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How to Prepare an Art School Portfolio for College Admission

What do I need to know to start preparing my art school portfolio for college?

Preparing an art school portfolio for college admission is not a casual undertaking, it’s very common for high school students to underestimate how much time and labor is involved.  Creating the artworks for an art school portfolio is not simply the amount of time it would take to physically produce the precise number of artworks.

The process of creating an art school portfolio is an enormous learning experience that is ongoing throughout the entire process. Although preparing an art school portfolio can often times feel overwhelming and stressful for many high school students, the learning and experience you will get making the artworks is actually one of the best parts.

You’re doing to develop your skills and artistic thinking process tremendously by the act of producing the artworks for your portfolio. If you invest the effort, work really hard, and are open to trying out pretty much anything, you’ll reap many rewards.

For most students it takes several months, even up to a year to create a body of work that is rigorous enough for the competitive art school and college admissions process.

“I’m having trouble finding the sweet spot between observational artwork and my more creative work. What do you think is a good ratio?” 

“Does it look bad to have a large difference in style in the portfolio?”

“If a school asks for 20 drawings in portfolio, make sure that you have more than 20 drawings. Do twice as many drawings.”

“Choosing which pieces to include in my art school portfolio was challenging. Ultimately, I decided to get super technical and create a number system for what- types of work to include…”

“Remember to show you are. Colleges are looking for a fit, so you want to show as much of your personality as you possibly can through your work.”

Preparing an art school portfolio takes a village

On top of the actual hours that are required to simply produce the artwork, creating an art school portfolio requires continuous guidance from professionals in visual arts,  structured training in technique, access to accurate information about art supplies, as well as a supportive peer group who can help you stay on track and motivated in this entire process.

An art school portfolio won’t happen overnight

You won’t be able to wake up one day, decide to apply to art school, and just whip up a portfolio in a few weeks, all by yourself.  You have to get guidance.

So few few high school students have easy access to rigorous art programs and professional artists with expertise in portfolio preparation.  Unfortunately for this reason, you’ll have to be prepared to take tons of self-initiative on your own to reach out and get the help you’ll need.

This has nothing to do with your abilities, experience or skill set, it’s simply what has to happen. Would an athlete who wants to play college football decide to not bother getting a coach?  Let us know when you hear about an NFL player who was entirely self taught.

“I was comparing what I had in myart  portfolio to what they had posted on Google. And honestly I was terrified.”

“I’ll never forget the pieces that I made in that class because I didn’t have constructive feedback, and sometimes there was no prompt.”

“Making my art school portfolio was hectic and MISERABLE. I spent 3 straight months just churning out as much art as I possibly could… “

Different school, different portfolio

Every school is going to have their own unique set of requirements, so be sure that you check each school’s guidelines first, especially before you get started preparing your portfolio. We recommend re-reading the guidelines multiple times as you’re working on your portfolio to be certain at every stage that you are following their precise requirements.

It can be an awful lot of information to keep track of, keep all of that information organized so you don’t get confused. One student told us she had Google spreadsheets for the entire process!

“Applying to art school for me was not as stressful as I thought it’d be after I ‘got over the hump’ and just went for it.”

“I wanted to show that I was willing to experiment and try new things, and I think that’s something that art schools really look for.”

Portfolio requirements that are specific to the art school

The level of specificity in terms of requirements for each art school can vary tremendously.  Some art schools are quite open ended in terms of what they are looking for in a portfolio, while others can be incredibly specific.

For example, CalArts has a sketchbook requirement, while the Animation program at Sheridan College has requirements that state exactly what media to use, what subject matter down to the last detail.

Several art school assignment specific prompts

Several art schools and college will provide a prompt that students will need to respond to, specifically for their application on top of the portfolio. Keep in mind that many schools that provide a prompt frequently change the prompts every year, so make sure that you are referring to the correct year’s prompt. You’ll need to set aside time to work on these specific assignments in addition to creating the entire portfolio.

Create multiple versions of your portfolio

For this reason, it’s highly likely that if you are applying to multiple art schools that you’ll have to create several different versions of your portfolios depending on what school requires.  There might be a “core” of artworks that can applied to every school, but you’ll need to make changes to adjust to each school’s requirements. Don’t make the assumption that for each school, you’ll be able to use the same 15 artworks!

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