Every application season, admissions counselors receive thousands of messages from aspiring art students all over the world. These young students have an intense passion and dream to become great artists. They crave significance, meaning and a need for appraisal from others that highlights their singular vision and contribution to art and society.

The artist, in this regard, nearly carries the weight of civilization, a weight which these students carry into their expectations for attending the best art school. Often, though, this obsession with art school acceptance eclipses what art students need to be the most concerned with: their art.

“Evaluating a portfolio is not like grading an exam. The truth is that most of the time we don’t actually know what we are looking for.”

Students spend years preparing and packaging themselves as the most desirable candidate. When unwrapped, you will find perfect grades, a surplus of AP courses, test scores in the 99th percentile, hundreds of hours donated to building shelters in the developing world, a skydiving champion, first-chair in honors band and a shelf of trophies rivaled by any Olympic gold medalist. Art students, however, face the extra challenge and stress of preparing a portfolio, in addition to the materials required from students applying to four-year colleges and universities.

These students are expected to prepare an artist portfolio that best represents the work that they do, while still following the requirements set by each art school to which they are applying. Some art schools have very defined, program-specific portfolio requirements, while other schools simply ask for 12-20 images of your best work. Students need to cater their portfolios to each school and sometimes create entirely different portfolios for some programs, depending on the schools to which they are applying.

The most common questions I find in my inbox are: “What are you looking for in a portfolio?” “How can my portfolio stand out?” “What are the traits of the most competitive portfolios?” “How will the portfolios be evaluated?” And my favorite: “Is my portfolio sufficient? Will it pass?”

Evaluating a portfolio is not like grading an exam. The truth is that most of the time we don’t actually know what we are looking for. What we are looking for is constantly in flux, since we are continuously being exposed to new ideas, concepts and ways of realizing them through art. Schools seek greatness just as much as you do. We want the most unique, groundbreaking and imaginative students who will help us build our reputation and programs—schools are great, because you are.

In most cases, admissions counselors and faculty determine acceptance based on fit, rather than assessing and measuring the quality of the student’s art. We reject an enormous amount of talented students, not because of their artistic aptitude, but because our programs simply do not support the type of art that the student is making. In this case, we may actually be doing students a huge service, because they would most likely be unhappy in a program that doesn’t support their artistic goals.

“You must assess your fit based on the school’s portfolio requirements. Are they requiring work that does not align with your practice or interests?”

It is important to research the schools to which you are applying. Examining the current faculty, alumni and students’ work is the best way to assess your fit. Are they making work to which you relate? Are the alumni working in places that you can see yourself working? Are the faculty active in their career(s) and making work with which you identify? Are they offering a program that will support your artistic goals?

It is also critical to review the school’s majors and program requirements. Many art schools require one to two years of foundational arts education before you can declare a major, while other schools require that you apply for a specific program. It is important to decide if a foundational arts program best supports where you are in your artistic development.

For example, if you are an experimental performance artist interested in new media and social practice, a foundational arts program that requires drawing, painting, sculpture and traditional arts training may not be the best program to support your practice. You may have already had this training in high school and feel like these tools are no longer necessary to realize your goals.

On the other hand, you may have numerous artistic interests and want the freedom to explore different subject areas, before deciding a métier. You may not have had enough training or time to develop fully and commit to a practice in high school. In this case, you could greatly benefit from a foundational arts program.

Portfolio requirements are, in large, a reflection of the type of program to which you are applying. Schools that ask you to apply to a foundational program will often ask for a portfolio that demonstrates a range of technical skill and conceptual inquiry. Schools that require you to apply to a particular program will have program-specific portfolio requirements.

For example, a graphic design portfolio will usually ask for design work: posters, brochures, t-shirt designs, web design, package design and/or a few examples of traditional mediums in drawing and painting. An animation program will usually ask for observational drawing, figure drawing, as well as work relating to story development: character designs, concept art, storyboards, digital work, and/or a short animation.

You must assess your fit based on the school’s portfolio requirements. Are they requiring work that does not align with your practice or interests? This may be a sign that the program to which you are applying is not a good fit for your practice. However, perhaps the program aligns perfectly with your interests and goals, but you are lacking the skills to complete the portfolio requirements.

For example, animation programs will frequently ask for life drawing as part of their portfolio requirements. Observational drawing is an important skill for becoming an animator. But you may have no experience working with a live model and very little work that fits with their portfolio requirements, notwithstanding how much everything else fits with your needs. In this case, it may be more beneficial to take a gap year to develop the skills you need to create a more competitive portfolio.

“For me, awards have almost no importance. The best work will speak for itself.”

My advice to students is this: you know that you are ready to apply when you have so much work that it just becomes a matter of selecting your best pieces, rather than struggling to create enough new work to fill the program’s requirements.

Students are often most intimidated by the portfolio requirements that have little-to-no requirements at all. They become fixated on trying to figure out what we want to see rather than assembling a portfolio that best represents what they want to create, as artists. Students frequently ask me what they should be drawing in their sketchbook, and I usually reply with, “Well, what do you want to be drawing?” If we told you exactly what to put in a sketchbook or portfolio, we would receive hundreds of identical portfolios—we would be telling you who you are, as an artist, and not the other way around. We would not be accepting and featuring inimitable voices in our programs, but creating artistic parrots.

We are most interested in students who are open to experimentation and who have a unique sense of artistry and point of view. Open portfolio requirements are an opportunity to show us the work that you are most excited about making! They show us the artist you endeavor to be and you are in the process of becoming.

