What do universities mean when they ask for ‘portfolios’?

Once you get started on your university applications, you might run into portfolio requirements. Depending on the course in question, many UK universities ask their applicants to submit a portfolio as part of their application process. But what exactly is a portfolio, and how can you create one that stands out? 

This article breaks down university portfolios, providing you with valuable insights, tips, and guidance to help you navigate this important component of your application. 

Also, at The Profs, we understand the importance of a strong portfolio. We have expert tutors in a range of disciplines that often require portfolios, hence they are well-versed in portfolios themselves as well as university admissions. Our talented and experienced tutor team are here to support you every step of the way.

What is a portfolio for a university?

Typically, a portfolio is a collection of your creative work, projects, achievements, and experiences that showcase your skills, talents, and potential. It can include a range of materials such as artwork, design projects, written essays or articles, research papers, photographs, videos, performances, or any other relevant work that demonstrates your skills and passion in your chosen field.

A portfolio for university application is essentially a visual representation of your accomplishments and capabilities. It allows admissions officers to gain a deeper understanding of your abilities beyond traditional academic qualifications. It acts as a comprehensive overview of your abilities and allows universities to assess your suitability for the course you’re applying to.

So, a well-curated portfolio is crucial as it can set you apart from other applicants and demonstrate your commitment and dedication to your discipline. If you wish to receive an offer from your dream university, this could be the key!

Oftentimes, portfolios are required by courses within disciplines like Art, Design, Fashion, Media and/or Creative Writing, that involve a practical element.

The university application process: Usually students applying to study an undergraduate course submit a UCAS application to 5 universities maximum. As standard practice, they will need to meet their university’s specified A level or IB (or equivalent) grade requirements as well as provide a personal statement. For certain courses, some universities might require the completion of an admissions test, written work and/or a portfolio. So, you must always check the specific requirements of your chosen course and university as well as any key dates (deadlines are subject to change each year)! Also, international students should note that they might be asked to submit a portfolio as part of their university application whilst UK students might not.

Universities that ask for a portfolio as part of their application process:

While many universities do not require a portfolio for any of their courses, multiple do. Several prestigious institutions emphasise this component during the application process for some of the degrees they offer. Some notable universities that require or recommend a portfolio include:

Brighton University
  • Architecture
  • Animation
  • Fine Art
  • Product Design
  • Photography
  • Illustration
Falmouth University
  • Advertising and Graphic Design
  • Animation and Post Production
  • Architecture, Product Design and Interior Portfolios 
  • Fine Art, Drawing and Illustration
  • Fashion and Textiles
  • Media Production
  • Photography
Goldsmiths University
  • Fine Art
  • Fine Art and History of Art
  • Design 
University College London (UCL)
  • Architecture
  • Fine Art
  • Landscape Architecture
  • Quantum Technologies
  • Translational Neurology
University of Arts London (UAL)
  • Architecture
  • Fashion Styling and Production
  • Fine Art
University of Cambridge
  • Architecture
University of East Anglia
  • Creative Writing Prose Fiction
  • American Literature with Creative Writing
University of Nottingham
  • Architecture
  • Architectural Environment Engineering
University of Oxford
  • Fine Art
University of Sheffield
  • Architecture
Westminster University
  • Animation
  • Film
  • Photography
  • Fine Art Mixed Media

These universities recognise the value of assessing applicants’ practical abilities and creativity through portfolio submissions.

Please note: It is important to check the entry requirements for your course yourself via the specific course page on the university website. This is because course entry requirements often change, as do the specific names of courses, and you should always be certain of what to expect. Also, note that this table is an example. So, it does not mention all the universities that ask for a portfolio, nor does it include all the courses that this university offers that ask for a portfolio.

What should a university portfolio look like?

A university portfolio should be visually appealing, well-organised, and easy to navigate. It should reflect your personal style while adhering to any specific guidelines provided by the university. 

Think about how best to present your work to a fresh pair of eyes.

Your scans, images and samples should be of the highest quality possible to put your best foot forward and ensure that the overall presentation is professional and polished. 

Your portfolio should be presented in a professional, logical and orderly way, labelled consistently and have your name on it (unless specified not to).

