So, You Want to Go to Grad School?
Pt. 3- National Portfolio Day
The most rewarding thing I did on my graduate school journey was going to National Portfolio Day. If you are unfamiliar with the event, acquaint yourself, because it will seriously be the best thing for you to do to get into an ideal program.
National Portfolio Day is when a bunch of schools (like over 20,) send representatives/faculty to cities across the United States. So, there are opportunities to go. Each school has their own table, and you wait in line for the rep to look at your portfolio, and you will have the opportunity to ask questions about their program. This was incredibly valuable to me, but I didn’t go into it prepared.
I had no idea what I was doing. I looked to the internet to give me something, anything, to help me prepare, but everything I found was regarding National Portfolio Day for high schoolers, not young adults looking to get a master degree.
Here are some things I learned and wish to pass on:
- Have artists who inspire you on your mind. Reps may ask you what artists you look at, and you want to look like you not only know how to make pictures, but that you can talk about them.
- They will ask you specifics about your work. They want you to tell them what it is about, and they will ask if you considered X perspective, or why did you include X photo in your portfolio. So, think about your work, and find justification for it.
- You MUST have a cohesive portfolio. What I mean is don’t bring in 20 unrelated images. That screams “undergrad,” and schools are not about that life. Your portfolio should be 2-3 series of work that all come together conceptually. For example, I brought in my work on dreams (which was three series condensed into one portfolio,) and my work about memory. I was able to explain to them my interest in dreams and memory, since our memory is oftentimes dreamlike, and my portfolio supported my claims. They are looking for people who are focused– if you have a bunch of different images that have nothing to do with each other, lawd help you.
- Be polite. You are speaking with people who may be your future professors. Do not get defensive over your work, but smile and nod and, if you feel passionately, kindly disagree– but have a reason why you disagree. This could open the floor to a discussion with the faculty, which is a good thing. If you are with a rep for more than 5 minutes, you did a good job.
- If you get a card, you did good. When you are speaking to the reps, and near the end of your stay they give you their contact card and tell you “please contact me with any questions,” you did good. They are interested in you, and, let’s be real, who doesn’t want that? It would be best to follow up with them and shoot them a nice email, thanking them for their time. They will remember you more for it.
- Take notes. But be courteous about it. Have a small notebook, and if you feel inclined to jot down any artists, literature, or philosophies that the rep is sharing with you, say, “Would you mind if I wrote all this down?” It shows them that you are eager to learn and improve. It is really hard to remember everything they tell you, so I highly recommend this.
- DO NOT BRING PHOTOGRAPHS ON YOUR COMPUTER. Many people do, and I was actually one of the only people who had physical prints. It is one thing to look at an image on a small screen and another to be able to hold it. It proves that you took the time to print them, that you know how to print, and you stand out because of it. It was easier for them to flip through my images physically than having to do it on a computer.
- Bring your prints in a portfolio box. I brought mine in one of those folios you get at Michael’s, the ones with the plastic pages that are kind of like a photo album, and that worked fine. They were able to flip through my images, and it was easy for me to transport. But, I found out later that at more “professional” portfolio reviews, you need to bring your work in a portfolio box like these. I personally like the Print File brand “clam shell,” but it’s your preference. I saw someone walking around with one with their named engraved on it, so if you’re into that sort of thing, look into it and look extra spiffy.
- Check the National Portfolio Day website for a list of schools that will be at the event. Pick 3 schools you MUST see, pick 2 that you want to see but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t, and 2 schools that you would like to see if you have time. You will be surprised by how quickly time flies, and a lot of that time is spent waiting in line. If you want to speak to reps from schools like RISD, SAIC, or MICA, I suggest you get to your top choice first. You could be waiting quite a while to speak to them.
- They have you fill out a form with your name and info on it, which the reps make comments on and put in a pile. I’m pretty sure they use these during the admissions process, to see if you talked to a rep at NPD, and what that rep thought about you and your work. This is a really good thing, because the admission board has no idea who you are or what you are like, but they do have a piece of paper that gives them some idea as to whether or not they want to work with you. By going to NPD, you are already a step ahead.
- You know what to improve upon for when you DO apply. They will tell you what is strong in your portfolio and how to make it stronger. They will tell you your mistakes (gracefully,) and give you things to think about.
Going to National Portfolio Day was such a treat. I left feeling really good, hopeful, excited, and ready to work hard. I knew where I wanted to apply, because I was able to see how the faculty treated me, and I was driven to prove myself to these programs. If you are reading this and preparing to go, take a deep breath, wear something nice, and be confident. You are taking a step towards your goals, and it is scary, and not many people will do what you’re doing because they are too afraid. But, you’re not afraid to try, so hold your head up, smile, and walk and talk with confidence.
You got this.