Blog Post #003 – Applying to Architecture School: Portfolio Advice

Architecture School, Life in General

I have decided to create a post offering some support in creating a portfolio to submit to universities as part of their application process. In all of the architecture courses that I applied to and those that I looked into required a portfolio that included a range of artwork. This range could be in the form of sketching, painting, collage, graphic design, the list goes on. There may also be additional tasks that are specific for the university that you have applied to. This will often be a piece or series of artwork in response to a brief. 

In most cases, for UK universities it is not imperative to have studied Art before attending university so this portfolio could be wholly made up of work completed outside of your academic subjects. So do not feel that your subject choice has to be a barrier to studying architecture. 

I applied to the University of Sheffield, University of Nottingham, Kent University, UAL (University Arts of London) and UCL (University College London). From these universities, I received an offer from Sheffield, Nottingham and Kent. I was invited to an interview at UAL but was unsuccessful in receiving an offer and I pulled out of the UCL application process when I decided that it was not the university for me and chose to firmly accept an offer from another university. All of these universities required me to create a strong portfolio to compete with the large volume of applicants that each university receives each year. Both Sheffield and UCL required a specific task completed which I will go into more detail about later on. 

What software to use? 

I used Google Slides to create mine and then downloaded into a PDF file for upload to each university. I found the interface simple to navigate and did the job for me. Microsoft Powerpoint would work just as well and InDesign is also a good software platform for portfolio creation. 

In my experience universities require a PDF file so creating an online portfolio won’t be suitable for this particular situation but are always useful to create to further promote your work when you progress throughout your studies. 

Tip #1 – Research 

Make sure you look into the university that you are creating the portfolio for. I would not suggest creating a one size fits all portfolio as certain universities ask for evidence of sketchbook work for example. Others want to see your artistic process that has led towards a resolved piece where others may just want to see images of your final pieces. Taking the time to do this research will pay dividends when your portfolio is being scrutinised and it fits the criteria that they are specifically looking for. 

For example, for my UAL portfolio, I looked into their requirements and I saw that they wanted to see sketchbook work. So, I simply scanned in a selection of my sketchbook pages to express my readiness to practice and develop my drawing technique. On the first slide below I included examples of still life drawing with the shells and on the second slide I displayed my understanding for the effects of light on an object and the importance of this to create a flat drawing that seems 3-dimensional. 

Careful research and planning are also vitally important in avoiding portfolio submission deadlines. Also, carefully read any documentation that the university sends you as it may include a request for further documents from yourself. This could be in the form of a cover letter from a teacher that proves that the work that is being submitted is that of your own and not another person. Something to consider is the ability to compress your PDF file to a small enough size to upload to the university. They will often ask for a file that is around 6mb. Most portfolios exceed this due to the inclusion of several high-quality PDFs. There are some online programmes and tutorials that can walk you through the process that allows for compression of a PDF file without pixelation of your images in the portfolio but don’t leave this to the night before the deadline as I must admit I did do myself. Save yourself any stress and figure it out in advance. 

Tip #2 – Keep it simple 

I utilised a simplistic design within my portfolio and tried to avoid layering too many images upon a single slide to prevent the observer feeling overwhelmed and I think it is important to maintain a mentality of quality over quantity to avoid having certain pieces bringing down the overall quality of your portfolio because you want to show the volume of work you have completed. Only select your best work for your portfolio. 

In the images above they show the lack of a complicated design, I consciously decided to only use 2 colours and avoid the complexity of some themes that can be found preset on Google Slides and Microsoft Powerpoint. The lack of bright colours and overcomplicated design means that the focus is primarily on the work that I have selected, which ultimately what they will base their decision upon. 

Something to consider when compiling your portfolio is the order of your work. There is no right way to do this, to be honest. You could order your slides in the following: 

  • Chronological order of completion 
  • Grouped in artistic technique (drawings, paintings, etc.) 
  • Starting and finishing the portfolio with your best work 

There are other ways in which you can order your work but in my case, I chose to insert my best work at the start of my portfolio and finish with an equally strong piece. I felt that this started the portfolio well and captured the attention of the observer and then with the strong final piece it would tie together the portfolio as a whole. I also used grouping throughout and kept similar artistic techniques together, for example, the two slides below were one before the other and consisted only of photography which did then not appear anywhere else in the portfolio. 

