The Secret to Making a Great Portfolio

When it comes to studying art and design, most institutions are going to ask for a portfolio — and this is what they will use to find out who you are and what makes you tick.

18 May 2017

When looking at applicants, universities are trying to attract the best and most creative minds in the country — so they’ll look at both your individual portfolio as well as your exam results. So understanding what a portfolio is and how it can best describe you is essential.

“The portfolio is the first opportunity we get to see who you are as an individual applying to join one of our courses, so within the portfolios we’re looking for that sense of your identity.”
- Dr Terry Perk, Associate Head of School, Fine Art at UCA Canterbury

A portfolio is a collection of your work that demonstrates your own unique range of skills and creative talent. It’s your opportunity to showcase your individuality, creativity, inspirations and artistic abilities, and a useful way for evaluating your suitability for the course you’ve applied to.

A creative portfolio can contain many types of work, depending on the course you’re applying for and your personal interests and style. It may include, for example: design work, drawings, paintings, photographs, films, models, animated images, illustrations, sound work, music composition, creative writing, storyboards, essays and digital pieces. Take a look at your selection to make sure there’s plenty of variation. “What we don’t want to see in a portfolio is too much of the same thing, too much repetitive work, perhaps in a particular style,” advises Jane Cradock-Watson, Course Leader in Illustration at UCA Farnham. “What we want to see is a variety of different approaches to work.”

If you’re still struggling to achieve portfolio perfection, follow these six simple steps to get you started:

Sarah Hayter 2011, Foundation UCA Farnham

1. Be clear on the purpose of your portfolio

Think of your portfolio as a statement about your work — it should exhibit your influences, thought processes, artistic identity and aspirations. Don’t be afraid to be bold and appeal to the viewer, as you want to maintain their attention and leave them feeling excited about your creative potential.

“It’s important to understand that the portfolio is an edited presentation of yourself, your skills and your expertise and experience so don’t feel like you have to bring every single sketchbook, every single thing that you’ve ever made.”
- Allan Atlee, Head of School for Architecture at UCA Canterbury

2. Lead us through your creative journey

Your portfolio should exhibit your creative journey, thinking processes and individual personality — it should say a lot about you and your creative identity, as well as the course you’re applying for.

Documenting the development of your ideas in a sketchbook is a great way to show how you approached the task of creating your work, allowing the interviewer to gain insight into your creative thought processes and approach to your subject, and demonstrating a clear rationale.

“Students when they are applying really need to reflect, pause for a moment and think what it is that they’re bringing to the course and where they want to go with it; we want to see evidence that they have some experience of thinking about telling stories visually.”
- Claire Barwell, Course Leader, Film Production at UCA Farnham

Rosamund Boughton 2016, Foundation UCA Canterbury

3. Order your work intelligently

Your portfolio should be highly presentable and well organised — think of it like a flat-pack gallery exhibition and consider arranging your work by theme, style, technique, inspiration or chronology. This will demonstrate good organisational skills and your own artistic awareness, as well as your consideration of the way your work is viewed.

Put some of your most attention-grabbing and interesting work at the front and lead the viewer through your journey by exhibiting pieces of work that showcase a variety of skills, materials, techniques and influences. And be sure to save some of your strongest work for the end of your portfolio too, so you leave the interviewer feeling excited about your talent.

“Try to think about it as a piece of music; you might have impact pieces at the beginning, and an impact piece at the end, but in the middle it can be quite soft and quite quiet.”
- Chris Wraith, Course Leader, Further Education at UCA Rochester

4. Don’t leave out work that hasn’t gone to plan

Showcase your relevant strengths and feel free to include pieces that are experimental or may not have worked as you expected them to. It’s important you demonstrate your passion and commitment to your chosen area of study.

Show that you enjoy the discipline and that you’ve experimented with different techniques and media — even if it hasn’t turned out as you expected. Just make sure you’re able to explain what you’ve learned from your experimentation.

“We want to see a breadth of projects but we also want to see the mistakes, so we want to see the things that have gone wrong as well as the things that have gone right.”
- Tom Northey, Course Leader, Graphic Communication at UCA Farnham

Francesca Bennett 2016, Foundation UCA Epsom

5. Show your enthusiasm — visually and verbally

Make sure it’s clear that you enjoy the discipline — include independent projects that you’ve worked on in your own time and when you’ve taken inspiration from sources outside of education.

Very importantly, you must be prepared to speak in depth about your work, what inspired it, the techniques you used and what you’ve learned from them. Practising this with a friend or family member will help you overcome any nerves, so you can let your passion shine through unhindered at interview.

“We need to see the kind of skills and abilities that they have already developed prior to entering the course, as it really helps us to be able to decide whether that applicant is ready for the course or whether, alternatively, they are applying for the right course.”
- Donna Ives, Course Leader, Fashion Design at UCA Rochester

6. Preparing for audition — the performer’s portfolio

If you’ve applied to a performing arts course, you may have prepared a ‘classical’ or a ‘modern’ piece for your audition. Perform the text you feel most comfortable with — it could be something you’ve written yourself, or some students choose text from a film.

Make sure you know the text thoroughly, the play or film it comes from and the author. You may be asked to perform it in at least one different style so you need to be secure with the text, and feel comfortable playing around with it. You should also be ready to discuss the character, who says it and where it’s situated in the play or film.

“What we’re looking for is something which excites you, to see you as you really are — your original approach, you as you, not you doing an imitation of how somebody else might do it, but being true to yourself. We want you to give us a sense of why you think acting is an important job, why you think theatre or film or television or any form of the arts or entertainment industry is important to the world. We want to find out what you think.”
- Deborah Paige, Lecturer in Acting & Performance at UCA Farnham

If you would like more advice on how to build a portfolio, have a look at our website, which includes examples of work, videos from academics and the opportunity to book yourself onto activity days that can help you make that first step into building the portfolio that best represents you.

Find out more about UCA’s creative courses online or visit us at our Open Days.