How do you make an art portfolio for college? If you’re a high school art student, you’ve likely asked this question at least once — and for good reason. Becoming an art major isn’t a walk in the park. It doesn’t just require you to fill out a college application, write essays, and pay a tuition fee. 

Getting into an art school or a university’s art program requires a unique body of work that shows your skill set and visually explains why you deserve a spot at their college. Doing this can be challenging, especially when you don’t know where to start or what type of portfolio pieces to create and include. But the journey to getting into a great program or college isn’t impossible. It just requires enthusiasm and a commitment to working hard to produce your best art. 

Successfully Navigating Competitive Art Schools 

Let’s start by answering this first question: why are enthusiasm and commitment essential to producing a great art portfolio? The simple answer is that college admissions at selective institutions are competitive.  

One of the schools with the largest number of students entering its college application process is NYU. The university received 120,000 applications for its 2027 class, a 13% increase over the previous year’s record-breaking pool. It also attracted 14% more early decision applications in 2022 than the previous year. Consequently, NYU has had 16 consecutive years of garnering a record-setting number of applications, but this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get into the institution. 

Many high school art students are admitted into NYU every year — but it’s because they love art and have dedicated themselves to practicing their craft to develop their skill set and create beautiful portfolios. That’s why it’s critical to bring enthusiasm and a committed spirit to the college application process. Those two things alone can help you navigate competition and get into an art program that’s the right fit. Those characteristics can also help you create a portfolio that stands out so you can pursue your preferred art discipline, even if it’s a popular one. 

It’s no secret that certain art majors have attracted significant interest, leading more students to pursue them. From animation to character design to human-computer interaction, many high school students want to focus on digitally-based art forms. This increased interest has led schools to prefer trained and disciplined artists who are ready to dive deeper into their creative wells, especially since institutions only have so many teachers and technology to devote to students.

The good news, though, is that you can be one of the students schools admit. At Portfolio College Counseling, we’ve seen firsthand how achievable it is to get into a college with a suitable art program. In fact, we’ve helped hundreds of high school students develop art portfolios that allow them to attend the right school for them, regardless of the competition. So, believe us when we say you can develop the material needed to take the next step in your creative pursuits. 

The Key to Every Good Art Portfolio

If there’s one thing to know about creating the best portfolio possible, it’s this: your work needs to reflect who you are as a person. It needs to be personal. It needs to show what you think. It needs to express what makes you uniquely you

The fun part is that you can show all of this with the style, context, color palette, subject matter, and medium you choose. However, the decisions you make to express yourself should be thoughtful and intentional. Admissions committees want to see that you made deliberate and careful artistic choices to showcase your unique personality. So don’t simply try to illustrate who you are at 16, 17, or 18 years old — try to illustrate who you are by making thoughtful creative decisions. 

Allowing this carefully considered glimpse into your personality is what will give admissions committees a sense of whether you’ll benefit from their art program and become a successful designer or artist at their school. 

What Are the Top Art Portfolio Requirements? 

Creating pieces of art that reflect who you are as a person isn’t the only thing to consider when designing an art portfolio. University programs and art and design schools usually look for several other things in student portfolios. Some of the biggest elements they want you to include are the following: 

1. Observational drawing

tips on how to make an art portfolio for college

One of the most important things admissions officers want to see is observational drawing. The number of portfolio pieces that must fall into this category will depend on the program and school. Some want 50% of portfolios to be observational, while others ask for a bigger or smaller portion. Regardless of the amount, the main thing is to show you’re skilled in drawing. 

There are many artistic decisions you’ll have to make as a creative. You’ll have to choose composition, contrast, perspective, and texture — and admissions want to see the decisions you make. The only way to do that is to require you to draw observationally. However, this may be one of the hardest requirements to fulfill because most high school students aren’t confident in their drawing skills, especially if they’ve tried it and don’t feel positive about their skill set. 

Fortunately, observational drawing is muscle memory. It’s training your brain and hands to capture what you’re seeing. Of course, this isn’t easy to do — but it’s more than possible with training and consistent practice, both of which are available in summer art programs for high school students.  

