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How to Prepare an Art School Portfolio: Tips for Attending National Portfolio Day

Updated October 27, 2019

By Clara LieuAdjunct Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design

Get ready for honest feedback on your portfolio

Finally, the real test of the strength of your portfolio is attending a local National Portfolio Day event, where representatives from art schools and colleges with art programs across the United States are available to critique your portfolio in person.  If you’re really serious about being accepted into a high caliber undergraduate art program, this is the event to go to.

Catherine Huang

Cat Huang
Illustrator & Comics Artist

“One thing that I tried to do to help myself with this art school portfolio process was go to National Portfolio Day, which honestly was the worst.

I got into line for one school, and by the time I had finished with that school, it was closing, so I only saw one art school’s representative.

Go to National Portfolio Day as a Junior in High School

We recommend going in the fall of your junior year.  Some students are hesitant to attend the event their junior year, but actually, that experience is really useful for when you attend as a senior. Going your junior year is much less stressful, you can just to get a feel for how the event works, pick up lots of brochures, and speak to admissions officers without the pressure of wanting to get a portfolio review.  The you can go again in the fall of your senior year.

Attending this event is always overwhelming for students, and going twice will most certainly make your second experience much more manageable.

By the way, you don’t have to have a substantial portfolio to attend National Portfolio Day!  In fact, if you have very little work junior year (which is very typical) it’s still worth attending.  You can pick up tons of brochures, speak to admissions officers, talk to other high school students, all without the pressure of getting your portfolio reviewed.

You’ll probably spend most of National Portfolio Day waiting in line

Be ready for very long lines and huge crowds, especially at the top schools.  Prof Lieu first went as a junior in high school.  Despite having waited 2 hours in line, she didn’t even get a review from their top choice school.

The line at this school was so obscenely long that at a certain point, the school just closed the line and turned everyone else away.

It was a crushing experience, and incredibly frustrating, especially  knowing that this event only occurs once a year.

The second year Prof Lieu went, having learned her lesson the year before, she went to wait in line for the doors to open two hours in advance of the event starting!

That strategy worked though, Prof Lieu was the first person in line and the second they opened the doors, she sprinted to the booth for her top choice school, which guaranteed a portfolio review.

Brace yourself for harsh words, rushed review, and a mixed bag of critiques

At National Portfolio Day, brace yourself for the possibility of harsh words, rushed comments, and feedback that is less than helpful or not considerate of you as an individual.

Your experience with the reviewers will definitely be a mixed bag; some reviews will give you really useful advice that you can directly apply to your portfolio preparation, while others won’t be as helpful. Don’t be discouraged if you get a tough critique or a rude comment!

Keep in mind that the reviewers are there all day, they are talking to tons of students, and have extremely limited time. For the reviewers, it’s an exhausting day which can be trying.

Feedback can be tough to hear, but it’s important to listen to in order to improve

Frequently, students are told at National Portfolio Day that they essentially have to start over from scratch because their portfolio is headed in the wrong direction.  A comment like this can be really hard to hear, but it’s better to get an honest review than to be told you are all set, and then to discover that wasn’t the case after all at a later time.

Be on your best behavior, even when it’s tempting not to be

This event can be difficult and it’s common for students to have a frustrating experience. On the other hand, it’s also up to you to be on your best behavior as well at an event like this.

Don’t do what Prof Lieu did, watch the video at the top of the page above to find out about her dramatic behavior at National Portfolio Day in 1993!

Hear about Cat’s experience at National Portfolio Day in the video on the left, you’ll feel better about spending so much of your time at the event waiting in line!

Tips for attending National Portfolio Day

Be gracious, polite, and say “thank you.”
Introduce yourself at the beginning of the reviewer, make eye contact with the reviewer in the eye, and shake hands. Make sure to say thank you when the review is over, no matter how you feel about what they had to say, it’s common courtesy to do so!

Research the schools in advance.
Visit National Portfolio Day Association’s website, and make a list of the schools you’re interested in before the event. Next, visit the websites of the schools you’re interested in before the event, so that you know what their focus and emphasis is on.

For example, there’s no point in wasting your time at the event speaking to a reviewer at a school that has no illustration department if illustration is a field you have interest in.

Be concise when you speak. 
Prepare any questions you have in advance of the event, and you might even consider taking the time to run the 1-2 sentences by someone else to make sure it makes sense and is clear. These review sessions are quickly paced, you won’t have time to explain your work in a great deal of depth. I

I opened my sketchbook to proudly display the intricate planning and research behind the pieces I had laid out.

“Oh, you must be confused. This is the wrong type of sketchbook. Where’s your other one?” said the reviewer.

“I don’t understand.”

“We don’t want to see planning for these pieces. In fact, we don’t really need to see these pieces at all. What we need is your real sketchbook, the one with character designs and other drawings.”

Read Monika’s entire article about her experience at National Portfolio Day.
See Monika’s sketchbook in our Sketchbooks Page.

Monika Hedman

Monika Hedman
Art Prof Assistant Editor,
Production Assistant

Organize your portfolio beforehand. 
Have your physical artwork neatly packaged in a large portfolio case that is easy to open. Nothing is more frustrating, or more of a waste of time, than for a reviewer to have to sift through a giant mess of drawings that are disorganized and therefore difficult to view quickly.

If you’re going to show any images on a tablet or a laptop, (which is totally acceptable) have a folder of the images you want to show prepared in advance. Again, no reviewer wants to sit there and watch you searching for files on your laptop for 10 minutes!

Don’t make excuses. 
The reviewers are interested in the work, they’re not interested in discussing why your hard drive crashed 1 hour before the review began or why you’re so busy with your classes and don’t have time to make better work. For the most part, statements like this really don’t get your conversation off to a good start and are not useful at all.

Don’t apologize for your work. 
You want to always present yourself and your work in the best light possible.  Speak about your work with confidence and be prepared to answer any possible question with enthusiasm and clarity.

A friend of Prof Lieu’s who is an actress said that the actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman said in an interview once that you always want to do your best work; regardless of whether you are performing for an audience of 3 people in a tiny local cafe,  or in Carnegie Hall for an audience of hundreds.

When you apologize for how bad you think a drawing is, or how when you go into depth about what you’re not good at, there’s a high risk that your statements will be perceived as whiny and immature. This also takes time away from hearing what the reviewer has to say.

Julie Sharpe

Julie Sharpe
Art Prof Project Assistant

“National Portfolio Day is one of the most important resources available to high school artists. Dozens of art schools agree to meet in one place and review your portfolio for free.

I went last as a junior and received great feedback on my portfolio and advice on what to make before senior year.”

Don’t be defensive. 
This means not arguing with the reviewer or telling them “but everyone else likes my work!” You’re there to get feedback on your work, not plead your case to a jury. Remember that schools have specific criteria they are looking for, that your work may not necessarily fit what that school wants in a student.

Inevitably, you’re going to speak to some reviewers who you vehemently disagree with.  Instead of starting a fruitless argument stay cool, nod, and then move onto your next reviewer.

One of the toughest things about National Portfolio Day is the overwhelming amount of information you get in such a short period of time. In our experience, it’s hard to even begin to think straight at events like this!   Most reviewers at National Portfolio Day will only be able to give you a 5 minute reviewer, maybe 8 minutes if you are extremely lucky.

Therefore, it’s unrealistic to expect to receive a portfolio review that really is in depth and thoughtful.  You might consider purchasing a 30 min. portfolio critique from our staff if you want a review that goes into much more detail and provides a comprehensive critique of your portfolio.

Submit Your Art for a Free Live CritiquePurchase a critique or Skype consult

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