I often advise students to take time off of school to gain life experience and exposure to artists beyond those they see in entertainment and art history books. It is common for students to mimic artists and styles by which they are influenced unintentionally. In the case of animation, many students are only exposed to characters that they see in entertainment. As such, their characters become recreations of pre-existing styles. Schools are not looking for students with perfect copying skills. We are looking for innovators. The strongest portfolios demonstrate a passion for experimentation, a diverse sense of artistic influences and a sense of becoming a visionary in the related field.

Students are often trained to be students rather than artists. Students identify artmaking with the technique, thinking that an artist is someone who can draw, paint, sculpt, photograph and/or design very well. Their portfolio is filled with landscape, portrait, still-life, collage and sculptures that all received high marks in class and won numerous awards.

For me, awards have almost no importance. The best work will speak for itself. The viewer will be moved by experiencing the work as it is, rather than assessing whether or not others have also valued the work. We are viewing your portfolio in the context of the portfolios that we have already received, and we have applicants from all over the world, from hundreds, if not thousands, of national and international students. Many school awards assess the work in a smaller context—in the context of a few neighboring high schools or in your home state.

Students often forget that art is a form of communication. An artist creates an experience. Students that define their practice solely on the technical exercises that their teachers assigned them fail to realize that artmaking requires interests beyond the making of art. Technical assignments are simply tools to help you communicate concepts more effectively. Your class assignments should not be the foundation of your portfolio. In most cases, schools are interested in how you used your class assignments to help you realize your personal work.

I have seen a trend in which students hide away in the dark corners of their room drawing for hours. These students are hardworking and dedicated, but they do not realize that artmaking has to come from an informed artist. Artists need to experience the world and have an awareness of it in order to make work that is culturally relevant and more than a hobby, art that becomes part of a career and the making of an artist, not just a good student.

“All art disciplines inform each other. Having an awareness of various disciplines will make you a well-rounded artist.”

This is exactly why BA and BFA programs require students to take classes in the liberal arts—humanities, cultural studies, natural sciences, history, philosophy etc.—since these subjects help inform and develop your context and critical awareness regarding your artmaking practice. Admissions counselors and faculty review transcripts and artist statements, in addition to the portfolio requirements, because academic courses are an important part of artmaking and diversifying your career options after graduation.

A great test to see whether or not your art is a technical assignment or personal work lies in your ability to answer the following: What is your art about? What are you trying to communicate to your audience? The strongest portfolios usually explore a few concepts in multiple ways. Artists do not typically create gallery shows filled with individual pieces, each with its own unrelated concept. Shows are curated around one concept, and the work explores various angles and perspectives of that concept.

It takes more than one piece to realize a concept fully. It takes practice and exploration, just as it takes practice to learn the technique of observational drawing. I often advise students to research a concept that they are interested in and try realizing that concept through different mediums, such as drawing, sculpture, installation, mixed-media, photography, and film (etc.).

It is important to remember that admissions counselors and faculty will all have different answers to the question, “What are you looking for in a portfolio?” Portfolios are not something that can be assessed purely in quantitative terms.

If you are in the first years of high school, spend your time developing your personal practice. Try all different types of media. You do not need to decide on a direction for your practice before you have had the time to explore a range of expression. Admissions counselors understand that many high schools simply do not offer the type of arts education necessary to realize your artistic potential. However, there are now many resources for students to learn beyond their high school’s curriculum.

Many art schools have pre-college programs and summer courses. Art galleries and community colleges will often have open figure drawing courses at night or on the weekends. I recommend attending a National Portfolio Day. These events take place in major cities around the world, with representatives from most notable art schools in attendance. Since the lines can be quite long at these events, I recommend that students in grades 9-10 concentrate on getting advice from several different schools, rather than waiting in one long line for your first-choice school—only do so, when you are ready to. Admissions counselors and faculty can give excellent feedback, regardless of the school that they are representing.

Students in grades 11-12 who are getting ready to apply should then focus on getting their portfolio reviewed by their top-choice school. Most art schools also have admissions counselors who can provide online portfolio reviews if there is not an event near you.

Many students simply need exposure to the trends of contemporary art. Visit current gallery shows, contemporary art museums, film screenings, experimental theater, and music and dance shows. All art disciplines inform each other. Having an awareness of various disciplines will make you a well-rounded artist.

If nothing else, simply venturing out into the world, exposing yourself to diversity and cultures beyond your own and becoming an active observer of your present environment will be simple steps to realizing your overall artistic potential and to focusing on the one thing that an art student needs to become, above all: an artist.

[Editor’s note: If you’re just getting into working on your Portfolio and don’t know where to start, try out our own Portfolio tool! You can set one up for free after making an account.]

Jela Ingertila, Admissions Counselor for Experimental and Character Animation at CalArts
Portrait of Jela Ingertila by Aphton Corbin

Jela Ingertila is currently the Admissions Counselor for Character and Experimental Animation at California Institute of the Arts. She received her MFA in Instrumental Arts from CalArts in 2015 and has developed a creative practice around interdisciplinary art through performance, composition, and visual art.

Jela’s recent accomplishments include the performance and production of the Stockhausen Festival, featuring the US premiere of KATHINKAs GESANG for flute and six percussionists from SAMSTAG aus LICHT, primary artist and producer for the gallery show and concert Her World, featured artist for the Gypsy Collective’s show Less Than Slash Tree at Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center, and performances with Celestial Opera Company, Colburn Adult Wind Symphony and Los Angeles Wind Symphony.

As both an artist and musician, Jela’s creative practice explores the connections between the visual and sonic world.