2. Original work

This should go without saying, but original work is mandatory. You can’t use art from a portfolio you found online, and you can’t use AI to make your portfolio, either. You need to create totally original, high-quality art. Every piece of work in your portfolio needs to be fresh, new, and original. 

3. Recent work 

This art portfolio requirement is often overlooked, but it’s really important. Colleges like to see artwork that’s no older than two years. That means including pieces of work that you created as a freshman isn’t a good idea. It’ll not only fail to meet the college requirement, but it may not be a true depiction of how your art practice has matured when it’s time to start the portfolio submission process. 

4. Your thought process 

Here’s an interesting requirement most high school students don’t know: your art portfolio doesn’t just need finished, polished art pieces. Oftentimes, art programs want to see more than technical skills and also understand the steps you took to bring fuzzy concepts to life. This means you’ll need to include process work in your art portfolio. 

Even if the concepts you tried didn’t work, admissions committees want to see your thought process. They want to see how you brainstorm, execute, experiment, and express yourself. Skilled admission reviewers will know how to discern these things from looking at your art portfolio. 

So, if you haven’t started doing so already, make sure to keep everything you’ve created. Don’t throw anything out. It doesn’t matter what type of art you’re focusing on. It can be graphic design, fine arts, fashion design, printmaking, or something else entirely. Make sure you keep a file or an external hard drive where your process work exists. 

If you want to take things a step further, take pictures of your artwork as you’re creating it. Also, consider taking videos of yourself working. This media can be included in your art portfolio alongside sketchbooks to give admissions officers the best glimpse into your thought process.  

5. Cohesion 

Your art portfolio for college should be a cohesive body of work. It should make sense as a group of items. That doesn’t mean it has to be a series or cover a particular theme. However, it does mean a college admissions committee should be able to look at it and notice a single thread uniting the entire portfolio. 

6. The right quantity 

Colleges want your portfolio to have a specific number of pieces of art. This can vary, depending on the school. Typically, the range is anywhere between 5 and 25 art pieces — but remember that this is a range. There are some art programs that ask for 60 pieces, while others ask for just five. The key is to submit the required number of pieces to meet each school’s request. 

7. Uniqueness

In the last couple of years, colleges have gotten excited about student portfolios that are unique, different, and a little wild. One of the reasons for this is the increase in portfolio submissions. Because programs receive so many applications, they like portfolios with art pieces they don’t expect to see — and this surprise element bodes well for high school students by helping them get into college. 

8 Ways to Craft a Unique College Art Portfolio 

how to make an art portfolio for college

Now that you know what elements to include in your college art portfolio, it’s time to discuss the steps to take to actually provide these elements and create a body of work that stands out. Below are eight strategies you can use, but keep in mind that this is not a fixed list. There are many different ways to create a unique college art portfolio.  We’ve just compiled some of the tips we’ve seen work best. 

1. Brainstorm and build on ideas 

Ideally, you should brainstorm ideas with a portfolio college counselor (that would be us). Having a professional alongside you to expand on your ideas and provide instruction can be incredibly helpful. Oftentimes, they’ll be the catalyst that provides the foundation you need to move forward on your own and develop good portfolio pieces. So, consider finding a good counselor who can ask the right questions to help you create an original and unique body of work. 

2. Get feedback on your art portfolio 

If you’re working with a good portfolio counselor, you’ll automatically get feedback at every meeting. For example, when working with us, we’ll point out strengths, common threads, and any areas needing improvement. We’ll also suggest pieces to include to meet college requirements, like observational drawings, a series, or something else you haven’t thought about incorporating. This feedback can help you try new things and experiment to create a portfolio that not only meets criteria but also makes you excited and proud. 

3. Hone your technical abilities at a summer art program

There are dozens of pre-college programs for high school art students. Some cover a broad range of disciplines, while others focus on one topic. Additionally, some are in person, while others are online. Regardless of the format, these summer intensives are great ways to become a better artist. 

You’ll learn new approaches to creativity, try new disciplines, hear new perspectives, and gain real insight into what college-level art looks like. Without a doubt, this deep dive into the collegiate art world will do wonders at sharpening your technical art skills to enhance your portfolio pieces. 

4. Do a portfolio review at a college 

While you’re at a summer art program, you can (and should) ask one of the art teachers to critique your portfolio pieces. There’s one thing to keep in mind, however, if you take this route: you must be able to handle constructive criticism well. 

