Applying to Art & Design School? Create a portfolio built to impress
mage courtesy of the Stamps School at the University of Michigan

Creative people give shape to their rich imaginations to convey unique observations, original ideas, and deeply felt emotions. Given the highly personal nature of creative expression, evaluation of creative work can seem subjective, confusing, and maybe even intimidating. As scary as it can be to share your creative work with outside eyes, there are a few key portfolio ingredients that admissions teams at top art and design schools are looking for. Follow these tips to create a winning portfolio to accompany your art and design school application.

First…why is a portfolio important?

For admissions  counselors at art and design schools, it’s not a simple task of looking at your academic grades, test scores, and extra-curricular activities. In addition to all of these items, admissions counselors also need to see a portfolio of your work to get a sense of your creative point of view, technical skill level, and most importantly, your potential. It’s also important for them to consider whether you will have the right support or “fit” at their school, as every art and design school offers a slightly different approach, including creative industry focused schools, media-specific programs, and comprehensive, cross-disciplinary educational models. Portfolios help admissions teams get a sense of “fit.” In many cases, at least 50 percent of the admissions decision is based on the portfolio.

Image courtesy of the Stamps School at the University of Michigan

So how can you create the perfect portfolio; one that will stand out, highlight your talents and potential, as well as show you really are the right candidate for the school?

  1. Showcase your progression

It has been said that a portfolio should demonstrate learning and growth over an extended period of time. So, while you want to ensure you are clearly showing what you can achieve now, consider including sketches, early prototypes, or other process-oriented materials to demonstrate how you arrived at a particular “finished” work. This can help show admissions teams your potential for growth, as well as the speed at which your skills have refined and developed.

  1. Demonstrate a range of skills in different mediums

While you probably already have a preferred way of making art and design, it’s important to highlight a broad range of artistic experiences to show that you are willing to experiment with new mediums, rather than just being set on one way of working. This means that even if you’re happiest and most successful creating 2D works with a pencil and your favorite sketchbook, admissions teams are looking to see documentation of your best attempts at the mediums you may find more challenging, including (but not limited to!) ceramics, fibres, animation, photography, woodworking, video, or audio work. Try to think outside the box. Perhaps you imagine yourself with a successful career in animation. Along with your refined 2D character designs, try your hand at learning some animation software to bring a figure to life for your portfolio (there are many free animation programs available for download—and YouTube tutorials to show you the ropes). Even if your attempt isn’t entirely polished and “professional,” it will go a long way in demonstrating your commitment, resourcefulness, and potential.

  1. Include observational drawing

Most art and design school applications specify the inclusion of observational drawings, so aim to highlight your abilities in this area. If it’s not your favorite way of working then think deeply about a way to make it interesting to you personally, or to make it applicable to the specific course you’re applying to. Observational drawing can be anything, from landscapes or the human body to intricate mechanics. Pro-tip: while drawing tutorials on Pinterest and YouTube are a great way to practice your technical skills in your sketchbook, it’s not the best item to include in your portfolio. Ditto for drawings of your favorite anime character or cartoon hero. You want to make sure your observational drawings demonstrate your unique creative perspective and way of seeing the world—anything else risks being seen as derivative or lacking in originality.

Image courtesy of the Stamps School at the University of Michigan

  1. Research each art and design school you are applying to and find out exactly what they want you to show in your portfolio

Just as every artist is different so is every art school. While the points above are usually considered important that might not be the case for every school you choose to apply to. The best way to prepare your portfolio is to gain a clear understanding of what is being asked of you, and maybe even create a few different portfolios ensuring each is bespoke and relevant to the course and School you are applying to. Reach out to the admissions teams of your top schools with questions about their specific requirements or show them your portfolio in progress for feedback at a National Portfolio Day near you.

  1. Get a second opinion

Before you submit your application, share your portfolio with your art teacher or an art admirer you trust. Feedback and a second pair of eyes can help you pave the way to a successful application.


While many schools are still focused around majors and media, the Stamps School believes that art and design education is about developing an individual’s creativity in a well-rounded and comprehensive way, crossing a variety of medias, approaches, and academic disciplines. Students at the Stamps School collaborate with students in engineering, public health, humanities, business, and other paths of study at the University of Michigan to deepen the concept and impact of their creative work. This broad approach prepares creative individuals with the technical, conceptual, and problem-solving skills they need to find creative success in an ever-changing professional world.

Image courtesy of the Stamps School at the University of Michigan

The school has four undergraduate degree programs:  BFA in Art and Design; BA in Art and Design; a Dual Degree option (majoring in Art and Design as well as another major from the University of Michigan); and a BFA in Interarts Performance.

At Stamps, 50 percent of the admission decision is based on your portfolio. Like many art and design schools, the Stamps School has very clear guidelines about what they want to see included in your portfolio. The basics are simple: they would like to see 12-15 pieces of your most recent work, including at least two design or direct observation drawings. Additionally,  Stamps offers guidance regarding how to make your portfolio stand up to the competition:

  1. Stamps suggests emphasizing experimentation, concept and a range of media.
  2. They would like to see both class assignments and self-directed to better understand your individual style.
  3. You should always be answering the question ‘why did I create this?’ in the descriptions you include about your work.
  4. mage courtesy of the Stamps School at the University of Michigan

Helpful tips:

  • Make sure to include strong concepts and a willingness to experiment. If you have explored a new medium for the first time, even if it’s not your best work, Stamps will want to see it, as experimentation is at the heart of everything they do.
  • They love to see drawings from students’ sketchbooks; this gives a clear idea of who you are, and is a window into your creative process.
  • Contour line drawings are a great way to include the two observational drawings that are required.
  • When photographing work for your portfolio make sure you have a clean wall or backdrop, light your work from two 45 degree angles and photograph it straight on. You don’t need fancy or expensive cameras to get your work ready for your portfolio, a phone camera will do just fine.

To hear more about these tips from Juliana, the Recruiting Coordinator at Stamps, just watch the video below.

It’s important to remember, wherever you apply, that your portfolio is a crucial part of your application, and if for any reason it is incomplete or you haven’t met the criteria outlined, your entire application could be considered incomplete.

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