How To Build A Professional Portfolio (And Use It To Land A Job)

By Kristin Kizer and Experts - Jul. 6, 2021

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In the past, portfolios were reserved for those in the creative field — think of artists and writers who kept a collection of their best and most acclaimed work to show potential patrons and clients. But in today’s world, just about anyone can benefit from creating and maintaining a professional portfolio.

Of course, a portfolio for an accountant will be drastically different from a freelance writer’s portfolio. Regardless of your field, a professional portfolio operates under the principle that showing is better than telling. Hiring managers get a much better idea about what you bring to the table when they can look at real examples of your past work.

Still, it can be tricky to know where to get started with condensing your work experience into a neat portfolio. The tips below will help you figure out how to build a professional portfolio, no matter what field you’re in. We’ll also walk you through the best moments to put your portfolio to use.

What Is a Professional Portfolio?

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

The easiest example to consider is that of an artist or writer. They 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 put together analytic reports that convey the success of their campaigns. An accountant’s portfolio 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?

The job market is 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.

When to Introduce Your Portfolio

Whether you’re on the job hunt or attempting to move up in your company or field, there are plenty of great times to introduce your professional portfolio:

  • On your resume. Providing a link to your online portfolio directly in your resume’s contact information section is a smart move. It takes up basically no space and it offers hiring managers an easy way to quickly peruse your work if your resume interests them enough.

  • 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).

  • After the interview. Including a link to your professional portfolio in your interview follow-up email is a savvy move, especially if the hiring manager or recruiter hasn’t looked it over yet. If you bring impressive documentation to back up the claims you made in your interview, it might be just the thing to land a job offer.

  • Promotion opportunity. If you’re up for a promotion and know there’s competition, then using a portfolio can give you the edge you need to rise to the top of the list. Plus, using real materials to brag about internal achievements is much more impactful, considering your interviewer is likely much more familiar with the projects you’ll be talking about.

  • 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 both your work and it’s affect on the bottom line.

  • 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 the folks on hiring committees.

    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.

    Read the job description carefully to see what kind of projects and deliverables you’d be responsible for. That way, you can emphasize examples of past work that most closely resembles the responsibilities at the open position.

    Also, 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 showcase more of your 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 silly to omit it, regardless of how dated. 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 five to 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 not visually stimulating. Adding images can bolster the appeal of your portfolio. Even just a few photos of you working with a team or on a 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, 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 things. 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.

  • Use it for interview preparation. This tip isn’t about building your portfolio so much as maintaining and using it. You’re going to get interview questions about your past accomplishments and qualifications, and one quick and simple way to brush up on the stuff that’ll impress recruiters is to look over your portfolio.

    Not to mention that following up after the interview by directing them to the section of your portfolio that showcases something from your interview answer is a great way to contextualize your experience in a richer way than most candidates will offer.

    In the process, you might also find that the layout of your portfolio isn’t optimized for the job in question, so it’s also a good time to tweak and improve it for future use.

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, think of some 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, or 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 or on your own personal website. And if you’re going to an interview, carrying a printed portfolio can work in your favor.

Keep your work updated and don’t be afraid to show off a little bit, and you’ll have a winning professional portfolio in no time.

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Author

Kristin Kizer

Kristin Kizer is an award-winning writer, television and documentary producer, and content specialist who has worked on a wide variety of written, broadcast, and electronic publications. A former writer/producer for The Discovery Channel, she is now a freelance writer and delighted to be sharing her talents and time with the wonderful Zippia audience.

Expert

Matt Warzel, CPRW, CIR

Matt Warzel a President of a resume writing firm (MJW Careers, LLC) with 15+ years of recruitment, outplacement, career coaching and resume writing experience. Matt is also a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) and Certified Internet Recruiter (CIR) with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (Marketing Focus) from John Carroll University.

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