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artist : freelance photographer

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Reflections on Portfolio Day

During the last week of November, I attended one of the Graduate Portfolio Days held at Pratt Institute. Portfolio days are hosted by the National Portfolio Day Association: http://www.portfolioday.net/. From the lack of information on the web from other attendees, I get the feeling that the Graduate portion of the Portfolio Days is fairly new. In order to prep, I read about the Undergraduate Portfolio Days, assuming they would be relatively similar. I wanted to share my experience should other artists be interested in attending a Graduate Portfolio Day:

  • Format-- When held at Pratt, the recreation center was staged with tables all around the outer and inner edges of the court. Each table had one or more professors/reps. from each school or program. Some larger schools had multiple tables, one for each program. When the doors opened at noon, applicants were provided with a map of the tables and were free to visit the tables of each school. Most schools asked applicants to fill out an information card, then applicants met with a professor or rep. for anywhere from 5-20 minutes. 
  • Bring supplies!-- It would be smart to bring a clipboard, notepad, pens, your business cards (if you have them), and a bag to carry all of the handouts and gigantic catalogs you will no doubt be given.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and clothing-- You will be standing/walking/sitting for long periods of time, so comfortable (and presentable) clothing is ideal. Layers are also necessary if you are attending a portfolio day during fall or winter. 
  • Buddies aren't necessary-- Undergrad Portfolio Days recommend bringing a buddy to keep you company and hold your place in longer lines to reduce your wait time. Wait times could vary depending on the location of the portfolio day, but the one I attended didn't have long lines or long wait times, so my "buddy" spent a lot of time sitting on the sidelines reading. I didn't wait in any single line for more than 5 minutes and I was able to visit all 11 schools on my list within 4 hours. 
  • Practice your pitch-- As I have mentioned, I have been experiencing difficulty writing my statement of purpose. Portfolio Day really helped me to figure out what to say in my statement, because I had to say it over and over and over again to each representative. I would recommend practicing what you are going to say to introduce yourself, your art, and your purpose for graduate study. Keep it short- no more than 5 minutes. Make some notes of the most important points to reference in case you lose your place and be prepared to answer the questions "Why do you want to pursue graduate study?" and "Why do you want to attend x program?" I did make notes of what I wanted to say, but I didn't practice my pitch, therefore when I spoke to my first school, I struggled for words. Although the admissions rep. was patient and told me to take my time, I sounded nervous, unprepared and unsure of my art. Thankfully, over the day I refined my pitch, but this brings me to my next point:
  • Visit one of your "safety" schools first-- This will allow you to get a feel for the format of Portfolio Day and expel your nerves/work out the kinks in your pitch without feeling the pressure. I made the mistake of visiting one of my top schools first (MICA), and I worry that it may have hurt my chances. Most schools say that the Portfolio Day review has no bearing on the admission process, but I noticed that on MICA's information sheet (and a few other schools) there was a section for the reviewer to write notes about me (the applicant) and say if they recommended me for graduate study or a post-bac program. 
  • Make sure you are applying to the program that best fits your art-- I decided to apply to sculpture programs, because I make 3D art. A few of the schools I was applying to included installation and general forms of 3D art under "sculpture", so I assumed that all did. When I presented my portfolio, although it was well received overall, some schools seemed confused as to why I was applying to sculpture, and instead recommended that I apply to photography. Some of the sculpture programs focus heavily on traditional sculpture materials and less on conceptual art, therefore my art wasn't really suited for the program. Visiting each school would have helped me to better determine that. Had I gone to Portfolio Day with a photography portfolio, my review could have been even more productive. 
  • Create a portfolio of 15-20 images, and then bring MORE-- Although we may think we know what is our "best" work, art is very subjective. A reviewer may favor one piece over another that we have chosen, or not like anything at all. Therefore it is helpful to have even more work, in case the reviewer asks to see more photos of a piece or more examples of an idea or theme in your work. Because of my aforementioned misconception, I was thankful that I had extra work and samples of my photography with me. Reviewers were able to grab hold of those extra pieces and see where I was going. They were also able to give me sound advice on what to include to improve my portfolio and make it stronger for a photo concentration. 
  • Presentation of work-- Portability of your art depends greatly on your medium. However you show your work, whether it be slides on your iPad or prints or original work, make sure it is clean and professional looking. A special note for 3D art- make sure documentation of your piece is clear. Several reviewers misunderstood that my most recent piece was 3D and not photography. Because my documentation photos were very artistically shot, they thought the photos of the piece were the art itself. Had I included some less artistic and more "straightforward" documentation photos of the boxes, this may have made it more clear that it was 3D. 
  • Have an open mind, and don't get offended!-- As I said, art is very subjective and each program is different, some so reviewers may love your work, and some may not. Take any criticisms as an opportunity to improve your portfolio and to really assess your fit for each program.
  • Don't be afraid to show unfinished or in-progress works-- This is not the final portfolio, so you can include sketches or talk about ideas for works that may not be finished yet. I found that when I did this, reviewers were happy to see that I was still creating, and had some great feedback on the piece I was working on. One reviewer even gave me a challenge to complete for the final portfolio! 
  • Bring a list of questions to ask-- After I gave my pitch, most reps asked me if I had any questions about the program or the application process. I had prepared a few key questions to ask, and I found that this showed I was interested and enthusiastic about the school/program.  
  • Ask for contact information from the reps.-- Some of the schools didn't have professors or reps from all programs; some of the reps were from admissions, some were alumni of the programs and some were chairs of various departments. Don't be discouraged if you don't get the opportunity to talk to someone directly from the program/department you are applying to within a school. Make sure to ask whomever you do talk to for contact information for someone in your department of interest. 
  • Follow up!-- When reps give you contact information for themselves or someone else in the department, follow up after Portfolio Day. This establishes a connection and may give you a boost so you are more than just a name in a stack of applications. Several of the reps I spoke to gave me artists to look at or faculty to contact, and I am planning to follow up on each of those leads. 

Overall, attending Portfolio Day was a very positive experience. I was able to get a better feel for each school, refine my statement of purpose, and ask some important questions. Following Portfolio Day, I completely revised my program list to include photography programs instead of sculpture. From the reviews, I feel a little bit more confident about my art and chances of acceptance. 

I hope this was helpful! If you have any questions about Portfolio Day and my experience, please feel free to contact me!

Kris KelleyComment