Top 3 mistakes in preparing portfolios for design schools

How to get into architecture school?

It is probably the most popular question I get when people discover I’m an architect. The second most popular question is how to prepare a design portfolio when they learn I’m interviewing high school students for part of Cornell University architecture school admission. 

I started evaluating high school students applying to architecture school in 2009. Around the same time I started my architecture practice, I moved back from New York City after years of working at various architecture firms.

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With an interest in networking with alumni groups, I signed up to interview/evaluate high school students with aspirations to be architects.

In the beginning, I thought I would only do the work for a few years….however, those few years became 13 years of work I find rewarding. 

Meeting the students, evaluating their work (portfolios), and responding to their questions (school, program, career etc.) over all these years) gave me a chance to reflect on what the portfolio works are and how to prepare them.

In addition to this work, I currently teach design studios at OCAD University. Coming back to teaching after years of mainly focusing on my architecture practice and seeing the students progress and struggle in each class, I am reminded of the same observations I made from the “side” job I have. 

As I ponder the “how to” part of portfolio work, here are the top 3 mistakes I see in the face of focusing on the “getting in” part of the admission process. 

Pre-conceived ideas about what the school wants

I suppose we are all guilty of this phenomenon.

To get positive outcomes (getting accepted, getting a job, etc.), we focus on what the school/company is looking for: a great resume with related professional experience, a high grade point average, high test scores, well-written essays…

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We try to think of ways to present ourselves in the best light possible. In pursuing the “best light,” it is easy to forget to highlight “our own light.”

A few years ago, I met a high school student through the Cornell University admission process. While reviewing the portfolio, I learned that ALL of his works were independent projects; none were from school classes. He had never taken art (or design) classes in high school.  

Although there is no requirement to take art classes in high school to apply to architecture (or art/design) schools, I found his lack of art/design classes to be an anomaly compared to other students I interviewed in the past.

While asking questions about his work, such as his intention, reasons, and stories behind each of his projects, he did not have much to add other than his belief that those were the “type” of projects he believed he needed to include in his design portfolio.

Although the nature of judging the design work is somewhat different in my teaching from portfolio evaluations, I find the same incoherent logic behind some of the students’ results.    

Without a clear logic/decision/intention behind their project, the unclear, hesitant, indecisive explanations show in both visual and verbal descriptions.

I suspect these challenges have something to do with each student trying to find the “correct” answers to what I am looking for rather than themselves. While seeing students struggles in developing their projects, I remember hearing a story about one’s confidence and its impact on the creative work we produce from one of my colleagues.  

All of us are different.  

We act/do/think differently…in fact, this “difference” can be beneficial in design work.  

Trying to figure out the “right answer” in a university acceptance journey, it is easy to forget to include yourself in the process.  

The portfolio is such an item that requires an individual’s views, perspectives, thoughts, styles…It is best to plan your project with you in mind rather than the schools. 

Of course, having high grades and their importance is entirely a different story…and I cannot help you with that!:)

Focus only on the final work (without the process)

I learned the importance of processes at design school.  

I also learn to recognize the same importance while reviewing students’ portfolios over the years.  

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The nature of the portfolio is the collection of the final and completed work; asking to see the process of those work always gets the same questions from students:

  • How can I include my messy hand-drawn sketches in the final portfolio?
  • Doesn’t showing the quick/rough model make the portfolio look bad?
  • Wouldn’t those process work to reduce the chance of “getting in”?

Although I would not know the ultimate decisions or reasons for decisions about who gets in/or not (only the school admission has that information), I suspect illustrating/highlighting the process of some work(if not all) would be beneficial in explaining yourself as a candidate vying for highly competitive admission process. 

It is NOT just visual work.

A portfolio is communication.

It is a way to communicate between yourself (designers, artists) and the viewers judging your work. The viewing activity can happen like the interview settings or formal presentations where you can add explanations while showing your design work.

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Or, sometimes, you only get to send in the portfolio and hope that the viewers understand your work without your input. It is when the expression “work should speak for itself” should be in high gear and turning!

To have clear communication between the artist/designers (you) and the viewers(school admission committee members), you cannot focus on individual work separately but see the entire portfolio with various projects as ONE item.

There are many ways to make your portfolio clear:

  • Table of Contents: organize your works in a certain system-ex. Art, Architecture, etc
  • Project Descriptions: Some (not too many) written words: to describe each project.
  • Titles: it can be about a conceptual idea (ex., another bridge in Mostar, Bosnia) or project types (oil painting, 9th-grade art class project etc.)
  • White space: It is not always easy to leave blank spaces between the project images on each page when trying to include more information to explain the projects clearly. However, it is that exact point clarity that requires clean/breathing space for viewers to understand the project without getting overwhelmed/confused with lots of information without any blank space between each item.
  • Miscellaneous: font size, style, colour, title locations, etc.

Final Thought

The emphasis on “getting in” during the university application stage can cloud one’s judgement (been there/done that) about what to/how to prepare the portfolio.

However, that laser-like focus on one single goal(getting in) can hinder creative work like a design portfolio.  

It is time to highlight yourself in the pursuit of creating a portfolio that illustrates your creative ideas, views, thought processes…but most importantly, about yourself. 

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