Also, choose whether your portfolio is portrait or landscape and stick to it to avoid confusion and chaos.

When it comes to what your portfolio should contain, it really depends on your chosen course. Depending on your discipline, your portfolio could include:

  • Sketches and/or illustrations.
  • Photographs.
  • Digital art and/or graphic design.
  • Concepts.
  • Poetry, prose, essays, and/or articles.
  • Short sound samples and audition tapes (Performing Arts and Music)

For example, an architecture portfolio might ask for a range of images using different tools that demonstrate creative thinking and technical ability.

Practical tips: The format of your portfolio

The format of your portfolio can differ. 

You might be asked to present your portfolio physically during an in-person interview. 

Alternatively, you might be asked to send your portfolio online as part of your application process. 

Thirdly, you might be asked for a digital portfolio. This might not mean that all (or any) of your work must be digital so be sure to check expectations on the specific course page of the universities you’re applying to so that you know what to expect.

Tips for physical portfolios: 

  • Consider factors like size, printing, binding, and how to keep it pristine. 
  • Portfolios are often presented in folders with sheets or extracts or photo boxes. 
  • Remember user experience e.g. using plastic sleeves is not ideal if your work is tactile.
  • If you’ll be travelling with your portfolio, consider its size and weight. Large works or delicate items can be shown as photos.

Tips for digital portfolios:

  • Adhere to your chosen university’s style guide and preferred format.
  • Consider spacing and margins, as well as how your portfolio might display on another type of computer to your own.
  • It may make more sense to present your portfolio on a USB stick, DVD or website. 

How do I create a portfolio for a university application?

Creating an impressive portfolio requires careful planning and organisation. Here are the key steps to guide you through the process:

  • Research the specific requirements: Each university may have individual guidelines and expectations regarding portfolio submissions. Thoroughly review your university’s website and your specific course page to understand what they are looking for. Make notes and create a plan that ticks off each expectation. 
  • Select your best work: Choose a diverse range of your most outstanding, recent, and relevant pieces. Consider showcasing different techniques, mediums, and subject matters that highlight your versatility and skills. Lacking a piece that demonstrates a particular concept or showcases your talent? Consider creating something new especially to add to your portfolio. On this note, include what you want universities to see, not what you think they want to see.
  • Organise your portfolio: Structure your portfolio in a logical and cohesive manner. Use tabs or sections to categorise your work, making it easier for reviewers to navigate and appreciate your portfolio. Keep things simple as you have limited space/time so you want to make your portfolio as easy to read and understand as possible.
  • Include descriptions and reflections: Accompany each piece with brief annotations, descriptions or reflections that explain the context, purpose, and significance of the work. This provides valuable insights into your creative process and the thoughts behind your creations. Explain your vision. By this same merit, be decisive! If you can’t explain something, don’t include it.
  • Seek feedback: Make sure that you show your portfolio to peers and teachers at your school or college who can offer you constructive feedback. Ideally, talk to professionals in your field. Their input can help you refine and polish your work for maximum impact.

5 Top tips for preparing a portfolio

1. Start early: 

Creating an impressive portfolio takes time. Begin the process well in advance to allow for careful selection, organisation, and refinement of your work. You might find that the different universities you’re applying to ask for different things, or that you want to create new pieces for your portfolio. You also need to allow time for people to look at your portfolio and give you feedback, and for you to make alterations. 

2. Tailor your portfolio: 

Your portfolio should speak specifically to your chosen discipline and degree programme. Research the specific requirements of each university and tailor your portfolio accordingly. Highlight the skills and experiences that align with their expectations and demonstrate your suitability for the course. 

That said, don’t be afraid to go outside the box. If you’re creating a Fashion portfolio, you might express how your garment ideas are inspired by a particular painter’s work. Similarly, if you’re applying for Life Drawing, it might not be a good idea to only include examples of your life drawings. Perhaps you should only include 2-3 examples of your best work and use the rest of your portfolio to demonstrate your creative and conceptual abilities. 

Remember, uniqueness is essential. Universities see hundreds of portfolios that are amazing but almost identical. Yours needs to be different to stand out. 

3. Showcase your passion:

Choose pieces that genuinely reflect your passion and enthusiasm for your chosen field. Admissions officers are looking for candidates who are genuinely engaged in their subject area. 

