The 5 Key Steps for Putting Together a College Art Portfolio


How to Put Together Your Best College Art Portfolio

Itching to show college admissions officers your inner Van Gogh? Check out the following tips on strategizing what to include in your college art portfolio to make the best impression on your dream schools!

But first, keep in mind the following things:

The advice on this list is general enough to apply to most portfolios, but I put it together catering specifically to digital portfolios in SlideRoom, the online tool associated with the Common App. Keep in mind that there is a fee ($10-15) to use this service. Second, there isn’t a “standard” set of requirements for portfolio submission. Each school will have its own guidelines so it’s important to check them before and during the process of putting together a college art portfolio.

Some schools (RISD, Parsons) require original work in response to a prompt of their choosing in addition to the college art portfolio. This is all on top of the standard college application requirements of the personal statement, supplemental essays, letters of recommendation, etc. (Phew!) The big insider tip to conserve your sanity is applicable to the whole college admissions process: start early and stay organized. Especially when you already have to write a personal statement, ask for letters of rec, build a school list, write supplemental essays, and more, you want to make sure you budget enough time for the college art portfolio!

That being said, read on for the top 5 tips for mastering the “art” of the portfolio.    

1. Include recent, original work.

Both of those adjectives are extremely important.  

  • Is your work older than 2-3 years? Don’t include it in your portfolio. It is no longer relevant and probably no longer accurately represents you as an artist. The reviewers want to know what you are doing now, preferably work created within the year.
  • Drawings that were very obviously class assignments are not typically original or enlightening. Be extra critical about including these. Another figure drawing of a man sitting on a chair? Schools have seen it.
  • Your work shouldn’t be a copy of other work (no anime, cartoons, celebrity portraits, etc.).
  • Need some inspiration? Attempt a monthly Art Dare, submit your work, and compete for a chance to win prizes. Or browse through this list of other challenges for printmakers, writers, and artists all over the world!   

2. Quality and presentation matters.

Treat your college art portfolio with the same level of professionalism you would approach a job interview. You wouldn’t show up to a job interview in shorts and a T-shirt right? Likewise, take control over the impression your portfolio makes of you.    

  • Photographs of your work should be high-resolution, properly cropped (the environment in which the photo was taken is not visible), color should be accurate to real-life, and with no detectable digital manipulation.
  • If it makes sense for that particular piece, include both full-scale photos and close-ups.
  • Some schools will ask you to include pages from your sketchbook. The purpose for that is to give the viewers insight into your brainstorming process. Include only 1-2 of those.
  • Other than sketches, every other piece should be finished. I don’t mean “finished” in the sense that the bell rang so you stopped, but rather in the sense that no fingerprints are visible and there aren’t any torn or folded edges. More importantly, the drawing is carried out to the edge of the paper (no gaps or white backgrounds, unless absolutely intentional).

3. Your English teacher had some good points.

A successful college art portfolio and a successful college essay will share similar characteristics and by applying writing principles to your work, you can better mold your artistic direction.

  • A thesis: what’s the message or idea behind your art? Can I tell from looking at your work that you’re interested in exploring civil liberties? Globalization? Or is your picture of a ceramic bowl just that?
  • Variety of “sentence” structure: Be sure to showcase a diverse range of techniques, materials, and tools for a more memorable group of work. Viewers want to see that you challenge yourself as an artist and are constantly growing and evolving as you explore your thesis.
  • Author’s voice: Be ready to supplement your work with thoughtful insights and reflections both in written words (via SlideRoom) and in conversation (in the case of an interview). Tip: “I painted a rose because it’s my favorite flower,” does not count as a thoughtful insight (nor a strong sentence, for that matter).
  • Introduction and conclusion: You want the viewer to get a strong impression of your work. Space out your best projects. Begin and end with a strong image.

4. 12-20 breaths is the average respiratory rate.

It is also the average number of images required in a college art portfolio for admissions.  Notable exceptions are Yale (5-8 images) and MIT (up to 10).

  • Major takeaway point: if you want to submit 15 pieces, plan on creating up to twice that so you have a good selection of work to choose from. Do not underestimate how long this will take (~ 1 year)!
  • Your college art portfolio should be clean and concise. If you are wondering if you should include an image because it is weaker, you shouldn’t include it. It is better to go with fewer strong pieces. Don't pad the portfolio with bad work just to show you have a lot of work.
  • Keep the program/school/major in mind
    • SlideRoom allows you to tweak the portfolio you submit to different schools. A portfolio meant to accompany an application for digital media major should be different than an architecture portfolio.

5. Get feedback.

Hearing different perspectives about your artwork can help you test if viewers are understanding your work the way you intended it to. Even better, having conversations about your art with others will help you refine and improve your artistic direction.     

  • Ask for feedback from the relevant teachers throughout the process of putting together your college art portfolio. They can give you specific advice on technique and composition.
  • Pick the brains of your friends, parents, uncles, and neighbors for larger scale advice. Ask them what emotions or ideas come to mind when they see your art. Get comfortable showing your work to others.
  • Take advantage of National Portfolio Day and get your visual arts portfolio reviewed by representatives of the top fine arts schools. It’s free, open to the public, and does not require a pre-registration.

Other types of portfolios

Although typically associated with the fine arts, the use of portfolios in other disciplines is gaining popularity. Two understated uses for digital portfolios are:  

  1. Music

Typically schools prefer a live audition, but online clips are accepted as well. Some schools are also using SlideRoom as a pre-pre-audition, where the applicants that impress the representatives receive an invitation for a live audition. There are specific requirements depending on the school, instrument, etc., so be sure to check.  

  1. STEM

A number of schools are offering the option of a portfolio for “makers, creators, inventors, entrepreneurs of the spirit” to showcase their work along during the college admissions process. Early supporters of STEM portfolios include MIT (Maker Portfolio) and Carnegie Mellon (Maker Projects).  

Further Reading

Art School Portfolio Video Course (Coming soon)

A video of a high school student’s portfolio critique

Examples of real portfolios


Growing up splitting my time between Mexico and the United States, I’ve had first-hand experience and personal stake in the unique circumstances that a multi-cultural upbringing brings into the college admissions process and higher education in general. My sustained interest in the matter led me to volunteer as mentor to primarily underrepresented students throughout my high school and university experience.
While at Rice University, I pursued my interests in the sciences and fine arts, both academically and outside the classroom. In addition to serving as the director of a student-founded and student-run art gallery, I undergone training to become an Emergency Medical Technician my freshman year. After graduation, I decided to go international in my efforts to help students get into their dream school and moved to China full-time.

In my free time, I love walking around the city to my inner soundtrack of You Make My Dreams by Hall & Oates, looking for hidden street art, and pretending those dogs at the pet store by my apartment will one day roam free on my made-up ranch in the south of France.

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