In terms of the description text for your pieces, I suggest keeping them short and sweet. Ensure to use concise and technical language that gets across what it is and perhaps your hoped effect of the piece. Avoid any kind of waffle! 

Tip #3 – Maintain a range of artistic skill  

It is easy to assume that because you are applying to an architecture course it is crucial to include work that is related to architecture in some shape or form. In most cases, any computer-aided design, perhaps AutoCAD or SketchUp are frowned upon and they would rather an applicant to display their artistic talent through mediums such as drawing, painting, construction etc.

This lends itself to my final tip, to include a range of artistic skills. This could consist of a multitude of skills. For example, you may include sketching, painting, photography, collage and much more. And, if you feel that as an artist you only focus on one or two artistic techniques, push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things. It does not have to be perfect but the fact that you have taken it upon yourself to try these new skills will be attractive to universities. For example, in my portfolio, I tried to do this and included pencil drawing, oil painting, graphic design, physical modelling, photography and woodwork. 

A word of advice that I received from the feedback from unsuccessful applications and accomplished artists around me, universities like to see a lot of drawing work. So I would push the boat out with practising and refining your drawing skills to be able to create a large pool of drawn work to select from. This is something that I lacked and I have now taken the time to rectify this and now draw for pleasure much more regularly and in doing this my confidence in my own drawing ability is increasing.

Specific task examples:

As mentioned earlier for a couple of my university applications I was required to submit specific pieces for their university. This is crucial to the application and is why it is important to fully understand the brief and know what it’s deadlines are. The universities that required additional work were the University of Sheffield and UCL. I will display both of my responses to the task set and offer some advice if you were applying to these particular universities. 

University of Sheffield: 

This is an excerpt from the University of Sheffield Portfolio Submission Guidance leaflet: 

“As a further test of your critical, representational and observational skills, we ask that you submit a piece of work that illustrates an aspect of the street/road/lane that you live on. This can be in any medium and should be accompanied by a short text of around 200 words.”

Below is my response to the above task with the attached 200 words: 

This is my piece responding to the brief on ‘your street’. I decided to draw inspiration from David Hockney who was prolific in cubist photography. He would take multiple photos of a scene and concentrate on some areas and ignore others. I decided to dive into certain details that would otherwise often go unnoticed in my street. These differing perspectives of certain elements were then brought together to create an analytical view of my street. 

I decided to link an artist to the completed piece which is something that I recommend as it displays that you have a broader understanding of the art community and the influences of certain people in that community. I would also advise trying something slightly unusual perhaps as it will separate you from the rest and avoid answering the brief in a very literal way such as simply drawing ‘your street’. Try and layer your response with some insightful artistic knowledge and exploration. 

Your specific piece is then included as a slide in your complete electronic portfolio that you upload online. 

University College London: 

The brief changes every year so I am unable to give direct advice on what to include but I will briefly explain how the task is set up and what is required of you. 

You will be sent an email including a brief that will require you to respond to a certain theme that changes year on year. You will be asked to submit five A4 pieces as frames of a storyboard. The drawings must be quick and personal responses and not drawn from photographs. It is required that the drawings explore different media, two must be drawn with pencil, one mixed media and one a photograph. A unique aspect of the UCL drawing task is the time pressures. One drawing must be completed in 5 minutes, one in 15 minutes, one in 30 minutes and one in 60 minutes. The final piece has no set timings but has to be in response to an image that is given to you on the brief. 

The advice that I can give is to try and think outside the box and be inventive with what you decide to do. Don’t worry too much about it being perfect as they are aware of the time constraints when looking over them. This particular task in my case had to be sent in the post to London so make sure you allow enough time for it to arrive before the deadline.  

I have included my full university application portfolio at the end of this post for reference for prospective students that may find it useful when creating their own. I hope that this post may provide some assistance. If you have any questions shoot them over!

Good luck! 

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