I am happy to say as a teen I attended a portfolio review day and it left no emotional scars. My students have gone to portfolio reviews and events like National Portfolio Day and most walked away from the day encouraged and excited about artmaking and their future. I see it as my job to prepare them for the experiences they may encounter in a portfolio review – the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. I let my students know they aren’t in my safe four walls but they are venturing out to meet with professionals who will be critiquing their work. To examine the roots of the word critique, its meaning can include “to pass judgment (usually unfavorable) on something,” and to “to censure, point out defects or faults in.” It does not mean to heap praise upon and stroke egos. I tell students to expect to hear negative commentary and to be ready emotionally to hear it. I also set the scene for my students. For events like National Portfolio Day, I describe to students what it’s like to be a reviewer (lots of time on the road, delayed flights, lost luggage, long lines at the review, lots of mediocre work, etc) that might contribute to putting reviewers in a disagreeable state.
Now, more than not my students come back excited about the feedback they receive. Most reviewers seem skilled in the art of critiquing the art of teens. I have had students also come back reporting reviewers who were blunt with them as well. While none of my students have confessed to tears, I have heard that no portfolio day is complete until without some tears shed.
So, here is my advice on how to best prepare students for the event. These are sage words of wisdom for both teachers, students, and parents. In addition to the advice below, I would urge everyone to look over my relevant previous posts, Portfolio Advice for Students, and our downloadable Student Portfolio Guide.
Curate and edit. Don’t bring every piece of work you have, be judicious in what you pair your portfolio down to. Keep it to no more than 20 images. Don’t show work you believe is weak. Sit down in advance with a trusted advisor for a second critical eye to help pick and choose. Leave close relatives and friends out of the mix. National Portfolio Day suggests bringing 10-12 pieces of art. Bring your sketchbook or representative pages (which can be scanned). Make sure the pieces flow nicely from one to the next. Look at the order of your work and consider if colors, subject matter, and story flow well.
Stack the deck. Start out of the gates strong and end on a strong note for them to remember you.
Keep the physical portfolio simple. Ultimately, it’s about the work. Yet, presentation matters and you want to present yourself as a serious, well-prepared candidate. Curate your work, make sure it is neat and organized. If your going to art school a sturdy 18×24 portfolio is not a bad investment but an expensive leather portfolio doesn’t make the work inside it any better. As an art teacher, I kept extra red wallet portfolios around to loan out (like this one).
Matting or mounting your work to one standard size can be a nice step, but not a necessity. Whatever you do, DO NOT FRAME your work. Print digital work and quality photographs of 3D work. Some may select to bring a tablet or laptop to display work. I recommend having a file of artwork rather than relying on a web application in case the internet is slow.
It’s not just about the artwork. It’s also about you. Reviewers are looking closely at how you present yourself. Are you confident? Can you speak well about your artwork and art-making process? You don’t need to dress up but do be comfortable and clean.
Have a plan. Register for the event. and ask, what are your goals? I often encourage juniors just to visit to see what the event is all about. I encourage them to pick lines that are short just to have the critiquing experience. For seniors, prioritize colleges that you might not be able to visit in person. Look over the college list and make a plan of the colleges you want to see. Be familiar with the
Listen, Respond, Ask Why. Do not jabber away explaining each of your artwork unless you are asked to, and even then keep it pithy. The work must speak for itself. Ask “why?” when receiving feedback on your work. Why do you think this is a strong part of my portfolio? What does it teach you about me as an artist? Remember, a reviewer’s comments are in context to the specific program they represent and will vary.
Take notes. Note the school and name of the person doing the review. Each school is different and has specific things that they are seeking in applicants’ work. Thus each school will provide different commentary so take notes during the review or immediately after while it’s fresh in your head.
Be prepared for criticism. A portfolio review is not always a compliment fest. At best it is can be a very positive conversation. At worst it can be a grumpy reviewer with a lot of negative comments. Students unprepared have been known to become defensive and even cry. You are going there for feedback on how to improve your work. Be ready to hear criticism. No one gets through an art school without criticism and not being able to receive and reflect on criticism means you are not ready for art school. It’s OK to not agree with everything but it’s not a time to debate it. I am very clear with my student about this. My job is to encourage the best out of them. A portfolio reviewer can speak more bluntly than a teacher may.
Eat and drink. It’s a long day. Eat and drink something before you go and pack snacks and water.
Thank you notes! Remember how I told you to take note of the name of the person reviewing you? Now, you will write that person a thank you note or email. Take the time to reflect on something specific from the interview. “I appreciated your perspective on making more dynamic compositions and have already looked into the specific artists and illustrators you suggested like Chris Van Allsburg! I loved his work as a child but am appreciating his compositions to tell a story now as a future illustrator.”