Student portfolios: Your ultimate guide

“Creating a portfolio is defining who you are,” says Mike Davis. “It’s a reflection of your essence.”

Davis is a visual editor, author, and educator who has helped countless students craft portfolios for competitions and job submissions—not to mention he’s reviewed portfolios in a variety of high-profile settings like New York Times reviews. He’s also written a foundational book for photographers, Creating Visual Narratives through Photography. Now, he is guiding us through the world of student portfolios. 

“It’s important to understand that it’s not a process outside of yourself,” he continues. “You can make photographs just by pointing your camera, but the photographs won’t feel like an expression which is coming from you. It’s the same way for a portfolio—which should be an expression of what you value, what you thought was important, and what you want to continue to do more of.” 

This guide provides everything you need to create and curate your portfolio from a mere collection of work to a compelling narrative of your academic and artistic growth. Whether you’re a photographer, artist, writer, or illustrator, Davis will walk you through selecting your best work, presenting it in a way that speaks volumes about your skills and passions, and making your portfolio stand out.

What is a student portfolio?

At its core, a student portfolio is a curated collection of your educational work, achievements, and progress. It’s a dynamic showcase of your skills, dedication, and passion, neatly packaged into one cohesive narrative. Consider it your professional showcase, where your top projects, assignments, and triumphs define not only who you are but what you aspire to be.

Use a student portfolio for the below purposes.

  • Assessing your work: Educators use portfolios to evaluate your understanding and mastery of skills over time. They’re a way to showcase your growth and how you navigated and overcame challenges.
  • Self-reflection and assessment: Curating your portfolio encourages you to reflect on your experiences, understand your learning process, and evaluate your work. This introspection is invaluable for personal and professional development.
  • Documenting learning: Portfolios are living records of your learning trajectory. They compile evidence of your skills, learning outcomes, and the breadth of your knowledge, presenting it all in one comprehensive narrative.
  • Jobs, fellowships, applications, and internships: When venturing into the professional or academic world, your portfolio is a testament to your capabilities, setting you apart from the competition. It’s a powerful tool for securing educational and career opportunities, giving potential schools and employers a glimpse into what you bring to the table.

Why are they important?

“Not having a portfolio or a representation of your work out there in the world is a bit like if you’re trying to sell shoes without having shoes for people to try on,” says Davis. “It’s probably not going to work.”

A student portfolio is a visual representation of who you are as well as the product you bring to the table. It’s tangible proof of your abilities, showcasing what you know and what you can do with that knowledge. It tells your story beyond grades and standardized tests, highlighting your innovative problem-solving, creativity, and commitment to your field.

Here are a few ways to use your student portfolio to further your career.

  • Internships and jobs: Distinguish yourself in the job market by presenting a detailed and dynamic catalog of your work experience, projects, and skill sets.
  • Scholarships: Highlight your achievements and potential to scholarship committees, standing out from the crowd.
  • Graduate school applications: Demonstrate your readiness for advanced study, research abilities, and academic interests compellingly.
  • Personal branding: Build and maintain a personal brand that resonates with your professional aspirations and persona.
  • Networking: Use your portfolio as a conversation starter and networking tool, expanding your professional circle and opening up new opportunities.
  • Freelancing: Attract clients by showcasing your previous projects, feedback, and the breadth of your expertise in your field.

a student creating their portfolio with a notepad and a computer

How to create a student portfolio

It’s time to roll up your sleeves and bring your work to life. The steps ahead will guide you through creating a portfolio that reflects your unique talents and propels you toward your goals. 

Define your goals and target audience

“To be in a creative profession today, you need to develop a specialization of some sort—be it topical or the uniqueness of your personality,” Davis states. “But it’s imperative to understand that portfolios are not generic. They have to be specific to where you want to go—including only the work that you actually want to do.”

Defining your specialization and goals, plus understanding your target audience, is the bedrock of an outstanding portfolio. This isn’t just about displaying your educational work—it’s about strategically sharing a story about that work that speaks volumes to those who hold the keys to your next big opportunity.

