National Portfolio Days are hectic, exciting, sometimes-intimidating, fun, exhausting, helpful, and incredible days for art students and university representatives. These events bring together serious art schools and serious art students to talk about the portfolio as part of the admissions process. There’s tons of information on National Portfolio Days here, including event dates, criteria for schools to be part of NPDA (National Accreditation is an important one!), what to expect if you attend, and a feature to search all schools that are part of this association by majors or concentrations. I’ve been going to National Portfolio Days for the last decade - more if you counted when I went throughout my own student experience - so here're a few of my tips on making the most of one of these days. Before the tips, though, take a deep breath. National Portfolio Days are about starting an exchange of information; it’s not an interview, it’s a chance to start a conversation.
1. Go with the flow. Every person at every school will likely approach the review a little differently. Some may want you to talk about each piece; others may want to look at all of the work quickly before saying anything. I prefer the latter approach because I feel like it can save me some embarrassment – like the time I spent two solid minutes talking about how a student should push themselves to work with color only to find out that the next ten pieces were all color work and then it was awkward. Don’t walk into each review with a preconceived notion about how you’re going to present yourself; just listen to what the reviewer asks of you, answer questions thoughtfully, and ask them questions in return (see #2).
2. Ask “why?”. Anytime I’m reviewing someone’s work I try to explain the reasoning behind my comments. Usually, what I’m looking for in the portfolio is reflective of the program that we offer, and I would give very different feedback if I were working for a different kind of art school. As an interdisciplinary program, I’m seeking students who have the drive and patience to refine their skills in any media so that they can technically execute their ideas and I’m looking to see that they have some creative interests that will continue to propel their work and practice into the future. I want to see students who have the ability to self-reflect on their work and assess what’s working and what’s not and to let that lead them towards figuring out how to do it better the next time. Partially, I want to see this because it makes my job significantly easier and the conversations a lot more engaging but it also shows me that that student is prepared to thrive in our program. Ask “why?” when receiving feedback on your work. Why do you think this is a strong part of my portfolio? What does it teach you about me as an artist and student? How does it show my preparation for your program? What is missing? Getting comfortable asking “why?” will lead you to ask lots of other questions and we are there to help you find the answers.
3. Talk to schools you may not be able to visit. If you live just outside of Boston, you should schedule a time to come to the SMFA at Tufts campus to do a portfolio review; we’ll schedule an hour to talk about your work and your goals and discuss how they may (or may not) benefit from our program and, when you apply, I’ll read your application so I can see how your work has changed over time and how your other interests are reflected in your application. If you visit with us at Boston portfolio day, you may talk to some other wonderful person (like a faculty or graduate of the School) who will probably not interact with your application later, and you’ll have less than 10 minutes to try to get the most out of that discussion. That’s not a lot of time to get into the details. Use a National Portfolio Day that’s in your area as a chance to talk to schools that you may be applying to in other parts of the country but might not get to visit until after the admissions process. This will show them your interest (which some schools consider during the admissions review process) and give you a chance to ask questions about improving your portfolio ahead of submission. But you can still see me at Boston National Portfolio Day, and I’ll be excited about that too.
4. Take notes. Or get a friend or family member to take notes while you engage in the review. Remember that I started by describing these events as hectic? I meant that. You’ll hear a lot of information and ideas in a small amount of time and it can be easy for conversations to start to merge into one another. Take a few minutes after each review to jot down notes or record a recap of what the reviewer shared with you. This will allow you to revisit those ideas once things have calmed down.
5. Lastly, don’t compare yourself to those around you. At National Portfolio Days, we see students from all different experiences. Some students have never been able to take an art class but have been working hard independently to pursue their passion; others have been attending fine arts high schools where they get to spend hours each day working in the studio. And we take all of these experiences into consideration when we are reviewing applicants to the School. Don’t compare your work to the work of those around you at the event; you don’t have the context to understand what has brought them to this point. Focus on your personal development and bring that to each of your conversations.
Find us at a National Portfolio Day this year and say hi!
*Image Credit: Alexia Mellor (PB '06, MFA '09), Extending the Friendly Skies, 2009. Digital photograph of performance-intervention.