Portfolios: the Hidden Weapon of Job Seeking

Posted by Liz Seasholtz on May 6, 2011
Portfolios: the Hidden Weapon of Job Seeking
Each spring, graduating seniors make their way into the professional world, armed with resumes, cover letters, and stiff leather briefcases.  But many will forget a key tool that can put them above the competition in an interview: a portfolio.

In Latin, the word portfolio literally means “to carry artifacts.” During the job hunt, these artifacts will include documents that can speak for you academically, professionally, and personally. For creative types—graphic artists, journalists, architects—portfolios are second nature. But they can be effective in any field. In fact, students from non-creative majors can make a more memorable impression than their peers with a well-crafted portfolio at the ready.

Putting together a portfolio can also help organize your thoughts about your career trajectory, allowing you reflect upon your work to date and where you’re headed. And recruiters will value the opportunity to see your perspective and interests in relation to the work you do. Instead of telling them what you bring to the table, show them.

Check out our portfolio checklist for some suggested materials:
•    Table of contents. An at-a-glance version of what’s in your portfolio.

•    Cover letter. With a cover letter or mission statement of your career goals, you can tailor your qualifications to the specific employer with whom you’re interviewing. This is the time to articulate how you will fit into their company.

•    Resume. This is a must-have for portfolios: a concise, chronological summation of your academic and professional work.

•    Skills and certifications. Although you will list skills on your resume, if you have advanced skill sets that need more explanation (say, if you’re a computer science major who knows a diverse set of tech programs), take some time to list and explain your knowledge of each one.

•    References.  Interviewers will likely ask you to submit references at the close of the interview. Beat them to the punch and compile reference letters from professors, employers, or summer internship supervisors. Make sure to include contact information for all references.

•    Samples of your work. This is the meat and potatoes of any portfolio—and the content will vary from major to major. You could include academic writing samples or a capstone project. Maybe that senior thesis on autism or a transcript of your women’s studies speech on the glass ceiling. Throw in any relevant work from a summer internship, part-time job, or campus organization. These are all great conversation starters that give you the chance to show off your knowledge and skills.

•    Public Recognition.  If you’re the recipient of any awards or scholarships, it shows employers you’ve been recognized as a stand-out student and are most likely a hard worker. A typed out list of your accomplishments and a short explanation of each will suffice.

•    Extracurricular activities. Volunteer work, organizations, and sports teams make up a huge part of students’ life outside of class and work.  Being the social chair of your sorority could be a great qualifier if you’re interviewing to be a corporate event planner. Show what you’ve contributed, whether it’s a T-shirt design, press release, or newspaper article in which you were quoted.

Tips from a Career Counselor

1) Get Reviewed. Career services typically offer portfolio reviewing services. Use them to get an objective opinion and suggestions for improvement. Your favorite professor might be willing to offer some input too. “More frequently students are reviewing their portfolios with faculty,” says Don Cornwell, associate director of Emory University’s Career Services. “It allows for better letters of recommendation.”

2) Go digital.  Many universities are starting to offer e-portfolio systems so you can easily make an online version of your accomplishments. Ask your career services center if they have this capability, and if so, take advantage of it!

3) Diversify. Make sure your portfolio isn’t too heavy on coursework.  Try to capture the wide-ranging experiences you’ve had on campus, at internships, or in summer jobs. “Your portfolio is a great place to marry the best of both worlds, academic and personal,” says Janet Jones, senior associate director of Rutger University’s Career Services. “Especially if it’s digital, what you put in it can be in any form, like a PowerPoint, podcast, or YouTube video.” 

4) Stay current. Make sure you continue to update your portfolio after you graduate, and even after you’ve scored a job. “Personally, I try to keep my portfolio updated quarterly, because I’m always coming across new projects or attending different conferences and workshops,” says Cornwell.

5) Know your portfolio from cover to cover…  You should be an expert on what’s in your portfolio and easily be able to explain everything on call in an interview.

6) …but don’t let it be a crutch. You don’t need to reference it on every talking point.  Your portfolio should be a support tool and not the central focus of an interview.

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