What Kind of Examples Do Schools Want To See in a PortfolioAlthough an art or design student’s grades matter to a college admissions team, the strength of the student’s portfolio probably affects admissions officers’ decisions the most. In light of that, most serious art students know that what they put into their portfolios plays a critical role in the process. A student’s portfolio examples can make or break that student’s chances of getting into art school.

However, many students do not know what kind of samples schools want to see in a portfolio. While the answers can vary, depending on the type of school a person applies to, there are some standard portfolio pieces that most art schools want to see in a student’s portfolio.

Specific School Requirements

Many aspiring art school students may not realize that a one-size-fits-all approach to their portfolio can decrease their chances of getting into the school of their choice. Each school should get a portfolio that has been tailored to that school’s admissions requirements.

Some requirements are more general: For example, the school may require that the student send a few observational drawings, some personal drawings and a sample from the student’s sketchbook. In this case, the school won’t tell the student what specifically to draw, paint or sculpt. It only matters that the student submits samples that fit under those general categories.

Other schools, like DigiPen Institute of Technology, have a list of specific items and subjects that must appear in the portfolio for it to be considered. Specific items on DigiPen’s list include a life drawing of a pair of shoes, the interior of a room drawn in a two- or three-point perspective and still life in color. While DigiPen’s application also asks students to send samples of personal work, would-be students cannot sidestep the school’s specific requirements if they hope to get into the school.

Students who complete the task as required show the school a couple of things. First, these students demonstrate they can follow directions. Second, the students further demonstrate they can work from life and work with specific media, which are two of the most important skills in an artist’s toolbox.

Drawing and Painting From Life

The experience of drawing from a photograph or illustration is very different from drawing the same subject from direct life observation. When an artist draws from a photograph, his or her brain doesn’t have to translate a 3D object into a 2D drawing or painting. The photo reference already does that.

Drawing from life allows the artist to learn to see objects. It builds up a repository of images in the brain and their sketchbook that they can refer to later on. It also teaches them to see the volume in an object, which eventually allows them to create a more credible drawing.


An artist’s sketchbook could be called the “artist’s brains on paper.” It’s where artists develop their project ideas, work with new media and practice difficult art techniques. As an article on the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD) website points out, it’s a fairly simple matter to teach someone how to use Photoshop or how to deal with the technical aspects of drawing.

However, it’s difficult to teach creativity. The most creative artists draw out the progression of their ideas in their sketchbooks. University admissions officers know this, which is why they ask for a sketchbook sample. The sketchbook sample shows the university the student’s creative process.

Students who do not keep a sketchbook should start using one. It doesn’t have to be a sketchbook from an art store, however. It can also be a file folder, a three-ring binder or any other place where an artist can collect his or her ideas.

Use of Different Media

Each type of media from pencils to oil paint handles differently. Because of this, art schools want to see art samples that have been done in a variety of media.

Different media have different expressive qualities. Eventually, most artists choose one or two media they prefer to work in, but they should have a foundation in other types of media before they make this decision.


A student’s portfolio should tell a story. By looking through a student’s portfolio, school admissions officers learn how well the student has mastered certain technical skills. The admissions team also sees what’s personally important to the student, which is typically conveyed through the student’s selection of personal projects.

Additionally, the school will want to see a logical progression of the pieces in a portfolio. To convey these messages, Arts Bridge tells students to only select their best works. Typically, a school will ask to see between 15 and 20 pieces. Ideally, would-be art students created the pieces within the year.

Finally, since most schools will ask students to send digital copies of their portfolios, students should ensure that they include only high resolution, high-quality photos in their portfolio. Photos need to be labeled with their medium, the date created and any other important information. Most schools give potential students instructions for portfolio admission on their website, including how and where to submit the portfolio.

Related Resource: What Can I Do with an Art Degree?

Most would-be art college students know that they must submit a portfolio of their work to the schools they apply to. However, many of them are at a loss. They don’t know what kind of pieces art schools want to see in a student’s portfolio. While students do have some flexibility where this is concerned, meaning that some pieces will work for every school they apply to. These are usually the student’s pieces. However, some schools, like DigiPen, have some very specific requirements for what students must put in their portfolio in terms of subject matter and art materials.

A student’s best bet is to read each school’s portfolio requirements and tailor his or her portfolio submission to that school. This means that students often have to create multiple versions of their portfolio if they plan on applying to several schools.