Preparing an Art Portfolio for College Admission

Class Photo

I finished up teaching RISD Pre-College last Friday, and as usual I’m collecting my thoughts after a packed 6 weeks of teaching. In the final week, I was particularly struck by how unprepared most of the Pre-College students were in terms of their portfolios for art school admission.

On the last day of class, I gave the Pre-College students the option to have individual appointments with me to review their portfolios.  Out of the approximately 50 student portfolios I reviewed, I didn’t see a single student whose portfolio was ready. In fact, the students weren’t even close in terms of the level of quality that is required to gain admission into a rigorous undergraduate art program.

Out of the hundreds of student artworks in portfolios that I reviewed last week, I can count on one hand the number of drawings that were drawn from direct observation. Almost every drawing I saw was a tight pencil drawing copied from a photograph with the subject in the dead center of the composition, with a blank white background. I’ve never understood the exclusive use of pencil as a drawing medium in high school students, when you consider the amazing range of wonderful drawing materials that are readily available.  Students told me left and right that they were instructed to do pencil drawings only from photographs by their art teachers, to use a grid method to draw, to strive to make their pencil drawings as photo realistic as possible, as well as other terrible drawing methods.   On top of that, every student told me that they were basically building their portfolios on their own, with no help or advice from anyone.  I told pretty much every student that they had to start over.

Chipboard Sculptures

I discussed strategies with the Pre-College students about what they should do to improve their portfolios, as well as what to avoid for their portfolios. However, it seems that the problem goes far deeper than that. From my experience, the root of the problem is that the vast majority of high school art students have no idea what makes for a good quality artwork. In athletics, it is obvious who scored the most points to win the game, or who ran the fastest.

Visual arts is challenging because what defines a compelling artwork is subjective, what is “good” to one person may well be “bad” to someone else.  In this particular context, I’m not trying to label artworks as “bad” and “good.”  I’m talking about simply weeding out the artwork that is total garbage (most of what you see on the Internet), which apparently is all the Pre-College students are looking at for inspiration.  When I asked the Pre-College students who their favorite artists were, they either said they didn’t know any artists, or showed me an amateur’s work on Tumblr. Not one student named an artist who would be in any standard art history textbook. If these students don’t even have an understanding of what is good quality artwork is to begin with, it makes sense that they would not know where to begin with their own art.

Foamcore Staircase Assignment

I don’t know any other field where at the high school level, most students don’t understand what they should be striving for, have no options for rigorous training, and are taught faulty methods.  It’s the equivalent of a soccer player not understanding that to win you have to score more goals than the other team, and then on top of that, having a coach they see once a week for one hour, who trains them to kick the ball only with their heels. Sounds ridiculous?  Well, from what I heard from my Pre-College students this summer, that pretty much sums up how many high school students experience visual arts.

As an art professor, it upsets me that my Pre-College students were left to navigate their portfolios on their own, and that there was no one to steer them in the right direction. It is no fault of theirs that they didn’t know what to do, or how to do it. One thing I am sure of is that you cannot train to be an artist on your own.  Like any other field, you need a continuous support system of established mentors, competitive peers, and rigorous programs behind you.  And yet in visual arts in high school, most students are left sitting on a mountain in isolation, being forced to reinvent the wheel by themselves.

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6 thoughts on “Preparing an Art Portfolio for College Admission

  1. This article was very interesting and true. I found that I related to this in more aspects than one. I often think that drawing something with great technique and similarity to a photo is a clear example of your expertise in art. However, this article and this person say otherwise. Instead, I should be focusing on how and what I want to get across to the audience and how I want to place everything. I need to think about the entire piece and how it will look before it is actually finished. I also agree with when they said, “Visual arts is challenging because what defines a compelling artwork is subjective, what is “good” to one person may well be “bad” to someone else.”. Art is all subjective and therefore there will be criticism, so to achieve one needs to grasp what they are saying and learn from it.

  2. In this article, I agree that not all students are ready when showing their portfolio. Not everyone understand exactly what it is that the reviewers are looking for, so they need good teachers to help guide them in the right direction. I can relate to this because I don’t even know where to start with my portfolio, and I know that with some help from others I can get to a level where my artwork will be exactly what critics are looking for. No one will have a great portfolio if they have to figure it out on their own, so with some help, they can learn the rights and wrongs of creating their own portfolio.

  3. I totally agree with this article because I believe that strong structure of basics is mandatory not just for arts, but for every subjects in general. Without practicing basics, it is nearly impossible for artists to create a considerable, solid artwork for college administrations to approve. It’s like building a sand castle when you’re supposed to build a brick house. It is true that students won’t know where they’re heading without the basics. Producing an art is not just imitating what others have produced or copying photographic works. Artists can’t always be anthro-cameras. Art is not just about drawing “accurately”, it is also about how you’ve put in your inspiration, thoughts, passion, and creativity. There is a reason for many art students to visit art museums time to time to get those other key elements as references. These other key elements that I’ve listed is what makes art subjective. Art…questions people. Inspires people. It gives meanings to people. It portrays your style and your positive individuality. Thus, I believe that “good” artwork comes from spending numerous hours on basics, looking at other people’s work that matches your preference, and ultimately digesting those practices into your own creative piece of inspirational artwork. Well, that was my personal opinion. I think my weaknesses in art applies to every medias in fine arts as a whole. But to pick out the ones that I am most struggling, they would be graphite and perspective. It’s so hard for me to avoid those graphite shines and smudges 😦

  4. Reading this, even after Mrs. Akashi telling us and pointing these things out, helped me further realize what I should be focusing on when it comes to my art and developing a portfolio. Although I am not a drawing and painting person myself and I have been building a portfolio for graphic design, drawing and painting helps me discover new areas and explore new ways to approach my designs. Looking back on what I’ve made in my painting and drawing class, I know that I can work on composition, because that’s really important as a designer. I also want to work with a wider range of materials, I’ve been using a lot of different things this year, such as using broken flower pot pieces, but I want to go forward with that and explore even bigger. I also want to create finished pieces, and push myself to work with my art until I have a breakthrough, instead of giving up. I believe these things will help me become more innovative with my designs, and my art as a whole.

  5. My son would ike to attend a seminar or classes to build artwork portfolio to get college grant. Please let me know where to apply or anything that would help him to build the artwork portfolio.

    1. My recommendation would be for you to read this blog post I wrote, which has comprehensive information on how to build an art portfolio. We just recently launched, which has tons of free resources for students building portfolios. Right now there is a video course on drawing a still life in color, which would be a great place to start with building fundamental drawing skills. We also have a critique section with videos that is very useful for students to see how artwork is reviewed. Our monthly Art Dares are terrific in terms of finding projects to do. On our YouTube, we have video courses on how to build a sketch into a finished drawing, and how to draw a portrait in charcoal. You can register for free on, and your son can ask any questions about art directly to our staff by making comments on various pages too! In terms of taking classes in person, I would check any local colleges in your area and see if they offer any courses for high school students. Hope that helps!

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