The Perfect Portfolio: Applying to Art School

At the recent WACAC (Western Association of College and Admissions Counselors) Spring Conference, Kavin Buck and Laura Young, the director, and assistant director of UCLA’s School of Arts and Architecture, along with Ed Schoenberg, VP of enrollment at Otis College of Art and Design, shared their extensive experiences and insights on how best to pull together a portfolio of artwork for review by leading art schools.

All cautioned that the requirements for admission of visual arts majors will vary by major and institution. If you review the National Portfolio Day’s website for the coming school year at , you’ll note that the participating schools offer just fewer than forty different visual art majors. The NACAC also has its national portfolio program,, featuring everything from wood and web design to interior and industrial design.  Consequently, knowing the requirements of whichever school and major you elect could avoid a lot of confusion.

Schools look for potential in an applicant’s portfolio. Sure test scores and strong transcripts help, but talent trumps scores and grades. Furthermore, each school examines artwork from its own perspective, so having an extensive portfolio gives a student a better chance of finding appropriate artwork for each school. Creating such a portfolio, however, means you should start preparation for art school by the end of sophomore, or, at the latest, early junior year. This will allow you to become acquainted with the admissions process of the leading art schools, while building an effective portfolio.

Kavin Buck of the UCLA School of Arts suggests students submitting portfolios to a lot of schools on portfolio day should purchase colored stickers, assign each school a color, and attach its sticker to the back of each piece reviewed by the school.  If the feedback on a particular work is favorable, from a school’s reviewer, you’ll know into which school’s portfolio a piece of art should be incorporated.  Obviously, the more schools you apply to, the better organized you need to be.

Schools normally request that submitted portfolios include observational art, personal art, and, sometimes, a home exam.

Observational art is drawing something the way you see it. For example Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) requires applicants draw a bicycle on 16 “x 20” paper using a graphite pencil. Most of these pieces are often used to assess an applicant’s skill level. Art school candidates should produce an observational art piece at least once a week to optimize their portfolio.

Personal art reflects your passions. Schools look for an eclectic mix of materials (such as textured paper, cloth, acrylics…) in personal art; almost any medium can be used. Again, personal art more reflects passion and creativity than skill. Students should produce a piece of personal art monthly; personal artwork tends to take longer to produce than observational art.

Home exams include specific pieces requested by a school or department. Cooper Union describes its exam as a “number of visual projects to be completed in approximately 3-4 weeks and returned to The Cooper Union for review.” When producing a ‘home exam,’ remember the school’s approach to art. Also, research the faculty at the target school and get a sense of their works, styles, and philosophies. The key to the exercise is to assure the school and you share a similar sense of art. This might be difficult if you’re an original.

Successfully gaining a slot in a selective art school is a lot of work. Once in, be prepared for a dose of reality. As Ed Schoenberg mentioned, “Art school is not art therapy.” Your work is critiqued and sensitive and fragile students will have to absorb some punishment. Most schools are in search of talent, passion, and potential, not polish. If you’re able to contend with the criticism, and keep developing your vision, you probably have the right stuff for the demands of art school. It’s time to get your portfolio in order.