Tips for Preparing Your MFA Portfolio

While graduate school art programs will take your undergraduate academic performance into consideration, your artistic potential cannot be measured through grades alone. That’s where your MFA portfolio comes into play—a strong portfolio is a key part of the application process. Schools use portfolios to gauge your potential, your passion, and your skill set.

MFA programs are looking for students with a passion for their subject matters and their mediums. One of the most important ways to understand the passion of potential students is to see their work—and to read about how they’re engaging the art.

Here’s what to know if you’re looking to strengthen your portfolio and apply to an MFA program.

What Is an MFA Portfolio?

Simply put, portfolios include samples of your artwork in whatever medium you use. They also typically include an explanation about how you have approached these particular pieces of art.

Every institution will define the portfolio requirements they want to see from an applicant, but there are a few expectations that tend to be pervasive in all MFA experiences. Of course, your portfolio should be able to represent both the quality and breadth of your work as an artist.

How to Make the Most of Your Portfolio

Understanding the portfolio requirements is the first step toward applying. Requests can vary depending upon the school and the specific discipline within the school for which you’re applying, so it’s important to understand what elements you need to satisfy. Sometimes you’ll find the requirements listed on the school website. Other times you’ll have to call the school and ask.

Next, make sure you get some other opinions on your work. Consider asking your undergraduate art professors if they wouldn’t mind reviewing your portfolio. In some regions, you can even seek out National Portfolio Day events, where graduate school fine arts faculty will look at your portfolio and offer constructive critiques.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take risks. Nery Lemus, MFA, program director for the MFA in Visual Art program at Azusa Pacific University, explained that fine arts programs are typically looking for students who have begun to establish their creative identity but are open to exploring and developing further.

“As professors, we are not interested in guiding students away from the subject in their work, but seeking to help them grow in those areas,” Lemus said. “A good portfolio will give a good sense of those explorations.”

Key Considerations for Creating Your Portfolio

As you prepare your MFA portfolio, there are a few other things to keep in mind. Here are three tips that can help you along the way:

  1. Include your best pieces. This should be obvious, but don’t let a fear of failure keep you from showing the very best works in your portfolio. Those judging your portfolio want to see the pieces that excite you and express your artistic skill set.
  2. Sprinkle in a variety of work. You’ll want to show reviewers that you’re interested in learning. One way you can do this is by demonstrating an interest in experimentation and an openness to evolving as an artist.
  3. Take good photos of the artistic pieces in your portfolio. The way you present your artwork will be critical in how the portfolio judges view your work. Take high-quality, well-lit images of everything. Lemus noted that he often sees portfolio images that have poor light and are out of focus. Situations like this make it tough for reviewers to properly judge the art, and can ultimately affect applicants’ outcomes. If a work’s scale is important for evaluating the overall piece, Lemus suggested that students photograph someone near the art so the judges can understand its dimensions.

Lemus added that many MFA applicants begin the process with concerns that their portfolio won’t be strong enough. But sometimes these worries are unfounded. He encourages those interested in pursuing an MFA to simply apply.

“The only way that you will know if your portfolio is ready is by actually applying,” Lemus said. “There are many artists that miss out on opportunities simply because they don’t apply.”

Are you interested in pursuing an MFA in Visual Art at Azusa Pacific University? Check out the school’s College of the Arts for more information.