How to Make the Perfect Portfolio — for any Profession

Finally! After days of waiting, your recruiter calls to tell you you’ve landed an interview for the job of your dreams. You couldn’t be any happier. After she gives you the details, and you stop turning cartwheels, you remember to ask her if you should bring anything to the interview besides your résumé. “Yes,” she answers, “Bring your portfolio, too.” “Portfolio?” you think, panicking. “What portfolio? Who do they think I am, Don Draper?”

Once upon a time, artists, journalists and ad execs were the only ones who needed portfolios. But times have changed. Professionals in fields such as engineering, sales, marketing, finance and technology may also find them useful.

Can’t draw to save your life? No worries. Portfolios for so-called “non-creative” fields aren’t about exhibiting your talent in the visual arts. They are about having something (literally) to show for yourself, giving your interviewer a tangible sense of your professional accomplishments.

Portfolios pick up where your cover letter, résumé and LinkedIn profile leave off to tell your professional story in a vivid, compelling manner. Consider including work samples such as business plans, charts, graphs, engineering and architectural renderings, brochures and testimonials from previous clients.

Before you begin creating your portfolio, decide whether you want to go with an old-school hard copy or a more interactive online portfolio. Each choice has distinct advantages. Ideally, consider creating online and hard copy versions for different purposes.

How to look good on paper

Hard copy portfolios are a good choice for interviews since you can easily refer to and show samples of your work while discussing it with the interviewer.

For example: Suppose your interviewer asks you to talk about your contributions to a successful sales campaign. It’s nice to tell her about how you increased sales at your previous company by 30 percent year over year, but showing her an actual graph will be much more convincing. Likewise, you can describe the process you went through when preparing your company to transition from one phone system to another, but that story will be far more engaging if you can show the interviewer a copy of your project plan.

Depending on your standards (and the standards of your prospective employer), creating a hard copy portfolio can range in price and complexity. Making it look attractive, well organized and professional takes effort, talent and — at times — investment.

Designers, architects and advertising professionals may want to use standard artist cases to display their work. For other professions, a basic three-ring binder in a dark color, divided into labeled sections might be sufficient. Place your work samples in plastic sleeves to protect them. This technique also makes it easy to remove samples and replace them with others whenever you like. If you have the money, take advantage of copy, binding and other presentation services offered through chains like Staples or Kinkos. While not every industry focuses on appearance, a professionally put-together portfolio could be a differentiator in a close call between you and another candidate.

Also, be selective of what ultimately makes it into your portfolio. “Your portfolio should not be one-size-fits-all. Instead, you might want to have a master collection of materials that can go into the portfolio. Don't use all of the materials for each interview. Choose what goes into the portfolio based on the job you are interviewing for,” says A. Elizabeth Freeman of Demand Media. Include not only your best work, but your most relevant work for that particular interviewer. Find samples that demonstrate your experience in a particular job function or industry . Barring that, look for examples of your work that can kick off a conversation about how your experience may translate to this new role or discipline.

From online portfolio to virtually hired

An online portfolio serves multiple purposes. Since the vast majority of recruiters now conduct Internet searches on candidates, having an online portfolio that can be accessed through your LinkedIn account, or that comes up when prospective employers Google your name, will impress them, give them a better sense of who you are and what you have done and may even win you an interview or a job offer.

Online portfolios enable you to make use of sophisticated audio, video and graphic elements to tell your professional story. They can be sent anywhere on a moment’s notice and can store far more information than hard copy portfolios. In today’s business world, employers want to know the people they hire have excellent computer skills. Having a well-designed online portfolio shows prospective employers that you know how to use the latest technologies.

To create a web-based portfolio, first do some research about the types of platforms available and decide what will best meet your needs.

“There are countless hosts for work portfolios online, but the key is to find one specific to your career goals,” says Heather Huhman of AOL Jobs. “Be sure to explore your options before settling on a platform. For example, if you are a tech-savvy job candidate seeking corporate employment and are not looking for a platform that is solely image-based, then WorkSimple may be a great option for you. For creative professionals looking to show off their work like design and illustration, you might want to check out Carbonmade.” Other platforms include: WordPress, Brand-Yourself and The key is to find a platform that presents your work and your successes simply and compellingly, without distracting the audience from the main attraction: you.

Make a great impression

Even if your interview is around the corner, don’t rush through the process of compiling your portfolio. Presenting a portfolio that reflects on you poorly is worse than having no portfolio at all. As we mentioned earlier, take the time to decide what you want your portfolio to look like, how to organize it and choose your work samples thoughtfully.

Generally, your portfolio, whether hard copy or online, should include the following:

  1. An introduction summarizing your professional achievements and goals
  2. A table of contents that makes it easy to navigate your portfolio
  3. Your résumé (even though the employer has already seen it
  4. Work samples including drawings, photos, sketches, business plans, graphs, charts, reports, budgets, software designs, coding, etc.
  5. Proof of credentials such as diplomas and certificates
  6. Media coverage about you and your previous employers
  7. Testimonials by happy clients, copies of awards and honors
  8. References

Having a top-notch portfolio will give you a leg up on other candidates when it comes to landing a good job. Beyond that, it’s a healthy reminder of your accomplishments, providing perspective on your professional growth and helping you to reflect upon your goals for the future.

For more portfolio tips, click here.