  • Set your goals. Start with crystal-clear clarity on what you wish to achieve. Whether it’s landing a top-tier internship, getting into a competitive graduate program, or securing a position at a dream company, your goal will dictate the direction of your portfolio.
  • Develop your story. What is your special sauce? And what work do you want to do—beyond just landing that internship or dream job? Answering these questions helps specify your portfolio.
  • Know your audience. Are you creating a portfolio for your professor or using it to impress a gallery? This step is about getting into their minds—understanding their challenges, what impresses them, and the problems they seek to solve. Ideally, you’d know the preferences of the people who will be looking at your work—look into their backgrounds and know the creative tastes of the settings in which they work.
  • Align your work. Your portfolio should reflect how your skills and experiences align with your goals and the values of your target audience. If you aim for a marketing role in a socially responsible company, showcase projects or initiatives highlighting your commitment to social causes. And remember, only include the types of work you really want to do in the future.

A note on creative paths

If you don’t know exactly your end goal, don’t worry too much. Rather, you get to refine your path over and over again. While this starts in school, it continues throughout your career.

“Very few people are clear about their path from the outset,” says Davis. “We must continually challenge ourselves, putting new choices in front of ourselves. It’s essential.”

Just remember to constantly self-reflect and refine your work. Freshman year, Davis suggests you create a hierarchy in your work so you know what’s your strongest. Do the same for sophomore, junior, and definitely senior year. Before long, you’ll be ready to define your goals and tell your story.

preview of a student portfolio in a physical print format

Choose your format

Photography portfolios used to just be 20 slides sent to editors,” says Davis. “Now, a diversity of expression will often get you hired. So if you can’t fully realize your projects through imagery alone, add audio, video, writing, post-it notes—whatever form best expresses what you’re trying to say.”

As you can tell, your student portfolio can look very different depending on your goals and audience. Davis suggests really understanding the audience you’re trying to appeal to, and that will lead to the best form of portfolio you can produce. (See, that first step is important!)

Even with all the variety possible, there are still two main types of portfolios: physical and digital. In today’s Digital Age, you likely need both. We’re focusing on print here because that’s what we know best, but many of these steps apply to digital work, too.

Why print?

Print allows you to control all aspects of your portfolio—you don’t have to fight for attention on online platforms or worry about uncalibrated monitors displaying your photography weirdly. Print portfolios can take many forms, from pocket-sized flip books to elegantly bound volumes to traditional binders.

Unlike an online portfolio, a print portfolio has physical weight and texture. It’s easier to browse through quickly without toggling between screens or waiting for images to load. And there are a few more reasons pros love them:

  • Control your narrative. Tell your student story through your layout, guiding viewers carefully through your work. With print, you can strategically and sequentially take your audience on a trip through your experience.
  • Impact viewers with tactility. A print portfolio is a physical object, and humans are inherently attracted to tactile objects. High-resolution imagery on a printed page has a one-of-a-kind effect on viewers.
  • Let your work live on. Unlike online platforms that may change or disappear, your portfolio prints remain as they are until you decide to update.
  • Keep all the focus. You’re in total control of the layout, sequencing, and pacing. Plus, other work on the same platform is not competing for attention.

Blurb’s format options

If you’re planning on printing your book, think about Blurb. We specialize in printing extremely high-quality visual books on demand. No minimum orders or complicated pricing structures.

  • Photo books: Ideal for visually striking portfolios for photographers, fine artists, illustrators, and graphic designers. Choose from tiny 5×5-inch Mini Squares to luxurious 13×11-inch Large Landscapes.
  • Trade books: Perfect for text-heavy portfolios in fields like journalism, creative nonfiction, and art history. Or even if you’re seeking out a photo-heavy portfolio at a more affordable price point.
  • Magazines: If you want to hand out your portfolio at networking events, mail promo pieces to future clients, or produce a stack of leave-behinds to wow hiring managers, try the cost-effective (but still quality) Premium Magazine.

