Career Testing
Career Testing
Career Testing
version 5, draft 5

How to Set Up a Portfolio Based on Your Career Objectives


If you’re on the hunt for a job, having a portfolio ready for inspection is one of the smartest moves you can make. It shows prospective employers that you’re serious about finding your niche in the workforce. Here are some guidelines for setting up a portfolio that will set you apart.

Basics to Include in Your Portfolio

You’ll find many online lists that claim to define a good portfolio. Here’s one of the more extensive, but I would respectfully caution you to stay away from the amount of padding touted by lists like these. It’s fine to acknowledge the people and events that helped shape you, perhaps through a casual mention in a job interview. A portfolio, however, is not an exhaustive autobiography, but a carefully curated display case.

With that in mind, include only the best samples of your work that you can muster. Some say to keep it between eight and ten pieces; some say you need three times that number. Instead of trying to meet an arbitrary limit, it’ll help you more to focus on the work that you believe represents you most accurately.

You should re-update your portfolio whenever you apply for a new job, so you can tailor it to the atmosphere and expectations of the business in question. If you’re a designer applying for a general position, load up your portfolio with the best work you’ve done in the last three to five years. If you’re a writer with your eye on a specific niche, keep your selection trimmed so HR can see at a glance if you’ll fit.

The University of Central Florida recommends this basic structure for your portfolio:

  • A narrative description: This should almost always be first in a portfolio. Keep it concise and engaging, and certainly less than a page.
  • Work samples: Prioritize original work over group projects and external evaluations, and newer professional pieces over old or academic projects.
  • Qualifications: If you’re applying to a position with specific requirements, such as an academic program, include an explanation of how your work fits the criteria.
  • Supporting materials: This includes CVs, references, and programs of study (if requested).

Most importantly, you need to be able to articulate why you have included each piece (essentially telling a larger story about your work and ambitions). If you are a designer, make sure the layout of your portfolio is as well-designed as any of its content. If you work in a different field, get a designer’s opinion of its appearance before you start sending it out.

Using Digital and Print Media to Maximize Your Portfolio

If you use digital or print media to the exclusion of the other, you’re sabotaging yourself. Both are essential to a comprehensive, thoughtful presentation of your work.

Digital is the newest game in town, so everyone’s scrambling to build the best online presence they can through a combination of personal websites, online communities, and social media. You already know that your work must be front and center, so emphasize that with a sleek design. Clunky or cluttered navigation won’t help you make the most of the few seconds a potential employer takes to investigate you. Design your portfolio site like you would your résumé — all critical info right upfront, supplementary resources (such as personal contact channels) easy to find, and compatible with common web and mobile browsers.

Print portfolios are hardly a thing of the past. A well-designed one will help make you memorable in an unprecedented way. Additionally, print gives you vastly different options than a website does. Why stick to a binder full of clear slipcovers when you can craft a business card-sized mini portfolio, or a corkboard or tote bag? The only limits are your imagination and your wallet — so be positive that you have selected your very best work before you spend money on the quality materials you’ll need.

Whether you create something online or handheld, convey your personal brand in every aspect, as both media will work together to augment your employability. Include your online contact information at the end of a print portfolio; and show online visitors pictures or scans of physical projects. Note that digital portfolios are far more editable and easy to access from anywhere; save the print option for someone you really want to impress.

Customizing Your Portfolio for Your Desired Career Path

As you know, your portfolio’s appearance and key content will vary greatly, depending on where you want it to take you. Especially in the case of a portfolio website, which a complete stranger could discover at any time, the arrangement of your work has to have a clear intention. If you seem scattered or unsure of your goals, it doesn’t matter how obvious your talent is; no one will take a chance on you.

Ways to get your portfolio on the right track include:

  • Focus on the work you do best and enjoy most.
  • Make yourself readily available to be contacted.
  • Show how your work has pleased other people.
  • State your future plans, as well as you know them.
  • Reorganize your collection of samples for each opportunity, keeping in mind the other person’s current need and how you plan to meet it.
  • Let your personality shine through.
  • Get inspired by others who have grasped these concepts.

Does a good-looking portfolio guarantee a chance at the job of your dreams? No. But it does give you the chance to show anyone who’s watching that you believe in your skills, and you think they should, too.

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