somewhat homogenous, make sure you show different ways that you explore the topic—getting out of your comfort zone, developing your process, understanding of the materials, etc.—and progression of your artistic abilities. 

Pieces Should Be Complete 

Include pieces that are fully complete. If part of a series/panel, you can also show works in progress as long as they represent part of a bigger series. Overall, make sure the work could be ready to exhibit in a gallery or sent to a commission client. Avoid submitting classroom assignments that anyone in the same class could do or submit. Devise your own ideas, go beyond assignments, take it to the next level. 

Demonstrate Conceptual Thinking 

Show pieces for which you have intentionally chosen your subject matter, expanded on an assignment, or developed an idea from a prompt to make work that is uniquely your own. If relevant to your work, add a sketchbook page that shows your thought process for a piece/series. This demonstrates that you are intentional with the theme, research, materials, use of color, symbols, mediums, format, etc. Focus on concept over aesthetic. Most skills can be learned, but the importance is the idea and how you explore it. 

Get Creative with Layouts 

Play with the layouts and be careful not to overcrowd the page. For one specific topic, you could include images of multiple perspectives of one individual piece, multiple images on one panel that represent a series or journey (great for fashion portfolios), or images using various mediums to explore a topic (combining photography, drawing, mixed media, painting, etc.).For conceptual artwork, walk the viewer through your journey/process (installations, journal/sketchbook pages, research, video, etc.) For film/video portfolios, be sure to follow the exact instructions for each school carefully as they all have different time limits for submissions. Focus on the essence when needed. 

Learn SlideRoom 

Familiarize yourself with the SlideRoom portal, which many schools use for portfolio submissions to sync with your college application. You are usually prompted to add descriptions for each submission. Make them clear, consistent in information and order, and include just one line about the work. For example: “Experiment in polymer and textile fabric collage to explore intersection of fixed vs. permeable materials, mirroring society’s duality of value systems vs. actions.” DO NOT add text on your slides, keep that for the description boxes. 

Take Good Photos of Your Work 

If photographing your works, use the art studio at your school or another space with proper equipment and lighting. If you are not experienced with photographing your art, ask a friend or family member with photography skills to shoot for you. Better yet, teach yourself! YouTube tutorials can go a long way! It is best to use a digital SLR camera and two light sources directed at the piece at a 45-degree angle. Shoot your piece to fit the entire screen. Make sure your images are cropped, in focus, and on flat, solid black or white backgrounds. 

Edit, Edit, Edit 

Nothing is more disappointing than having strong work that is formatted or represented unprofessionally. Honor your work with clear, clean, balanced, high-resolution, and well-lit submissions. Review all your work on a table or screen to identify your strongest pieces, then you can shift to the order based on the aspects you want to highlight to tell your story. If the work is performance, installation or time-based, present the work in the context it was intended to be seen. 

At IvyWise we work with students through every step of the college application process, including professional guidance on developing cohesive and impactful portfolios and arts applications with counselors who worked in admissions and made decisions on portfolios and applications. Contact us today to learn more about our college counseling services and how to shine in your portfolio! 

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