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    12 Ways to Improve Your Portfolio in High School

    Posted September 28, 2021, 1:32 pm by Rachel Sokol

    When applying to college as an art major, you want your resume and portfolio to ‘pop.’ Your talent can speak for itself, but industry experts and professionals will be reviewing your work, so razzle dazzle ‘em. We asked art scholars and students to give us the goods on what to showcase in a fine arts and photography portfolio, and this is their feedback. 

    1. Zero in on Your Weakness

    “My entire portfolio was photography because I was dead-set on that being my path,” recalls Amanda Bizarro ’22, Maine College of Art. (MECA) “But part of the MECA application required sketches--an area where I admittedly needed some practice and lacked confidence.” Bizarro put her camera down and started sketching. “Be open to new mediums and experimentation; both are crucial to grow as an artist and demonstrate the willingness to learn—something schools look for.” 

    2. Be Prepared to Choose One or the Other 

    Don’t just send schools a hodge-podge of your artwork; adhere to what they’re requiring from you. “Every school will want to see something different,” says Jen Campanaro, Director of Admissions, Maine College of Art. (MECA) “For example, at MECA--whether it's a variety of different media and techniques or one consistent theme—admissions officers want to see your artistic voice and skill.” 

    3. Narrow Down Your College Choices

    Focus on two or three schools vs. applying to ten. Says Campanaro: “Picking your top schools early and diving into their unique needs will help you focus your portfolio on what will matter most to the schools you want to impress.” 

    4. Include Artwork From Competitions

    Whether the winner wins a ribbon or $500, “ enter as many art competitions as you can to keep refining your portfolio with the feedback you receive on your work,” says Annabelle Richardson '22, Maine College of Art. 

    5. Darkroom is a Do

    “Darkroom, or film-based images, totally have a place in a photography portfolio,” says Andrew Frost, MFA, Senior Lecturer and Media Technician, University of Vermont. “I think having the experience of working in a darkroom and with traditional materials is extremely beneficial. It’s like a masterclass in the technical aspects of photography; and that technical discipline is very valuable no matter whether you’re shooting film or digital.”

    6. All-Digital is Okay

    However, if you don’t have darkroom access, or darkroom photos—don’t worry. “When looking at portfolios, my basic assumption is that the images will be digital,” explains Frost. “There are countless examples of incredible images made with digital cameras and your level of access to equipment shouldn’t stop you from making strong photographs.”

    7. Do Your Research

    Look at the creative work of current students and recent graduates, particularly by visiting their on-campus gallery or attending a graduating show.” This will help you understand the types of students currently going through the program and who they've selected in the past,” advises Phil Ollenberg, Assistant Registrar, Bow Valley Community College, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 

    8. Show Your Growth

    “Not everything should make it into your portfolio. Evidence of process and growth is superior to clutter,” says Véronique Côté, Photography and Visual Arts Professor, Miami International University of Art & Design. Also—showcase YOU. “The strongest portfolios not only demonstrate exploration; they also illustrate a logical direction and growth in artistic skills and expression.”

    9. Submit Neatly Organized Work

    “Take time to document your work well,” advises Columbia Shafer, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, California College of the Arts. (CCA) “Photograph your work outdoors on a cloudy day, or indoors using multiple lighting sources.” Or photograph it against a neutral background like a blank wall, white piece of paper or cloth. “If submitting 3D work, photograph the work from multiple angles so we can see the ‘walk around’ and get an idea of how the object occupies space.” If submitting digital work, consider submitting your process work too, such as early drafts, hand drawn sketchbook ideation, notes/research.

    10. Be Open to Feedback

    Be open-minded because feedback helps you grow. “Show your portfolio-in-progress to your school’s art teacher and ask if they have any tips for your organization or descriptions,” says Shafer. “Also, some art schools, like CCA, offer personalized portfolio reviews you can sign up for online.” 

    11. Share Your Dream

    "We want to see how students are making progress towards their goals--even if they don't have all of the resources to achieve those goals quite yet,’ says Angela Jones OBrien, Assistant Vice-President for Admissions, University of the Arts. “If they can't produce large-scale installation work in high school, they can show us through a combination of drawings and videos and small sculptures how they are building the skills to work towards that dream.” 

    12. Submit Work You Love

    Don’t just blindly toss in art you think they’ll ‘like.’ “Spending those restless hours on each piece should result (eventually...) into a portfolio filled with the work you're most proud of,” says Kiden Smith, ’24, Savannah College of Art and Design. (SCAD) “You must love each piece and have personal connection in your final works, or else the whole portfolio will fall short." Overall, whether you dream of being a photojournalist or a sculptor, or both, be confident “Having that sense of confidence will help provide a way for you and your work to ‘stand out’ in comparison to your peers,” says Smith. 

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    Rachel Sokol

    Rachel Sokol

    A NY-based writer, Rachel Sokol has contributed to TODAY Parents, SHAPE, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Univision, FamilyEducation, Mom.com, and more. She has a degree in magazine journalism from Emerson College, was a higher education writer in Manhattan for 8 years, and has two children.