Admissions Officers on How to Prepare Your Art School Portfolio

Ha Duong
Oct 19, 2018 7:33PM

Courtesy of Maryland Institute College of Art.

For aspiring artists, putting together a portfolio—a selection of images of your recent artworks—can be the most overwhelming part of applying to art school. And rightly so. It’s daunting to give unfamiliar professors and administrators license to evaluate your creative work and determine the next few years of your life. However, the portfolio is a crucial piece of the application process for undergraduate and graduate programs alike, so it’s important to put together the best possible representation of your work.

More than an application exercise, making an art school portfolio can also be an opportunity to grow as an artist. “After spending so much time documenting, reflecting, and describing my work, I developed my practice in the process,” explains Jennifer Traina-Dorge, a current MFA student studying sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). “The consideration and evaluation involved enabled a new perspective for me moving forward.”

And while each school’s particular requirements and preferences are stated on their admissions websites, the criteria by which portfolios are evaluated can be difficult to decipher. To help demystify the portfolio-making process, we spoke to admissions experts, faculty, and current undergraduate and graduate students at top art schools across the U.S. to gather their advice on how to create a refined and effective art school portfolio.

Don’t include every kind of art you make

One mistake many students make is to try to represent their full range of technical abilities in the portfolio. While admissions officers admit that seeing how a student uses different mediums can be somewhat helpful, generally, they’re not looking for individuals with a wide variety of skills. “Rather, we are looking to see what a student is doing with the tools they currently possess,” explains Dave Murray, the associate director of undergraduate admissions at SAIC.

“There is certainly value in refining your craft, continuing to improve technical skills, and learning new techniques, but ultimately, skill is a tool,” Murray continues. “What an artist builds with their tools is what matters. Overall, we are looking for students who understand, at some level, that meaning and making are inseparable.” The challenge, then, is to have a strong idea of who you are as an artist and how you envision your creative practice developing.

This also means that your work should be original. “Something younger artists do that is really negative in our minds, is they just reproduce an existing image that they see,” explains Edward Newhall, associate vice president of enrollment at the Rhode Island School of Design. They don’t want to see drawings of album covers or painted renditions of famous photographs of Barack Obama or Marilyn Monroe. Instead, students should work off of their own original imagery, to reflect their own ideas and interpretations of the world.

Show the work that you’ve made on your own time (not in classes)

Courtesy of Maryland Institute College of Art.


Whether you’re applying to college or grad school, you likely have a large cache of work you’ve made during art classes. Sydney Burns, a current freshman in the BFA illustration program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), warns against including something that might be an “overused art exercise.” Instead, she explains, “look for stuff that showcases [your] skills, but more importantly showcases you.”

This means looking beyond your schoolwork. Golan Levin, a professor at the Carnegie Mellon School of Art and co-director of the school’s undergraduate admissions committee, strongly encourages applicants to primarily include work they’ve made on their own time, outside of the confines of art class or in response to a prompt. And students should feel free to think beyond traditional art forms, as well. “We have many, many, many experiences where high school students have been told by their art teachers not to include certain projects because that’s not ‘art,’ and we thoroughly reject that,” explains Levin.

Rather than thinking about what each school wants to see in your portfolio, students will more likely be rewarded for taking risks. “We want to see students who are making brave decisions about how they want to present themselves, and showing things that may be outside of what is normally thought of as what they’re supposed to do,” Levin adds.

Think about how your images will look to a stranger

Though it may seem obvious, colleges still receive poorly photographed or documented artwork images, or portfolios with an excessive number of images. Be sure to follow the directions in terms of the number and size of images you submit, and be thoughtful about the way you organize them. Admissions officers note that carefully considering the order and presentation of your work will help bolster your portfolio’s message.

To better organize your work, “print basic images of the works, lay them out on a table, and rearrange them,” suggests Megan Carnrite, a current MFA student in the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)’s photographic and electronic media program. “You are very familiar with these works, so try to look at them in new ways and see if they are still telling the story you want. A reviewer doesn’t have the same history with the work you do, so you have to try to imagine what it looks like with fresh eyes.” She also recommends showing your portfolio to people you trust and asking for feedback on the effectiveness of your vision.

Asking critical questions about your work and experiences will allow you to hone the scope of your portfolio. According to Matthew Farina, director of admissions at SVA, a focused portfolio with a strong thematic or conceptual thread leaves a greater impact on review committees, differentiating an applicant’s work from the thousands of portfolios they look at every year.

Include evidence of your creative process

Courtesy of Rhode Island School of Design .

An effective portfolio will convey to the reviewing committee your way of thinking and your creative process. “Art isn’t just about what you can make, it’s also about how you think,” notes R. Liam Gannon, a BFA student in illustration at MICA.

Every institution we spoke with strongly advised students to include some kind of documentation of their process—be that a video flip-through of their sketchbook, works in progress, annotations of poetry they were inspired by, or any other relevant research methods. (Depending on the school, this documentation may be included in the allotted portfolio images, or in a separate section of the application.)

From looking at sketchbooks, reviewers can glean a prospective student’s intellectual curiosity, persistence, and capacity for risk—all of which are attractive traits when they’re thinking about building out a future classroom of students.

As Newhall explains, most younger artists tend to think of art as pristine, finished work, but admissions committees enjoy seeing the steps applicants take to complete an artwork. This can offer insight into how an artist copes with uncertainty and generates possibilities when confronted with the visual problems they hope to address in their work.

Ha Duong