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Beyond demonstrating skills, applicants should show what excites them.

When applying to Otis College of Art and Design for a BFA or MFA program, the most indelible mark can be made with the portfolio. It’s the window into your world as a budding artist or designer and allows the admissions team to envision your potential as a student.  

The admissions counselors at Otis College don’t want applicants to be intimidated by this process, however. More than anything, they want to know what an applicant is interested in and what excites them, not just how proficient or skilled they are. Otis’s student body is a diverse mix not only of demographic backgrounds, but also varying levels of technical ability and exposure to art and design. 

“We are not looking for perfection, we are looking for effort and potential,” says Erica Wilson, Associate Dean of Admissions.

The Admissions website covers helpful information on the portfolio submission process, including tips, prompts, and recommendations on what to include. Admissions counselors also are available for portfolio reviews by appointment, and participate in National Portfolio Day events throughout the year. Wilson’s advice is to take advantage of this help before submitting a portfolio with the application. “Every admissions counselor at Otis went to art and design school, and we remember how nervous we were having our portfolios reviewed. We are here to help you get into school, not keep you out,” she says. Read on for more from Wilson about the portfolio process at Otis College. 

What’s the most common question applicants ask about portfolios?

Applicants usually ask about requirements: “Can I include anything? Is there anything specific you want to see? Do I have to have major-specific work in my portfolio?” We accept any kind of visual artwork in the portfolio. We want to see your strongest work from the past two years. A variety of ideas and materials is best. It shows us you are open to trying things out and open to learning new ways of creating. 

We highly recommend including at least a few examples of observational artwork—work created by observing real life, not a photo or a screen. It does not need to be a nude model or a bowl of fruit! You can draw from life and things that are interesting to you. We do not require a major-specific portfolio, but you can include work that is more targeted towards your intended major if you like. Keep in mind that you are the most important part of your portfolio. Show your ideas, interests, and passion, as well as technical skill. We can tell when a student is passionate about art and design by the level of commitment they are giving to their portfolio.

What characterizes the portfolios that make a strong impression? 

The strongest portfolios are, 1) well thought out, meaning the applicant has strong ideas backing the work; 2) well-executed—showing technical skills and that the form serves the content; and 3) well-documented. Some students already have a strong voice, while others are just starting and focusing on their technical skills. A well balanced portfolio shows technical proficiency, strong concepts, and the student’s unique vision and passion. It’s a mix of several different factors that make a unique portfolio.

“What would you make if your art was a secret and you didn’t have to show it to anyone? I often find that some of the most daring and special ideas are tucked in a student’s sketchbook—something they haven’t really allowed themselves to explore yet.” —Otis College Admissions officer

How helpful is getting a portfolio review before applying? 

Extremely helpful. I recommend getting a portfolio review with every school you are interested in. Like Otis College, most schools offer opportunities to have a review from an admissions counselor or faculty member. Students are still developing and don’t always understand why they are making certain choices. A reviewer can often point out things that the student continues to depict over several images that they didn’t even realize. Feedback from someone that has not seen their work can add a fresh perspective. Portfolio reviews help in determining what to include, how to document it, and various ways of uploading. National Portfolio Day events are also a good way to get your portfolio review. Different schools may have different things they are looking for in a portfolio, so it is always good to ask them directly what would be preferred or what is required.

What would you say to an applicant who’s nervous about their portfolio review?

We let applicants know that this can only help them; it will not hurt their chances in any way. The people who will see your portfolio are excited to see you and your work. Be yourself—it is normal to be nervous—because this meeting can only help you improve and help with admissions and scholarship opportunities. Every admissions counselor at Otis went to art and design school, and we remember how nervous we were having our portfolios reviewed. We are here to help you get into school, not keep you out.

“I always tell students, ‘I can teach you how to draw but I cannot teach you to be yourself, that is a discovery you must make on your own.’ Show us who you are and you will show the very best of your talents.” —Otis College Admissions officer

What advice can you give applicants who haven’t had a lot of art or design training?

Try observational drawing even if you have never done it in a class. Bring a small sketchbook with you everywhere and make quick sketches, or draw on anything! Just do this for a few minutes a day and you will see improvement. We are not looking for perfection, we are looking for effort and potential. We don’t expect you to be experts. This is why you are applying to school—to learn. 

If the student doesn’t have a strong art and design program at school, I let them know that summers are important for taking courses at community colleges or cultural institutions. Use the internet as a resource to develop your technical skills, and look at a lot of art work online and out in the world so that you can widen your view on art. Going to the local library and looking through art books can help you think about art making too. Try using our portfolio prompts on our website as inspiration.

What advice can you give applicants who have extensive training? 

With core skills, a strong technical understanding of the elements, and principles of design and material you can now create something that is you. Make art that you are interested in making. We get students thinking about why they are making work and why it matters in the greater context of the world around them. If they are coming from high school, they are still learning about themselves even if their work is strong. 

Think about bigger concepts. For example, if you like digital art and traditional drawing/painting, how can you take what you learn from one media and apply it to the other? How can you expand the world you are building in your concept art? What objects do your characters use? How do they interact with each other? How can you play with lighting and perspective in your observational work?

Anything else you’d like to share about the portfolio part of the application process? 

Take good photos or get good scans of your physical artwork. You’re also allowed to edit your photos slightly to get them as close to what your physical art piece looks like. Save them to the cloud. So many times we hear, “My work got damaged or my computer crashed and I lost everything.” Document as you go and save the work to more than one place. You can think about your portfolio as a one-person exhibition. Think about which order will make sense for your viewers. And remember: Choose work that makes you feel proud!

For more information about applying to Otis College, visit otis.edu/admissions