You might show eagerness by integrating your discipline with your everyday life e.g. videos of people you interact with about a concept or using objects that you find or your personal belongings to create your work. Eagerness and willingness for your subject are valued characteristics by universities. 

Use what you have at your disposal. You can prove commitment to your subject through mediums like Instagram, online blogs, journals or scrapbooks. Especially if these are things you’ve been keeping up with for a long stint of time.

Teaching practical skills is easier than teaching ideas so do not blindly prioritise mastering technical skills, show your passion and innovation!

4. Demonstrate growth and development:

Include a mix of recent work and pieces that show your progress and growth over time. Include annotations to make this clear. A clear path of development highlights your ability to learn, adapt, and improve.

It’s important to experiment, take risks and even make mistakes. This shows you will be a student who takes all they can get from their degree. Universities are interested to see how you learned from your mistakes and that you’re not afraid to challenge yourself. 

Tell a story by showing how your idea developed – how did you improve? Make your mistakes part of an exciting journey to discovery and innovation. 

Your portfolio is supposed to prove that you’re a work in progress with amazing potential, not that you’re perfect. 

So, maybe you should draw even if you’re not confident at it to practise showing visualisations of your ideas. And maybe you want to include something great you achieved through teamwork and show what you’ve learned from this (collaboration, another great skill). Or perhaps you want to include your most recent work even if it’s not yet complete to show how you research and develop your ideas.

Please note: Universities are looking for heart and narrative. Can a stranger understand your story? An impactful beginning and end will strengthen your portfolio.

5. Practice self-reflection: 

This is the how and why! Use your portfolio as an opportunity for self-reflection. Evaluate yourself alongside your portfolio.

Consider the strengths and weaknesses of your work, and be prepared to discuss and articulate your creative choices during interviews or portfolio reviews.

How we can help

Here at The Profs, university applications are our thing! We know exactly how to create the perfect portfolio to boost your application and maximise your chances of success. That’s why 95% of our students get into their first or second-choice universities. 

Want to join the winning team? Reach out to our friendly, expert tutors! Your dream university awaits.


How long should a uni portfolio be?

The length of a university portfolio can vary depending on the specific requirements of your course and institution.

Some universities may provide guidelines regarding the number of pieces or the total duration of videos or performances. There could be a maximum word/character count or a limit on your number of images.

It’s crucial to check the guidelines specific to your course/university and adhere to them to ensure that your portfolio is considered by the admissions team.

What should be included in a university portfolio?

A university portfolio should include a varied selection of your best work that showcases your skills, accomplishments, and creativity in your chosen field of study.

How do I create a university portfolio that stands out?

To create a university portfolio that stands out, carefully curate your work, focusing on quality rather than quantity. Highlight your unique strengths, experiences, and projects that demonstrate your passion and potential in your desired area of study. 

Show enthusiasm, innovation and the willingness to challenge yourself by experimenting and taking risks. Go outside the box. Think about what most of your peers will include, and try to do something different.

What are the specific formatting and presentation guidelines for a university portfolio?

The specific formatting and presentation guidelines for a university portfolio may vary depending on the institution and programme. However, it is generally recommended to present your work in a professional and organised manner, using clear labels, captions, and descriptions for each piece. Pay attention to visual presentation, ensuring high-quality images or samples and a cohesive overall layout.

Why is a university portfolio important for applications and how can it impact my chances of acceptance?

A university portfolio is important for applications as it provides admissions officers with tangible evidence of your abilities and potential. It allows them to assess your suitability for the programme and evaluate your creative and critical thinking skills. 

A well-crafted portfolio can positively impact your chances of acceptance by setting you apart from other applicants and demonstrating your dedication and talent in your chosen field.

How much does it cost to submit a portfolio to a university?

Undergraduate and postgraduate candidates usually have to pay an application fee, whether they’re applying through UCAS or directly to the university. If you are required to submit a portfolio this will be part of your application and it will be covered by the application fee – it will not be a separate cost. 

From application fees to tuition and living costs – universities, independent schemes/institutions, and student finance usually have support in place to offer waivers, grants, scholarships, and/or loans to students in need. This often includes an application fee waiver.