Read this brief guide for assembling a solid portfolio that adds value to your college application.
It’s October of 2001. A 17-year-old, fresh-faced kid—fresh-faced not because he’s young or innocent, but because he has zero capacity for facial hair growth—gets ready to submit his early application to Harvard.
“Hang on a second,” he says to himself, realizing there’s an optional section labeled ‘portfolio’ at the end of the application. He reads the directions and sees that it’s an opportunity to submit original work to be evaluated by the admissions committee. The young lad dabbles in writing, but he’s unsure if any of his material is good enough to be included with his application. Thus, he spends the next day or two sifting through it, looking for pieces that show a decent level of skill but more importantly illuminate who he is as a person. He ultimately settles on a short story and three poems to include as his portfolio.
Clearly I’m not a clever writer, as you’ve likely figured out by now that this fresh-faced applicant in the narrative is yours truly (fourteen years later, I can almost grow a full beard). Though I have no way of knowing for sure, I believe that my portfolio submission was an asset to my application. Granted the writing was not incredible and I’ve since abandoned poetry because it’s deceptively difficult to write it well (nothing rhymes with purple or walrus!), but it was emblematic of who I was at the time.
The main point is that my portfolio added something to my application that wasn’t already there. It displayed my personality while simultaneously showing a creative side, something that can be especially helpful for applicants who are intensively into STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Here are a few tips to ensure that your portfolio does the same!
NOTE: You are not obligated to submit a portfolio unless you’re applying to a specific undergraduate program in something like art or architecture, so don’t feel the need to create one if you don’t have it. Ideally, the material included in a portfolio has been created without the portfolio in mind, meaning it’s work you’ve done on your own or perhaps for an assignment.
1. Pick Your Best Media
Here the word “media” is the plural form of “medium,” not the synonym for visual/filmed content. If you’re a creative person, chances are good there’s one medium that’s your strongest means of expression. Whatever this is—painting, writing, photography, music, or anything else—you always want to lead with your strongest material. If you are an incredible painter, though only consider three or four of your works to be standout, but also have hundreds of photographs you think are pretty decent, then you should still prioritize your paintings. Even if your portfolio only contains one item, if it’s by far the greatest thing you’ve ever created, that’s totally fine.
Two quick notes to keep in mind.
Keep the originals: First, and hopefully this is obvious, you shouldn’t be sending the original/master copies of material like paintings or photographs (the kind shot on film). A picture of a picture will work fine, just make sure you take it with a high-resolution digital camera, not your phone.
Covers / unique interpretations can be used: The work you submit as part of your portfolio doesn’t necessarily need to be original, as is the case with many musical performances. If there’s a great recording of you singing “Nessun Dorma” in your school’s production of Turandot, send it in. If you created a multi-track recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody” using only harmonicas, definitely include that—and send me a copy too, please! Other work, like writing or visual art, should always be original and never plagiarized.
2. Variation is Also Good
While you certainly want to lead with your best work, you should also show your range. If you don’t have range and exclusively work in one medium, that’s cool, but if you express your creativity through multiple outlets, you absolutely want to show it. In the aforementioned ‘three-or-four paintings but hundreds of photographs’ scenario, you want to foreground your paintings while backing them up with your photo work. Let’s say you decide to include your three best paintings in the portfolio. It would probably be a good idea to include your two best photographs. You have a lot more material in that medium to choose from, so it might be difficult to narrow it down, but two solid photos are more valuable to a supplement than a dozen mediocre ones.
The issue many applicants have with submitting a variety of media is that they worry it might make them seem unfocused. This will only be the case if your work is unfocused. The connecting factor between all of your material should be that it is representative of you. Even if you’ve constructed a papier-mâché version of the Empire State Building and composed an epic poem about the advent of the steam engine, there should be consistency in the way that each says something about you.
3. Don’t Overdo It
Now that you’re leading with your best work while also including creations that show your range, it can be tempting to submit a ton of material. One word: don’t. This might be the most important advice in this entire blog entry, so I’ll repeat it with emphasis: don’t! Remember how I told you that I submitted one short story and three poems? This was a careful decision on my part, as I was selecting from a larger pool of work. Also, I made sure the short story was tightly edited and the poems as brief as possible.
The follow-up question here is usually, “But what if all the work I’m including is spectacular, even though there’s a lot of it?” My one-word reply stands, and I’ll explain to you why.
Put yourself in the AdCom’s shoes. They have tens of thousands of applications to sift through, so it’s egocentric to assume that they will want to spend more time on yours than any other. An overstuffed portfolio might also be viewed as a negative because it shows an inability to self-edit, to choose which pieces are strongest and most representative. Even Michelangelo himself would have been able to pick his own five favorite works, and that dude was prolific.
4. Keep Descriptions and Explanations Brief
Depending on each school’s application, your supplemental files could be uploaded differently. Some schools, especially state universities that often have their own unique online interfaces, require you to upload the files directly to their servers. Other schools, including some on the CommonApp, will use an outside company like SlideRoom to connect your portfolio with your application. Services like these are secure, and they enable AdComs to review supplemental material for all applicants in one place, usually a customized, easy-to-navigate site the service provides.
Whether you submit your supplement directly to a school or through a secondary service, you might have the option of including a description of each piece of your work. Keep these descriptions short and sweet, eschewing artistic analysis in favor of the facts.
For a painting, you can simply state the title, medium, date, and dimensions: “This is Not a Blog Entry,” acrylic on canvas, 2015, 17” x 10”. For a poem, the title and date will suffice. For a short story/script/play, it would be fine to include a short logline: “‘The No-Hair-Face Disgrace’ – A 17-year-old guy attempts to grow a beard using sheer willpower.” Resist any and all temptation to analyze or explain your work. Good art speaks for itself, and you can bet the AdCom is smart enough to understand it.
5. Seek Feedback Before You Submit
This step might come last in the process, or even first, or anywhere in between. If you haven’t already shared your work with others and received honest critique, whether within a class or one-on-one with a friend, then I’d encourage you to do so before you submit your portfolio. Sometimes we get so close to our creations that it becomes difficult to see them with fresh, objective eyes.
Also, it can be dangerous to work in a vacuum. With nobody to give an opinion or potentially challenge your material, you might easily mistake something for genius when it’s totally misguided. The opposite may hold true, as well, where you believe a piece of work to be valueless, and then you come to understand that others find it valuable.
The best way to seek feedback is to be casual about it. “Hey,” you might ask a friend, “would you mind taking a look at some artwork I’m thinking of submitting in my college portfolio?” No need to pressure someone into it or demand feedback. You’ll find that you get the most honest critiques from friends, family, and teachers when you deliberately remove all stress and obstacles that stand between your creations and their opinions.
There you have it: a guide to submitting a solid portfolio that will add value to your application. Let me leave you with one final piece of advice as you survey your portfolio. If you have any reservations about including a piece of material, it’s probably best that you trust your gut and don’t put it in there.
Or, in simpler terms: when in doubt, leave it out.
(I guess I’m still a poet after all!)
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