A note on digital and unusual formats

We recommend having both print and digital portfolios. Digital portfolios are essential for most job applications, are often extremely cost-effective, and can be helpful for building a larger network.

Davis agrees. He suggests thinking even bigger as you build your personal brand. Consider what social media platforms are important for your industry—perhaps Instagram is key if you’re a photographer, LinkedIn is required if you’re aiming for corporate positions, and TikTok can be great for building your community.

Think through unusual options as well. Promotional pieces used to be extremely common. Davis suggests creating a handful of extremely high-quality pieces for engaging with your top few dream target clients or hiring managers. Craft a more economical promo piece to send to the next tier of 30 or so ideal clients. Lastly, create a postcard or print for the next 100 people you’d love to know.

And don’t forget the leave-behind and email newsletter. Davis swears that they are both extremely effective for building and maintaining your connections.

Cull your work as you go

It’s smart to reflect and refine your work, project by project. This makes selecting your top work much easier when it comes time to compile your portfolio.

Curious about how to best cull your work? Here is Davis’ tried and true method: Work in waves.

  • Start with a general sense. Scroll through your creations in a contact sheet view. Self-reflect without judgment. Why did you make this work? What did you miss?
  • Go big picture. Look at every piece large, one by one. Remember, no judgment once more. What do you see?
  • Note your moderate successes. Go through a third time and add one star or a tag to anything that is worth keeping beyond today.
  • Find what’s better. Now, with just the moderately successful work in front of you, decide which is better than the others. Again, note the work in this round with another star or tag.
  • Lastly, pick the best. Finally, return to that better selection. Pick what really stands out and give it another star. This is your best work.
a student selecting their work to be put into their portfolio

Select the best of the best

You know how to cull, so it’s time to go through your student career and select 20 to 30 top pieces. Remember, your portfolio should be more than just a compilation of things you’ve done. It should be a curated selection of your best work.

  • Select work strategically. Go beyond simply selecting your favorite projects. Choose pieces that align not just with your goals but also with the needs and interests of your audience. Each piece should serve a clear purpose in your narrative.
  • Add quality over quantity. Resist the urge to include everything you’ve done. Focus on presenting fewer, higher-quality pieces that stand out. This approach respects your audience’s time and attention while ensuring your best work shines through.
  • Showcase your versatility—or specificity. Employers and educators seek evidence of your flexibility and wide range of skills—or your niche capabilities. Depending upon your audience, include projects showcasing different aspects of your abilities (like technical proficiency to creative problem-solving) or share multiple projects that display your expertise in your specialization.

Sequence your work

Now is the fun part: Playing with narrative!

“Export your best work and play with different sequences and groupings,” Davis suggests. “I find it useful to refine the narratives to their essence, then print a contact sheet of all your narratives, move those around, and see which ones work well together.”

Here are a few more guiding suggestions as you sequence your portfolio.

  • What do you want to say about yourself? Let this question guide you, first from the work you choose to present and then how you carry that idea forward in the narrative of your body of work.
  • Show off your skillset. Your portfolio demonstrates your unique set of skills—your technical skills, how you use your medium, and how you tell the story of your process. Be sure to highlight everything you bring to the table.
  • Think through visual dynamics. Davis asks himself how he feels when a photograph lands in front of him—and how it flows from one to the next.

Design for clarity

An organized, well-designed portfolio is a powerful portfolio. Categorize your work in a way that makes sense, with a clear introduction and logical progression. Letting your work shine with minimal design flourishes allows your audience to understand who you are and the value you bring effortlessly.

“I encourage photographers to connect with design students and offer a swap,” says Davis. If you’re not confident in your design abilities, this tip can get you really far—and lead to even more community.

No matter how you’re designing your portfolio, here’s what to think about.

