As students wrap up work in your class, many of them are also getting set to apply for jobs. If that’s the case, pass along these suggestions for building an effective and impressive portfolio that can help them put themselves, and their work, in the best possible light.

As many job seekers and hiring managers will tell you, a portfolio can be a useful way to demonstrate your proficiency within your area of study or professional expertise.

Your portfolio can –and should — be as unique as you are. Depending on the field in which you work (or hope to work), your individual portfolio may contain certain types of documents or work samples, which could vary significantly from that of a friend or colleague who works in a different field. Furthermore, you may decide to create a physical portfolio you can carry from appointment to appointment, or you may opt for an “e-portfolio” that displays all your evidence on one cohesive and thoughtfully organized website.

Though you should certainly take these variables into account, do note that some common elements can demonstrate your achievements in a tangible manner, no matter where you’re hoping to work. In The Ultimate Job Hunter’s Guidebook, Sixth Edition, Susan D. Greene and Melanie C.L. Martel provide a list of items that allow you to build a polished portfolio that clearly and effectively displays your talents, skills, and abilities. Even if you don’t want or need to create a portfolio at this time, read through the list we’ve created based on their recommendations, and consider what may be in your files, as you never know when you might have a need to provide evidence of your many qualifications and accomplishments.

  • Be sure to include a copy of your résumé, as this key document lists your skills and work history and in one place. It is an expected part of any job applicant’s materials.
  • A list of references, as well as your letters of recommendation, are also generally expected when you apply for a job, so they are appropriate pieces to include in the portfolio as well. (You may wish to simply include that the references, and their contact information, are available upon request; this can help stave off any potential privacy issues.)
  • Copies of professional licenses, certificates, awards, school transcripts, military records, and other pertinent documentation can help you demonstrate your skills, leadership, professionalism, and achievements in areas related to your chosen field.
  • Feature samples of your work. Identify the skills you want to highlight and choose the work that best represents your abilities. For example, if you know a job requires writing skills, include well-written (and non-confidential) plans, process documents, formal papers, or business letters. If giving presentations would be part of your potential new role, include a print-out of a Microsoft® PowerPoint® slide deck (or perhaps a video, if your portfolio is online).
  • In a similar manner, case studies illustrating a challenge you’ve faced, the solution you devised, and the steps you took to resolve the issue can be a powerful demonstration of your problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities.
  • Performance reviews and school transcripts are official records that detail your strengths, achievements, and professional & educational track record.
  • Accomplishments. A detailed list highlighting your major career achievements to date can be persuasive.
  • If you have attended conventions, conferences, or seminars related to your field, provide a list of these as well — especially if you have participated in some capacity (e.g., as a speaker).
  • List the community service, volunteer opportunities, or pro bono efforts to which you’ve contributed. Photographs and other documents can provide potential employers with further evidence of your dedication to hard work and service.
  • If your hobbies happen to be relevant to the job you seek, or if they demonstrate a pertinent skill set not readily apparent from other pieces of your portfolio, consider adding a section that illustrates your talents in those areas. (However: do note that these items should still relate to your career in some manner, or else interviewers may potentially see them as unprofessional. If you’re in doubt, don’t include these items.)
  • If your work has received any publicity (e.g., coverage in news articles or press releases), include copies of these mentions, as they serve as public acknowledgement of your achievements. Likewise, unsolicited letters of commendation from employers, vendors, or organizations can function as “testimonials” for the work you’ve done.
  • If you have a personal business card, place one of these in the portfolio as well. It provides all your contact information in a format that’s easy to save (or pass along). Consider adding a tagline that summarizes your professional role and goal, as well as a brief, bulleted list of your skills and accomplishments (which can be placed on the back of the card). (pp 131-132)

In addition to listing the above items, Greene and Martel also suggest that you may want to adapt your portfolio a bit, to reflect the needs or concerns of the particular employer with whom you’re interviewing. By tailoring your portfolio to the position you’re pursuing, you demonstrate your interest in that specific job while highlighting your specific qualifications for it.

And always remember: whether it’s online or in a leather case, your portfolio is a reflection of you. Plan it carefully, organize it thoughtfully, make it look as sharp as you can — and more than likely, you’ll leave potential employers with a positive impression!

Reference: Greene, Susan D. and Martel, Melanie C.L. The Ultimate Job Hunter’s Guidebook, Sixth Ed. 2012. Mason, OH: South-Western, Cengage Learning.

Are there other items you’d recommend including in a professional portfolio? Share your thoughts below.