Art students: make an impression with the perfect portfolio

Your portfolio is your chance to dazzle prospective tutors and land a uni place. Here’s how to make sure yours paints the right picture

When applying for an art or design degree, it’s not just the interview you need to think about; impressing your prospective tutor with your portfolio is vital for securing a place.

According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), more than 272,000 applications were received for creative arts and design courses last year, so how can you make your work stand out from the crowd?

Make it unique

Joe McCullagh, head of design at Manchester School of Art, says the best portfolios tell you something about the person applying.

“We’re looking for a sense of the candidate, and it’s really great to see their own personal projects,” he says. “It doesn’t have to all be two-dimensional – we’re looking for a range of things.”

Emily Grieves, a 22-year-old fashion textiles graduate, says doing something unusual helped her in her interview at the London College of Fashion.

“I put one of my most experimental pieces into my portfolio – hundreds of tiny, decorated sandbags I’d made,” she says. “It was so heavy to carry around, but it stood out.”

Go beyond the brief

Tutors want to see more than completed college projects, says Michael Archer, leader of the BA fine art course at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“Satisfying a brief means you’re competent, but it doesn’t show that you’re excited about anything,” he says. “We want to see that you were so absorbed that you went off on a tangent – that you have your own imagination and drive.”

One prospective animation student impressed her course leader after she came to her interview with a shoebox of 40 handmade, painted models.

“She’d made these beautiful models into characters, and she also had drawings of an imagined world that they lived in,” says Peter Martin, leader of the BA animation course at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA). “Most students won’t have done a lot of animation before coming to university, so instead I look for a maturity in visual thinking, and the ability to develop something as a finished idea.”

Don’t be too polished

Tutors and students agree that presenting rough work will show your creativity, thought processes and ability to experiment and take risks.

Katherine Dallimore, a 20-year-old animation student at NUA, says there is value in including sketches, redesigns and colour variations in your portfolio.

“It’s great to see a finished piece, but even more interesting for them to see how you got there,” she says.

Being aware of weaknesses in your work will also show maturity, says Cruz. “It’s important to show self-reflection,” he says. “Then there’s something to work with them on – we want to know they can change and develop.”

Don’t forget the basics

It might seem obvious, but submission requirements will vary between universities, whether physical or digital. Checking permitted file types and sizes, and giving a sense of scale in photos is essential, says Archer.

“If you crop right to the edges of a painting in a photo, it could be any size,” he says. “A sculpture could be the size of a matchbox or an oil-drum. Either give the dimensions, or provide an image with a sense of scale.”

Interview time is tight so tutors also advise against putting your work in chronological order – instead, start with your most recent, or strongest, piece, and end on something strong too.

“If it’s in date order, you won’t get to talk about the work that excites you,” says Archer. “Organize it in a way that allows you to talk about what you want to.”

It’s also a good idea to label project work with brief, contextual information, tutors say, so that the concepts are understood even if the student is not there to talk about them, mount work neatly, and secure it in place with double-sided tape. Finally, before sending it off, get someone else’s opinion.

“Showing it to a fresh pair of eyes is really important,” says Phoebe Baines, a master’s student at RCA. “Something might not be as great as you think. It’s also easy to discount a piece but someone else might see its potential.”

Be open-minded

It’s difficult to offer the perfect portfolio template – while some tutors want to see three focused projects and a sketchbook of ideas, others prefer a lot of work across different mediums. But the common theme is that your work should show genuine love for the subject – and represent you.

“Essentially what we’re looking for is an inquiring mind and a sense of the person,” says McCullagh. “We want to see their own identity within the portfolio – it has to exist in itself.”

Sarah Dawood

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