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How important are portfolios and interviews for creative courses?

Most uni applicants aren’t even interviewed, but aspiring artists, designers, makers and architects are hit with a triple whammy: Ucas points + portfolio + interview. Check out the following scenarios…

Getting the practical parts of this process right is pretty much essential when it comes to getting a place on the creative course which interests you.

The process #1 Portfolio

What to include? Many places will give guidelines on this, but expect that it’ll need to feature around 15 pieces of work, accompanied by the roughs, sketches, swatches and other items that demonstrate your work-in-progress. Then you’ll either face:

  • Scenario 1: Some universities ask you to submit your portfolio and/or examples of your work, usually online. ‘Examples’ don’t need to be formally structured, but if they ask for a portfolio, then presentation counts. In the end, though, it’ll be substance over style that matters, and the content will determine whether you progress to interview, or not.
  • Scenario 2: You’re invited to appear in person with said portfolio. You have no direct input at this stage - tutors give your ‘book’ the once over while you’re touring the department, along with the other hopefuls.
  • Scenario 3: You’re invited to appear in person with said portfolio and discuss it in front of a tutor.

We do this typically for design students so we can understand their capabilities in research, visual communication and skill base. A portfolio allows the student to describe their ideas and acts as a reminder to talk about present and past projects. It also reveals their personality, which is also fundamentally important when applying for a course to see how competent they can verbally communicate as well as being a team player and work with other students on the course. Warren Faern | Head Of Programme For Ba Product Design - University Of York St. John

It can be brutal. In many cases, a two-tier system operates. If tutors don’t like what they see, you won’t make it through to the interview; if they do, that’s the next stage. You’ll be expected to take on board and respond to specific feedback during the discussion.


Portfolio top tips

  • Assume nothing. Research what’s required for each separate degree course. Even courses at the same university will have different ideas of what they want from students.
  • Don’t fall at the first hurdle. Follow the instructions and guidelines for any work you need to submit beforehand, and do it on time.
  • Don’t know where to start? Most university websites include galleries or testimonials of student work to give you a flavour of what the course might offer you.

 The process #2 Interview

  • Scenario 1 - Face-to-face individual interview: This typically covers your portfolio and a discussion about the course and your interests, your personal statement and your influences and role models.
  • Scenario 2 - 'Virtual' interview: If you can’t attend in the flesh, or if the interviewers are pressed for time, you’ll still be unlikely to escape – you could be interviewed by phone, Skype or at least over email.
  • Scenario 3 - Group interview: This usually covers collective discussions, debates or practical tasks, probably themed around an aspect of the course content. Whatever you do, say something – no comment won’t cut it.

Interviews I feel are essential. In most cases am employee wouldn’t employ someone without interviewing them, so it’s generally the same case for a student wanting to come on to a course. We want to make sure that this is the right decision for them before they commit to three years on a course. It is an opportunity to find out their social life and how they interact with other people. Its’ about their personality. Warren Faern | Head Of Programme For Ba Product Design - University Of York St. John


Interview top tips

  • Assume nothing (again) - Remind yourself of the course content before you go in and prepare some specific questions – even courses with the same name may differ radically
  • Have ideas, opinions, input - Silence is not golden
  • Practise talking through your portfolio - Not just what, but the why and how, too. This can be where people come unstuck during the interview
  • Re-read your personal statement - After talking through your portfolio, what you’ve written here could shape the line of the tutor’s questioning
  • Know your Hieronymus from your Hirst - If you cite someone as an ‘influence’, be prepared to prove it
  • Differentiate yourself - Future fashionistas, smiths and jewellers - wear your wares. Artists and illustrators – talk about an art exhibition you loved and why.


What about art foundation courses?

Before heading off to uni to do a creative design course, you might well decide to do an art foundation course first. These courses will also want to see a portfolio and may well interview you – so much of the above advice will be relevant…

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