IvyWise Resources

How to Plan Your Visual Art Portfolio for College Admissions

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

When applying to arts programs or majors, many colleges will require an art portfolio as part of the admissions process. This is a critical piece of your college application that often requires many hours of planning and creating to ensure that you’re accurately highlighting your creative background, skills, and interests. It’s never too early to start thinking about your portfolio.

How to Plan Ahead for Your Art Portfolio

Logistics, strategy, inspiration, and authenticity are all part of the process and the sooner you can start planning, the better prepared you will be to bring your passion for the arts to light. Admissions committees like to see confidence, proficiency, and intention – regardless of what media is used—so start planning early by diving deep into your interests, experiment with different mediums, and practice!

Many art schools and programs will also consider you for merit scholarships based on your portfolio and overall application, so the more effort you put in, the more it could pay off – literally! This is especially important for international students, as they do not qualify for US financial aid. A scholarship looks amazing on your resume, particularly later when applying to grants, graduate school, art councils, and more.

Document Your Ideas

First and foremost, keep an art journal (or sketchbook) to collect and document all your inspiration, project ideas, sketches, travels, exhibit visits, critiques, etc. This is crucial in your journey as it is a great tool that you may use for developing your portfolio (or even including some journal pages.) Think about how you became the person you are today. Reflect on your artistic journey, exploration of genres/mediums, identity, self-exploration, societal issues, and specific themes. Any artist should always have this with them and open it daily—you never know when inspiration strikes!

Keep Track of Your Artistic Endeavors

Often when applying to creative programs, in addition to submitting a portfolio you will also be asked to submit an artist statement and/or a creative resume. Be sure to track all of your artistic involvements including coursework, competitions, exhibits, organizations, internships, volunteering, community projects, summer art programs, mentorships, and more. Sit down to brainstorm your ideas in words to help your audience learn about what makes you “you” through your art. Where do you get your inspiration? What motivates you? What issues interest or concern you? What are you learning through your artistic path? What questions do you ask yourself in the process? Why do you work in your mediums of choice? How do you approach new projects? What matters to you when viewers experience your work? What does your work say about you, society and/or the mediums used?

Practice Your Art Daily

Commit to a daily art practice as much as possible. The more that art is a part of your daily life, the more it will feel natural to create and you will end up with a substantial art archive to develop your portfolio. If you wake up thinking about the art you want to make and fall asleep working on an art project, then you know it is a fundamental part of who you are – so nurture it!

Seek Guidance from Mentors

Tap into your network of potential mentors to help guide and support your artistic path—your art and design teachers, practicing artists, art club peers, online art communities, and more. If you are taking courses related to your intended college major and/or portfolio, get to know your teachers, tell them your interests and goals, and ask them for guidance on bringing out your voice and skills. This is also a great opportunity to find out if they are affiliated with any specific schools, inquire about competitions or juried exhibits they would recommend for you, and ask them to be recommenders for your college applications.

Improve Your Profile as an Artist

Gain knowledge from artists and the art community outside of the classroom. Volunteer at a museum, gallery or studio, mentor youth in the arts, start your own creative club, add art history and criticism texts to your reading list, start an Instagram gallery for your fashion pieces, and show your artistic process in tutorials, or initiate a community art project (ex: mural painting series, school-wide art exhibit to support the art department, partner with a nonprofit, etc.)

Develop a Cohesive and Impactful Artistic Voice

Distinguish yourself with your authentic, artistic voice. Your portfolio should stand out as uniquely YOU, illustrate that no one else could create or represent in the same way, and show how the world looks through your eyes. For example, demonstrate your stance on a topic that is close to your heart—political, social, religious, cultural, or something else.

Use the portfolio as a platform to create and build awareness around a cause that is important to you, if relevant. Climate change, cultural identity, media, body image, or mental health, could be some great potential topics, for example.

Do Your Research

It’s important to keep in mind that although these teachers/mentors may have a strong grasp on their subject, the field, and your work, they may not necessarily be aware of the current college admissions landscape and process, or the specific application and portfolio requirements for each school. So be sure to supplement your teachers’ guidance with admissions expertise, including researching the individual schools of interest and ensuring you have a clear understanding of the portfolio specifics required.

Seek Out Portfolio Help

Attend National Portfolio Day to get expert tips, reviews of your portfolio, and to speak with reps from various art/design schools and programs. Sometimes the reps attending may be the admissions rep who reviews your portfolio when submitting to the school!

Enroll in summer pre-college programs in the arts to prepare a college-ready portfolio. There are numerous options in various areas, including both foundation courses and more specialized immersion programs. A few to check out are: Parsons, MICA, UCLA, Boston University, Cornell and NYU. This can also give you insight into the college experience and help determine if the school is a fit for you.

Reach out to admissions counselors at your schools of interests – many are happy to provide personalized guidance and feedback.

At IvyWise, we also provide specialized help and guidance for planning and putting together an impactful art portfolio for college admissions.

Planning out your art portfolio as part of the college admissions process is important so that you’re able to craft a compelling and thoughtful submission that represents who you are as an artist. It’s hard work, but incredibly rewarding. That most important thing to remember is to enjoy the process, take risks, and be yourself!

For more information on how Kelly or other IvyWise counselors can help you put together amazing arts portfolios for your college applications, contact us today!






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