The question I’m most frequently asked on visits to schools and colleges about building creative portfolios isn’t the best one that I think students should be asking.
Most students want to know how much to include? But a better starting question is what story am I trying to tell about my interests and my aspirations?
It’s tempting to encourage students to include the work that has received the best marks through the academic year. But admissions tutors in creative arts institutions are really looking for signs of personality and evidence of what influences each candidate. Including work that’s been done outside school - personal projects or even competition entries - may help reveal more about their creative preferences and interests than work done as part of their school or college work.
Portfolios are like a story: they need to take the person looking at it on a journey from initial ideas to final outcomes - ideally with risks, experiments, innovation and obstacles overcome on the way. So ask the students to think about where they’ve been bold in their approach or use of materials, for example.
Admissions tutors will look for signs the applicant is genuinely interested in the subject they want to study. It’s worth encouraging students to do their research on the types of projects, processes and skills they’ll be expected to develop on their university course. Their portfolio needs to reflect what they hope to study. This information can often be found on a University’s own website or by contacting their Student Recruitment department.
Admissions staff and academic tutors come to each portfolio cold - they don’t know the student and what to expect. So the information in the portfolio needs to be written with a first-time reader in mind. The presentation needs to be guide the viewer through the work - so the layout needs to be simple, clear, and intuitive. Sometimes asking a colleague who hasn’t seen the student’s work to take a quick look can help identify those “I don’t understand what they’re trying to say” moments that can help students be clear and concise.
For most students, 20 to 30 pieces of work from two to five different projects in a portfolio is enough to give a clear idea of their work, approach, and interests. This is likely to differ for more media based portfolios, where to 10-15 pieces of work alongside a short film or compilation of lens or animation based projects would be suitable.
Ideally, the portfolio will include three types of material: (a) evidence of a learning journey and progression from idea to final outcome - this may be part finished and include evidence of resilience through difficult projects; (b) finished work; (c) work done outside school or college showing commitment and depth of interest. It’s always worth checking what individual institutions prefer.
Including sketchbooks or working notes in portfolios work well to show work-in-progress and the development of ideas, but they are poor at showing finished outcomes as they usually drown out a significant part of the work process. So, while it’s great to include sketchbooks or working notes, admissions tutors will expect to see finished and final work too.
Asking students to think hard about what they are trying to convey with their portfolio is also great interview preparation. It will help focus their minds on how they present themselves, their interests as well as how they describe their work. We love signs of creative engagement, passion and exploration - and a compelling portfolio is a great way to tell that story.
Thom Rollett is the Schools and Outreach Officer at Norwich University of the Arts. For the last eight years he has helped to maintain relationships between NUA and feeder schools and colleges across the UK. Working directly with teachers and students from 13-19, he challenges perceptions of what creativity is and can be, its value, and how to follow a creative HE path. You can contact him at [email protected]
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