How to Make a Portfolio for a Graduate School of Design

Your grad school portfolio should demonstrate advanced design skills and striking creativity.
... Ciaran Griffin/Photodisc/Getty Images

If you've been to art school or around the art world for a while, you know that your portfolio matters a lot more than grades and achievement test scores. That's why, when applying to a graduate-level design program, it pays to make sure your portfolio represents the best you have to offer. Keeping a few considerations in mind will help you create a portfolio that gets noticed by top art school selection committees.

1 Select Great Samples

Obviously, a portfolio should represent your best work, and it's not enough to show that you have artistic talents. At the graduate level, your portfolio should demonstrate that you have engaged successfully with a variety of media and are proficient in state-of-the-art digital design programs. Prestigious graduate design programs typically only have a few spaces in their programs available every year, and they will be looking at applicants' portfolios from every angle to see who stands out. For example, Carnegie Mellon School of Design states on its website, "We will evaluate your portfolio from multiple viewpoints, including visual or verbal communication skills, critical and analytical thinking, craftsmanship, ease of navigation, and creativity."

2 Say Something About Yourself

At this level, you will be expected to demonstrate that you already have clear direction and confidence in your artistic vision as a designer. Virgil Wong, a graphic designer and faculty member at New York's New School, suggests focusing your graduate school portfolio at the intersection of three things: what you love, what you do well and what the world needs. He goes on to say that your graduate portfolio should tell a story about you and establish a "mental model" for who you are as a designer.

3 Adjust for Your Viewers

If you plan to apply to multiple programs, feel free to adjust your portfolio to meet the expectations of each program, so long as you stay true to your personal vision. Look carefully at their websites and other literature, and ask current and former students about each schools' particular emphasis. For example, Art Center College of Design's media design grad program website states: "We are looking for risk-takers with varied interests who pursue design and critical inquiry with depth, intelligence, empathy, and passion." By choosing works that best fit this description, you are demonstrating that you are a good fit for the school. Also, most selection committees project portfolio images onto a wall while making their decisions, so make sure that the works you choose look good when enlarged in this way.

4 Submit Your Work

The final step is, of course, submitting the portfolio. Every school has different requirements and procedures, so be sure to follow all directions carefully. Rhode Island School of Design, for example, maintains a separate website "slide room" where students upload their portfolio images. Others, like Carnegie Mellon's School of Design, ask you to provide a link to an online portfolio that you've prepared on your own. Often, you will be asked to submit descriptions or personal essays along with your portfolio.

Based in Sedona, AZ, Nicole E. Dean has two decades of intensive experience as a writer, editor, educator and book coach. She is a regular contributor to "BrainWorld" magazine and created the blog Mystic@theMovies. She also taught college writing for 11 years and holds a master's degree in English literature.