  • Be intentional with structure. Opt for simplicity and purpose in your design. Each page or screen should lead naturally to the next, creating a coherent narrative that effortlessly ushers your audience through your body of work.
  • Categorize your portfolio. Group similar projects together to make navigation straightforward, enabling viewers to explore your portfolio based on their interests. Clear categories or chapters showcase the breadth of your skills and experiences.
  • Highlight your best work first. Make a solid first impression by placing your most impressive or relevant projects at the beginning. Captivate your audience from the start and keep them engaged throughout.
  • Consistency is key. Establish and adhere to a consistent theme across your portfolio. Whether it’s a color scheme, font choices, or layout design (or, best yet, all three), consistency strengthens your brand and makes your portfolio more memorable.
  • Use colors and fonts that reflect who you are. Don’t be afraid to let your personality and style shine through in the design elements of your portfolio. Just ensure they align with your overall brand image and enhance the readability of your work.
  • Leave space for reflection. Allow your work to breathe by not overcrowding your portfolio. Adequate negative space and a clean layout invite viewers to reflect on each piece, enhancing their appreciation and understanding of your work.
  • Make it accessible. Consider the design from an accessibility standpoint, ensuring your portfolio is inclusive for all audiences. Choose fonts and color schemes that allow everyone to view your work.

Reflect and add context

Your portfolio tells your story. Davis tells his students that if two people get on an elevator and one says your name, you want the other to say, “Oh yeah, that’s the person who…”

Use text to underline the narrative you’re telling about your work and yourself. Here’s how.

  • Engage in self-reflection. Before adding a project to your portfolio, reflect on what you learned from the experience. Consider the challenges you faced and how you overcame them. This introspective approach enriches the narrative and displays your growth mindset.
  • Incorporate titles and descriptions. Craft engaging titles and thorough descriptions for each project to guide your audience through your creative process. Use this space to explain the objective of each piece, the strategies employed, and the outcomes achieved. Descriptions act as a bridge, connecting the viewer to the deeper context of your work.
  • Create a compelling statement page. Your portfolio is your story. Include a student statement or about page that shares your educational journey, passion for your field, and future aspirations. This personal touch helps viewers connect with you on a deeper level.
  • Edit for consistency. Attention to detail is crucial. Proofread your content to ensure there are no spelling or grammatical errors, and keep an eye on maintaining a consistent tone throughout your portfolio. Consistency in your narrative, design, and formatting conveys professionalism and attention to detail.
a student seeking out feedback while in the process of creating their portfolio

Seek feedback

Before finalizing your book, seek feedback from mentors, peers, or professionals in your field. Use their insights to refine and adjust your presentation, ensuring your work connects effectively with your intended audience.

Keep these tips, from Davis’ years of experience, in mind.

  • Present clarity, with options. When you ask for feedback, it’s better to have a “complete” sequence of your portfolio and also have additional images easily accessible. This gives your mentors and peers something concrete to respond to and options for them to consider to make your presentation as strong as possible.
  • Practice your elevator pitch. Whether you are stopping by your professor’s office hours or attending a structured portfolio review, have a short pitch about you and your work ready. Also, be prepared to answer the question, “What would you like me to respond to, what would be helpful to hear?”
  • Don’t challenge. You should NOT contest what your reviewer says about your work—even if you disagree with what they offer. Instead, Davis suggests asking, “Could you help me understand that better, could you say more about that?”
  • Don’t over-explain. If you’re at a 20-minute portfolio review and you speak for 18 minutes of it, you won’t get the feedback you’re aiming for. Instead, summarize yourself, your work, and what you’re requesting feedback on in less than five minutes. Then, offer explanations if asked.
  • Ask your career questions. Last, but not least, remember that if you are in front of an industry expert or hiring manager, be sure to ask questions about how to get your dream job. Davis suggests: What do you look for when you’re hiring? What would make my presentation stronger? What is the weakest aspect of what I showed you?

Overarching tips and tricks

You’re almost ready to showcase your portfolio, but here are a few additional tips and tricks to keep in mind throughout the entire process to ensure it’s a success.

