How You Can Build A Professional Portfolio

By Chris Kolmar - Nov. 13, 2020

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If you’re committed to getting the best job you can, you’ll want a professional portfolio. People who work in a creative field are well-aware of the necessity of a portfolio. That’s where they show off their drawings, written and published works, maybe even a video they’ve produced.

People who never needed a portfolio in the past are now discovering that it can be that extra step that puts them ahead of the competition. It can turn them into the job candidate hiring managers want.

Of course, a professional portfolio for an accountant will be drastically different from a freelance writer’s portfolio. This means it’s a little trickier to create because it’s not so common, and there aren’t a ton of examples. The tips below will help you figure out how to build a professional portfolio, no matter what field you’re in.

What Is a Professional Portfolio?

A professional portfolio is a collection of your work and information about you as a professional. Whereas a resume tells prospective employers about who you worked for and what you did, a portfolio gives examples.

The easiest example is that of an artist or writer. They can pull together published works and works of art and show them to potential employers. If you don’t work in the arts, you can still use examples of your work to showcase your skill. A marketer can have analytic reports that convey the success of their campaigns. An accountant can feature excel spreadsheets and formulas they’ve created to streamline an audit.

In the past, a portfolio was usually kept in an art folio case or a bound book and brought to interviews. Today, you can reach your target even earlier in the process by creating an online portfolio or your own website.

How a Professional Portfolio Works

Come up with some interesting ways to demonstrate yourself personally and professionally, and you’re on your way to creating a professional portfolio. But why? How does it work to your advantage?

Most job markets are incredibly competitive. Everyone wants to come up with something that makes them stand out from the competition. A professional portfolio can do that by not only showcasing the work you’ve done but actually showing your process as well. You want your future employer to be able to visualize you in the job. That’s one step closer to you actually getting the position.

A portfolio differentiates you from the competition. Even if every candidate has a portfolio, yours shows how you work, which will be different from other people. It also lends credibility to your resume, reinforcing what you stated as your job duties with examples.

Employers love seeing portfolios because it helps them verify your resume and cover letter claims. You can say you’ve spearheaded a marketing campaign, but that doesn’t mean too much. When the employer can see your starting point, your graphics, analytics, etc. then they understand the depth of your expertise.

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When to Introduce Your Portfolio

You obviously want to have an online portfolio when you’re applying for a job so you can link to it. But there are some other times when you might want to bring your portfolio to light also.

  • At the interview. Besides having an online portfolio, you might want to have a printed one to bring with you to a job interview. If you have a printed portfolio, you can reference it during the interview to bring home your experience and highlight your skills. A great idea is to go to a print shop and have a bound version created and use it as a leave-behind for the interviewer(s).

  • Promotion opportunity. If you’re up for a promotion but know there is competition, then using a portfolio can give you the edge you need to rise to the top of the list.

  • Salary negotiations. You want a raise and feel you deserve one but asking is hard. If you have a portfolio with you, it can be a little easier. You’ll have the documentation you need to prove your point and highlight what you’ve done.

  • Performance reviews. Sure, reviews are never fun, but they can be a good thing if you know how to work them. Bringing a portfolio to a performance review can help support your case and show all you’ve done for the company. Your boss might also be happy that you’re tracking your own progress.

  • To win awards or acknowledgments. Whether it’s a sizeable professional reward or a small, companywide acknowledgment, having a portfolio to show off your stuff can help you be a winner. You can also add these wins to your portfolio.

Tips on How to Build a Professional Portfolio

Now that you understand the importance, it’s time for some tips on how to build a professional portfolio. Use one, use all; whatever you need to develop a portfolio that you’re proud of.

  • Make it digital. Having a digital portfolio is the way to go. You can use a portfolio platform if you don’t have much to share. Or you can make your own website and really wow them.

    You don’t have to be super-tech savvy to create a website. You can hire a web designer to make one for you, but that can be expensive. You can also pick up a few WordPress skills and create your own basic website. What you really want is to focus on your work. There doesn’t need to be a lot of extra features or a ton of pages. You don’t even need to optimize it or make it public.

  • Think it through. Throwing up work as you do it is better than nothing, but it’s not the best approach. Try to come up with one purpose for your portfolio and curate samples that satisfy that purpose. If you’re trying to get a job, you should gear your portfolio toward the job you want. This might mean that you omit some of your work. If it doesn’t apply to the position, you don’t need to include it.

