Everything you need to know about Portfolio Preparation

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Are you thinking of applying for a creative course? Have you always dreamed of being a filmmaker/architect or fashion designer? Most students only have to worry about the points they get in their Leaving Cert. However, for some college courses, there is a whole other leg to the application process. If there’s one word that can strike fear into the souls of a college applicant (after, of course, the big LC) it’s the dreaded portfolio and the preparation that goes along with it.

Why all the work?

Portfolios are there for a reason. If you are thinking about a career as an artist, or in a similar creative area, then some Leaving Cert subjects are of limited use in working out whether or not you would succeed. Putting together a collection of your best work, showing off what you are capable of, and proving to the college that you have an aptitude for the area, just makes sense. Most third level Art, Fine Art and Art & Design courses in Irish colleges and universities require the submission of a portfolio. A good few other artistically inclined programmes ask for them too – examples include Architecture in UL, Industrial Design at NCAD, Film and TV Production at Dun Laoghaire and Photography at DIT degree courses.

Putting the prep back into Portfolio Preparation.

You cannot start this process early enough. Forget about the last few months of 6th year; this is something you should ideally be looking at as soon as you enter your senior cycle. Especially since all the work involved can be a lot for any Leaving Cert student to get their head around. It’s hard to stay on top of your workload when you also have French verbs and differential equations taking up a considerable amount of your brain capacity. So hopefully, the staff at your school – subject teachers and guidance councilors  – can help out with advice. As soon as you know where you want to go to college, keep an eye out for any open days they might have and make sure to pop along. Ask questions: what are they looking for? What tips do they have? Also, if you know someone who is now in college who had to put together a portfolio to get in, then talk to them and get some pointers.

What makes a great portfolio?

When you get down to the crux of what makes a great portfolio, you have to ask yourself, what are colleges looking for? Whereas your exam results are very impersonal, a portfolio is an opportunity for you to impress them with your talent and application. Equally importantly you can show everyone just how much you want to get onto the course. It’s a chance to stand out from the crowd. Think long and hard about the portfolio before you put it together. Throwing all your best stuff in higgledy-piggledy might not be a great idea, especially if there is no obvious thematic link between the pieces.

This can mean using a combination of materials and media including some or all of painting, jewelry, fashion, textiles, prints, murals, photographs, audio-visual, ceramics, posters, illustration, design and maybe most importantly of all – drawing. For the non-specifically Art courses (Architecture, Industrial Design, Film & TV and Photography) you don’t necessarily have to prove you can design a building or make a film, you just have to show that you have some creative talent and experience. Drawing, design, 3D work and photography are all perfectly acceptable. Make sure you check out the prospectus or website for the individual course to find out exactly what they are looking for.

Tips of the trade:

  • Research, research, research: You can never be too informed on the subject or theme of your portfolio. Don’t be afraid to expand your reading outside the realm of Wikipedia; go to the library, watch a documentary or visit a gallery. What have creatives in this area done on the subject? How does this inspire you? Being able to answer those questions, will not only help you develop your ability, and provide fresh ideas, but also to avoid they type of cliched interpretations that examiners hate.
  • Find a mentor: You are a relative newcomer to this field, which is absolutely fine. That’s what college is for: training you up and honing those skills. However, guided learning and assignments are how you really learn and grow. If you want to set yourself apart from other applicants, make sure you get advice from every source available. Plus, sometimes being too close to your own work is how you miss something obvious.
  • Show your support work: If you are asked for this in the brief, your prep is something you absolutely have to demonstrate. No matter how great your final project is, the process of how you got there is just as important when it comes to relaying your ability, work processes, and aptitude.
  • Read the instructions: You would be very, very surprised how many students slip up and seriously diminish their marks over something quite simple. Read your portfolio requirements, then reread them, take a break and give them another look over. It could be something as basic as not formatting your work correctly that can result in a serious black mark against you.
  • Be brave in your choices: Put yourself in the shoes of the examiner. They are looking at a plethora of work from many, many students. Do they really want to look at another portrait of Justin Beiber, even if it is really well observed? Be different, don’t go for the obvious choices and make your work stand out; they will remember you when it comes time to decide who gets those places.
  • Demonstrate your range: Sure, you’re great at painting landscapes, but you won’t get far if your fine art portfolio is just variations of the same painting. Try etches, try painting, and try print. You don’t have to be a dab hand at every facet of the process, but it speaks volumes that you can, and do, experiment.
  • Use your personality: What are you interested in? Do you love politics, activism, music? What makes you unique as a creative? Use this in your work. It shows character, depth and also makes working on projects a lot easier.
  • Work that written statement: Many portfolios will require a written statement to go alongside your work. This is vital when it comes to getting your ideas across, but also illustrates who you are as a person and student. Be honest, be creative, and follow the spec they have down to the letter.

You can always take a gap year.

Don’t beat yourself up if you a) don’t get enough done, or b) don’t get into college on your first go. The competition is fierce. Many students decide to hold back and put their portfolio together the year after their Leaving Cert. This can make sense as compiling a good portfolio takes time. It all depends on the student. There are a number of portfolio preparation courses available that allow you the time to concentrate solely on getting a decent body of work together. These can range from a weekend to a full year. Mature students looking to get enrolled on a Third Level creative course can make use of a portfolio preparation course to get back into the swing of full-time education before committing to a full degree course

And finally… enjoy it!

Yes, there’s a lot of work involved in putting a portfolio like this together, but bear in mind that as a creative endeavour, it should also be fun and rewarding. Plus, now’s the time to set up good habits that can last you a lifetime. If you are going to end up as a professional artist, designer, photographer or in any other creative line of work, then you will constantly be preparing applications to get commissions and impress clients throughout your career. Now is as good a time to start as any.


Whichcollege.ie is a national database of universities, colleges, institutes and providers of third level and PLC courses in Ireland. We operate a national search database of courses at certificate, diploma and degree level as well as providing information about career paths and directions.
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