How to Make My Art Portfolio Strong For Art Colleges Step by Step?

If you are in the process of applying for art school, your head is probably spinning with a million things. If you're still in high school, this can be an especially challenging time if you are trying to finish up your senior projects while creating some unique work for your portfolio.

Trying to figure out what to put in your portfolio, how to present it, and how to land an acceptance letter from your dream college can be daunting. Luckily for you, this guide will give you everything you need to know to put together a portfolio that will really knock some socks off! 

If you are pursuing a degree in film, fashion, graphic design, fine art, game design, or any other visual art, this guide will be your best friend while you are putting together your portfolio. These tips are based on the portfolios of students who have been accepted and on the input of top admissions staff from leading art schools. 

What is an Application Portfolio?

Applying to art school is often a two-fold process. The school wants to look at your academic record, but they also want to see a practical application of your artistic abilities. Sometimes, an interview or personal statement is also requested. Portfolios give the admissions team insights on your growth, creativity, talent, and potential. 

Portfolio criterium varies from school to school. Some schools will provide you with clean-cut criteria while other schools may have very little structure at all. Each way has pros and cons. Even with rigid requirements in place, you may feel unsure of what to create and which mediums to use. Putting together an art portfolio is no small feat.

You must dedicate a significant amount of time and effort to your portfolio in order to be considered for admission. Schools only let a small portion of applicants through. When it comes to getting into art school, it's survival of the fittest! 

Related article: Top 10 Best Art Schools in Canada


Your Seven-Step Guide to a Winning Portfolio

Preparing an art portfolio is an extensive process. Not only must you create the work, but you also have to organize it and present it in a way that makes a great first impression that lasts. This guide will cover the following steps: 

1. Research Universities and Portfolio Requirements 
2. Check Out Example Portfolios 
3. Go to Open Houses 
4. Plan Your Portfolio 
5. Create New Works of Art 
6. Check Your Work 
7. Organize, Photograph, and Arrange 

While all of these steps are important, step four will go into the most depth and provide you with the most insight on what to include and how to include it. 

1. Research Universities and Portfolio Requirements

You probably already have your heart set on one particular school, however, you should be applying to more than one university! Many students don't get into their first choice. By not applying to any backup schools, you run the risk of not getting into college at all. Create a file of all the schools you want to apply to with a list of their requirements noted. Here are a few things to keep track of: 
  • Deadlines and due dates
  • Formatting Requirements
  • What to Include
  • Other Requirements

2. Check Out Example Portfolios 

Many of the schools you are applying to likely have past portfolios on their website or in their library. Use these examples for inspiration and guidance, but do not try to mimic that student's work just to get accepted. You don't want to appear unoriginal. Also, don't be discouraged if you don't yet possess the same skill level and abilities as those students. The university often showcases the top work. Just build your portfolio using your strengths and let your creativity guide you. 

3. Go to Open Houses  

Open house events can provide you with a lot of insight about the school, their admissions process, and their portfolio expectations. You may also get to meet with current students and potential teachers who may be able to answer your questions about what to put in your portfolio. While no one can give you all the answers, be prepared to take notes and implement any good advice you get on your school visits. 

4. Plan Your Portfolio 

This is the part of the article where you will get some clarity and peace of mind regarding your portfolio. What do I put in my portfolio? The answer is simple.

Your application portfolio should include a variety of visual pieces from the past year or two. It should speak volumes about your personality, passions, creativity, and abilities. There are several guideposts for building your application portfolio. 

4.1. Focus on Observational Drawing

 Observational drawings are realistic sketches of what you see in real life. Many universities require an observational drawing to be included in your portfolio. The team reviewing your portfolio wants to see you apply both technical and personal skills to the piece. It is recommended that you draw from real life and not from photographs. 

4.2. Include Varied Subjects

 Universities want to see your ability to create work from a variety of subjects. You can include drawings on anything and everything. Landscapes, portraits, animals, nature, and still life are all acceptable. 

4.3. Implement a Range of Mediums and Styles

By showing that you are able to work with a variety of mediums like pencil, charcoal, and acrylic, you are showing the university that you are experienced, creative, and flexible. 


4.4. Arrange Images in an Aesthetically Pleasing Way 

It is critical that your portfolio showcases your ability to arrange things in a coherent and visually-pleasing way. Colours should be grouped together properly, and spatial relationships should be considered.


4.5. Communicate Originality and Passion

Technical ability doesn't go very far without creativity, originality, and passion. Universities don't want to see the same ideas year after year. By being experimental, you present the admissions team with something eye-catching that ups your chance of being admitted. You will also want to include projects that were created outside of classroom instruction to show you are driven and independent. 

5. Create New Works of Art for Your Portfolio 

If you haven't taken any previous art courses, putting together a portfolio can take about six months. This doesn't have to be a solitary process. You might be able to enlist the help of your high school art teacher even if you weren't an art student. You may also be able to take portfolio preparation classes. The task of putting together your portfolio can seem much less intense when you have others around you for support. 

6. Check Your Portfolio 

Once you have all of the pieces picked out that you would like to incorporate, you should evaluate your work and see if anything needs to be improved or modified. You may want to redo some pieces altogether.

At this stage, it is critical to ask for opinions and real feedback from those you trust. It can be hard to look at your own work with a critical eye, especially after you dedicated to much time to it. 

Being selective with your submissions is very important. Don't cram everything in just for the sake of having a bigger portfolio. You want your submission to showcase your very best work. You should always create more than you need to include, but be selective when the time comes to put your portfolio together. 

7. Organize, Photograph, and Arrange Your Portfolio

A stellar portfolio layout shows that you are committed, professional, and passionate. It will allow you to make a great impression on the people reviewing your portfolio and increase your chances of getting into the university.

A careless portfolio that was thrown together at the last minute really shows. Dedicate a week or two to arranging your portfolio in an unforgettable way. Be careful not to over embellish your portfolio, as this will distract from your art. 

Your application portfolio should be selective and visually exciting, not over-stuffed and thrown together