    Then, try to be as organized as possible, so it’s easy for outsiders to understand and navigate. Having a messy, unorganized website will reflect poorly on you. Your work can’t shine if your website is dull.

  • Be recent. An outdated portfolio can have the opposite of the intended effect. It might make it look like you haven’t done anything recently. Even if your best stuff is older, you’ll want to dump that from your portfolio and showcase your more recent work.

    There are a few exceptions to this rule. If something you’ve done has gained national or international notice, then it’d be remiss to omit it. But if you’ve been doing basically the same work for 20 years, you don’t want to spotlight your first assignment. Stick to the stuff you’ve done within the last ten years.

  • Quality over quantity. You’ve written thousands of articles, been a party planner at 50 events, tutored hundreds of students – whatever you’ve done, you need to narrow your portfolio down to a few outstanding ones.

    Try to overwhelm them with the quality of your best pieces and not with sheer quantity. If you have a hard time trimming it down, ask some friends or colleagues which ones they think show your best work.

  • Use some images. Text gets boring, and it’s visually not stimulating. Adding images can bolster the appeal of your portfolio. If it’s hard for you to come up with some image ideas, perhaps photos of you working with a team or on the job site will help.

    It’s also important to remember to use high-quality images that are visually interesting. A little editing or photoshop might be necessary to make them stand out and look sharp.

    If you don’t want to or can’t use a photo, then use other images. Graphics, vectors, charts, and other visual elements can break up the text.

  • Update it regularly. You should update your portfolio as often as your resume. Typically, updating once a year, if you’re employed, is good enough to keep things fresh.

    If you’re a freelancer, you might want to update both after each gig to stay on top of your application. That can be more frequently than once a year or less.

    Also, if you’ve just hit a work milestone or accomplished something, you’re not quite done until you put it in your portfolio. Take advantage of your excitement when it’s fresh.

What to Include in Your Professional Portfolio

In the past, when professional portfolios only applied to people in the arts, they only included their work. Today the definition is much broader and consists of a lot of other information.

  • Title page/table of contents. These can be separate pages, or they can become one overall page that describes who you are, what you do, what you want to do, and what’s included in the portfolio. If you’re doing an online version, this will serve as your navigation page, but it has the same information.

  • Market yourself somehow. Some people like to add an elevator pitch to this page and briefly market themselves. Other people will tell you to include a cover letter and a resume following the title/navigation page to repeat your professional background.

    How you decide to market yourself depends on your approach, your field, how you’re using your portfolio, etc. Just make sure there is some sort of contact information and that you clearly list your name.

  • Samples of your work. Things may have changed, but this is still the most crucial part of a professional portfolio. While some careers don’t produce tangible samples, perhaps there is a way you can capture your work. Can you use pictures, job descriptions, results, or statistics?

    If you do work in a field where you produce samples, make sure you’re always featuring your best stuff.

  • Awards, degrees, certifications. All of the paperwork you’ve earned and collected over the years looks great on your office walls. It also looks mighty impressive in your professional portfolio. Make copies of your most important documents and the ones that will wow potential employers and add them to your collection.

    If you’re using an online portfolio, scan in copies of the documentation and remember to include a link to the affiliated school, program, or award organization. Sometimes giving that added validity to a certification or license goes a long way.

  • Letters of recommendation. This is great advice for people who don’t have a lot of supporting documents. It’s also crucial if you’re in a field that relies heavily on the work you’ve done for others. Collecting these letters of referral will help you gain respect and authenticity, even if you’ve only been in the business for a few years.

  • Anything else you feel is relevant. You know your achievements and your career goals best. Use this knowledge to create a portfolio that’s the best representation of your work possible. Don’t just give prospective employers a glimpse at your work; make them want you for the job. Prove that you’re the best in the business.

Final Thoughts

A professional portfolio isn’t just for artists. Today all people can benefit from having one. Make your job application stand out from the crowd, support your contention that you deserve a raise, get that promotion. If you want to progress your professional life, then a well-organized and thoughtful portfolio can get you there.

When you’re creating a portfolio, remember to highlight your best and most recent work. Use images to break up text. Include letters of recommendation, awards, and feedback. Make it digital, either on a portfolio platform like Clippings.Me or on a website. But if you are going to an interview, carrying a printed portfolio can work in your favor. Keep your work updated and show off a little bit.

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Chris Kolmar


Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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