Tips for Going to National Portfolio Day

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.

Portfolio Critiques, Clara Lieu

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.

Cat Huang

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 in their junior year, but actually, that experience is really useful for when you go as a senior.

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Going your junior year is much less stressful, you can just go to get a feel for how the event works, pick up lots of brochures, talk to other high school students, and speak to admissions officers without the pressure of wanting to get a portfolio review.  Then you can attend again in the fall of your senior year.

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Prof Lieu & Jordan McCracken-Foster

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 in junior year (which is very typical) it’s still worth attending. 

Most of your day is 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 her 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 is only held once a year.

The second year Prof Lieu , having learned her lesson the year before, 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 as soon as they opened the doors, she sprinted to the booth for her top choice school, which guaranteed a portfolio review.

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Brace yourself

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 reviewers 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!

Oil Painting Studio

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.

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Need help with your portfolio?

You don’t have to prepare a portfolio all by yourself!

We provide professional feedback and support through portfolio critiques, artist calls, artist statement editing, and personal art curriculums.

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Feedback can be tough to hear

Frequently, students are told at National Portfolio Day that they essentially have to start 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, only to discover that wasn’t the case after all at later.

Be on your best behavior

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.

7 Tips for attending National Portfolio Day

1. Be gracious, polite, and say “thank you”

Introduce yourself at the beginning of the review, make eye contact with the reviewer, 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!

Clara Lieu, RISD Pre-College Summer Program

2. 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.

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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 an interest in.

Lauryn Welch
Lauryn Welch

3. 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. 

Prof Lieu

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.

Monika Hedman
Purchase a Portfolio Critique, Lauryn Welch & Clara Lieu
Lauryn Welch & Prof Lieu

4. 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!

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5. 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.

6. 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 three 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.

Deepti Menon
Deepti Menon

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.

Julie Sharpe

7. 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, and that your work may not necessarily fit what that school wants in a student.

Alex Rowe & Monika Hedman

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!  

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Most reviewers at National Portfolio Day will only be able to give you a 5 minute review, maybe 8 minutes if you are extremely lucky.