How to Create a Portfolio for College

Making a choice to attend a college that specialises in the art or design fields for some students can be a tough decision.

Not only do you have to go through many of the same admissions requirements as four year universities, but also have the added pressure of submitting a portfolio of your creative work.

How to Create a Portfolio for College

The portfolio is often the breaking point for many in the application process and for some it may keep them from completing their application.

The portfolio needn't be scary or an obstacle to getting into the college of your choice as long as it is approached in a thoughtful and serious manner.

Hopefully, this article will help ease some fears and be a guide to creating the best portfolio possible for each particular student.


The portfolio as well as G.P.A. and TOEFL scores are an important part of all art colleges admissions processes and for some it weighs heavily in the determination of a students acceptance or rejection to that particular school.

It is very important to develop a list of the colleges that you are planning to apply to and contact each of their admissions departments to obtain their particular requirements.

Some schools only accept original art whereas some only accept slides, and some have size limitations. The required content of the portfolio may also differ from college to college and each school's criteria should be followed as closely as possible.

There are also pre-college summer programs that give students a chance to spend four to six weeks at an art school helping build basic art skills in drawing, colour and design, as well as allow for the opportunity to receive college credit and experience.

Many of the colleges offer housing and some form of scholarship to their pre-college summer programs and should be contacted before April 1 for information.


Selecting what to include in a portfolio should not be a nerve-racking experience. Remember to check-out and write down each college's specific portfolio requirements.

A young artist is usually their own worst critic, and should follow the advice of their admissions counselor about what to include in their portfolio.

You don't always want to show your favourite piece, sometimes admissions committees want to see specific types of works. These may include a self portrait, observational still-life drawings, works in colour pastels, or a collage.

Listed are a number of specific terms used by counselors and art schools when looking at and describing what you may need to do to improve your portfolio.

Observational work: Observational drawings are frequently the central part of many schools' portfolio requirements. Observational work can be drawing, painting or collage done from looking at a still life, figure model/portrait, or landscape.

The work should be produced as you see it in person and not reproduced from a photograph or from the artist's imagination (ie. from magazines, comics, or animation.)

Personal work: Many schools may ask for "personal work." This can include any art or design that you create on your own, usually in a medium and style that demonstrate your strengths.

Included in this category are still or motion animation, photography, graphic design, film, video, sculpture, etc. This is an opportunity to show your unique abilities to the college.

Photographs: Photography should be works that are shot and printed by you the artist (do not use photographs printed at photo labs.) When it comes to photography, schools are just as interested in why you chose the subject matter as how well it was printed.

You should always give a brief description on the back of each photograph explaining why you made that particular print or group of prints.

Graphics and digital media work: When presenting graphic or digital media work, make sure that your work is as complete as possible.

The portfolio should include a printed copy of the work as well as a copy on disk format with attached instructions (check with each college to see what is compatible with their equipment and what format they accept.)

PRESENTATION Presentation of the portfolio is very important to some schools and is less important to others.

Always try to follow each college's guidelines to the best of your ability and if you have questions regarding your portfolio, don't hesitate to call the admissions department of the school you are applying to for directions.

When presenting your portfolio in either slide or original format, always include the following.

  • Slides: If you need to photograph your works on slides, always take enough slides of each individual work so that you can send them to all the schools that you are applying to (it's better to have too many than too few.)
  • Shoot focused and clear slides.
  • Include your name, date, title, and dimensions of the work and your social security number on each slide
  • Include a separate slide description sheet.

Original work: Do not include torn or poorly cared for work. Include your most recent work. Include mainly finished or completed works (avoid sending too many studies or gestures).

Include your name, date, title of work and your social security number on the back of each work. Photograph on slides all 3-dimensional/sculptural work (do not mail 3-dimensional work.)

Video/disk/CD-rom portfolios: Do not assume the college will accept a new media portfolio. Check with each individual college to see if they will accept new media presentations and what format they can accommodate.

Requirements for international applicants: All students whose native language is not English must take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and achieve a minimum score of 550 and a minimum of 600 is required for admissions to the graduate school.

Accepted students will be tested for English placement during Orientation Week. For those students who would benefit from additional studies in English, many colleges offer intensive ESL programs.

All applicants who have studied in a foreign country must submit certified English translations of all academic records. Records that do not have English translations will not be accepted and will delay the admissions process.

In certain cases it may be necessary to ask the international applicant for a full evaluation of foreign credentials. If this is necessary, forms and instructions will be sent directly to the student.

International students accepted for admission who require a Student Visa to enter the United States must submit two letters of financial verification as described below:

1. A letter from the student's parent, sponsor or sponsoring agency showing a guarantee of payment of the student's educational and living expenses while attending Otis.

2. A letter from the parent's or sponsor's bank or sponsoring organization, certifying that sufficient funds for support of the student's education and living expenses is available.

Communication should be in English or accompanied by a certified English translation, and funds should be in U.S. dollars. Address these letters to the attention of the Otis Admissions Office.

Only upon receipt of these letters and a $1200.00 tuition deposit will an I-20 Form be sent to the student. The student may then take this document to the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in his or her country to obtain an F-1 Student Visa. All tuition and fees are due and payable at the time of registration.

The most important detail of preparing your portfolio for college admissions is to remember to just have fun with it. It is almost impossible to create quality work if you are nervous, just follow directions and don't wait until the last minute, give yourself plenty of time to complete the best portfolio possible.

The Author: Kevin D. Buck, Artist and Assistant Director of Admissions, Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, California 1997.

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