  • Document, document, document. Make reflection and documentation part of your learning process. If you photograph and write descriptions of your work as you do it, you’ll have a much easier time updating your portfolio as you grow.
  • Self-reflect regularly. School is the main time in your career when you have time to truly explore your process, identity, and the rollercoaster that can be your artistic journey. Make sure you’re using your time wisely.
  • Be authentic. Your portfolio is a reflection of you. Allow your personality to shine through.
  • Create consistency. A cohesive feel throughout each project shows a level of attention to detail and professionalism that will impress.
  • Make an MVP. Thinking about your student portfolio as a “minimal viable product” makes things less overwhelming. Start with the essentials and build from there.
  • Update it regularly. Your portfolio is a living document that grows with you. (See, having an MVP first doesn’t mean you’ll never revisit it.)

Examples of student portfolios

In this section, we spotlight exceptional student portfolios from the Blurb Bookstore that embody the principles we’ve discussed above. These portfolios showcase a remarkable range of skills and creativity and reflect a deep personal engagement with each project.

Check out the work of students Yunhan Peng and Rose Boakes, each with a thoughtfully curated and beautifully presented book. These portfolios show how different students take unique approaches to showcasing their work and telling their stories. We hope they inspire you to create a standout portfolio of your own.

a student portfolio example by Yunhan Peng who created his portfolio using black-and-white street and montage photography
Monocat Chapter 1 by Yunhan Peng.

Monocat Chapter 1

Yunhan Peng is a student at Pennsylvania State University who wanted to create a portfolio of his black-and-white street and montage photography. With super clean lines and straightforward navigation, he’s successfully showcased his work with a minimalistic portfolio. We’re impressed how the simple design template he chose truly lets his images stand out.

“I chose Blurb because it was easy to use and publish my work,” Peng stated. “BookWright allowed me to edit my whole book, and there was friendly pricing to buy a book, cheaper than other competitor websites.”

And his advice to other students? “Consider doing black and white photography or color photography,” he states. “It’s easier for you to select your images…if you have one topic for one book.”

Find his portfolio on the Blurb Bookstore.

a student portfolio example by Rose Boakes who created a mini photograhy book portfolio
Wisdom Teeth by Rose Boakes.

Wisdom Teeth

Suffolk-based student, photographer, and creative Rose Boakes created this mini photography book as a tangible university project. In doing so, she proved that student portfolios can be much more than a compendium of all work in a semester or year—and can be displayed in unique formats.

“Especially as photography becomes even more digital, I think the importance of having physical bodies of work is even greater,” she shared. “As it’s my first publication, I wanted to sum up my photography style and give myself an introduction using photographs that explore and document the life around me.”

Read our interview with Boakes to learn more about her photographs, creative process, and advice for others seeking to find their voice in visual art. You can also find her portfolio on the Blurb Bookstore.

a student portfolio being created using Blurb bookmaking tools

How Blurb can help

At Blurb, we understand the profound impact a well-crafted portfolio can have on your career and growth as a student and creator. That’s why we offer tools to help you design, print, and share your portfolio with the world. Our platform simplifies the process, allowing you to create professional-quality books and magazines that bring your vision to life. Whether you’re a budding artist, a seasoned designer, or somewhere in between, Blurb provides the perfect canvas to narrate your journey.

Our easy-to-use bookmaking tools support a wide range of formats, including photo books, trade books, and magazines, ensuring there’s a style that fits your project perfectly. Try out BookWright, our free bookmaking software, or if you’re already an Adobe fan, use the Blurb plugin for Adobe InDesign or Lightroom Classic. 

And it’s not just about creating a portfolio; it’s about sharing your work with the world. We offer an extensive distribution network, making it easy to sell or ship your portfolio to anyone around the world.


Stay empowered, authentic, and energetic as you craft your student portfolio—the world is waiting to see what you’ve got!

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