College professors will provide honest feedback, and you need to receive it positively to move forward effectively. That doesn’t mean you need to prepare for the worst. But it does mean college professors at summer programs want to see you improve and will offer genuine feedback to achieve that goal. 

5. Start building your art portfolio sophomore year

Art programs usually want portfolio submissions that are no more than two years old. Consequently, the middle of sophomore year is the sweet spot for starting to develop your portfolio. It gives you just enough time to begin, finish, and submit your portfolio pieces with less stress and more room for trial and error. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t start developing your portfolio as a junior or senior. Many high school students do this and still get into a great college. You just need to have a deeper level of enthusiasm, discipline, and commitment to create your portfolio in a shorter time frame. 

6. Develop well-written artist statements

Visually appealing to an audience may be your specialty, but writing well is just as important to colleges. Your application will need to include an artist statement. This is a short piece of writing that explains your artistic work so that your pieces are accessible and understandable to your audience. 

It must be written in the first person and represent you as an artist. It must also be clear, concise, and well-written. However, it can be creative and fun! So, spend time brainstorming and refining your artist statement to ensure it flows well and expresses your artwork accurately. 

7. Don’t over-rely on art portfolio examples

This strategy may come as a surprise. After all, if you type into Google “how to create an art portfolio for college,” you’ll find plenty of articles with portfolio examples in them. But we actually steer high school students away from using other portfolios as a reference for two reasons. 

First, you don’t want to taint your originality. Doing so could lead to intentionally or unintentionally copying someone else’s work or feeling like you have to model your art on someone else’s style. 

Second, it opens the door to discouragement. If you see another art student’s work and admire it, you may say, “My art isn’t good. I can’t do this.” But that’s the last thing you should say as you’re building your portfolio, especially because every body of art is unique to the creator. What works for one student is not a requirement for you. As an artist with their own unique experiences, you bring something special to the table, and your art school portfolio will show that if you don’t let another’s work discourage you.

8. Prepare for international schools differently

More and more art students are applying to international schools for various reasons. However, the college application process for international schools is very different from the process for U.S. schools. 

Oftentimes, overseas institutions want to see more research, process, investigation, and references in art portfolios. As a result, you’ll need to approach things a little differently and be open to undergoing a college admissions process that requires you to submit a portfolio that differs significantly from the one you’d provide U.S. institutions. 

The best ways to ensure all your bases are covered are to do in-depth research on a program’s application requirements and seek guidance from a portfolio counselor — like us — who can show you the ropes. 

What Role Should Parents Play?

If you’re a parent reading this article, this section is for you. When it comes to the college admission process — especially when a portfolio counselor is involved — parents usually want one of two things: to be heavily involved or out of the way. But for your art student to have the most successful college application process, there’s one thing you should be more than anything else: supportive. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re a practicing artist or have never drawn a picture in your adult life. The most important thing is to provide your student with the support they need to be independent and excited to move forward in their art career. 

With the freedom to explore their artistic side, your student will experiment with their creativity, work comfortably and honestly with their portfolio college counselor, and develop the skills they need to be successful in higher education. Your student will also feel encouraged at home, not just at meetings with their counselor, and that will push them to work hard and maintain their commitment to practicing their craft and staying focused. 

Overall, your support can go a long way in helping your student get into an art program that’s a great fit and have a thriving career in college and beyond. So, if you’re a parent reading this article, try to be supportive of your child’s artistic pursuits. This is more important than your level of involvement in the application process. 

Time is your friend 

Students, it doesn’t matter what kind of art portfolio you’re creating. It can be a design portfolio, a fashion portfolio, or an interdisciplinary one. What matters is that your portfolio meets — and maybe exceeds — college requirements to stand out. Doing this isn’t easy. It takes work, training, practice, feedback, summer art programs, and guidance from portfolio counselors. But the right attitude is your friend. If you start developing your art portfolio with commitment and enthusiasm, you’ll acquire everything you need to create portfolio pieces you and admissions committees love. 

Do you need help getting your art portfolio ready for college? Contact Lorraine Serra at Portfolio College Counseling for assistance. You can email her at to schedule a consultation.