Why Portfolio Schools?

When I was in portfolio school, there were two girls who quit after the first semester. When I asked them a few months later what they were up to they both gave me the same answer “Working on my portfolio.” They were still pursuing a career in advertising. They’d just given up on portfolio school.

In my opinion, that was a huge mistake.

A lot of undergraduates have asked my advice on their books. After reviewing their work, I’ve always told them the same thing: “You should look into portfolio school.” And they almost never want to take it.

Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard for not going to portfolio school:

  1. It’s too expensive.
  2. I can put my book together on my own.
  3. An internship at an agency will be just as good.
  4. I want to get a job now, not in 1-2 years.
Here’s my one reason for going:
  1. Portfolio school graduates have books that are lightyears ahead of non-portfolio school grads. Lightyears.

Is this true 100% of the time? No. But it is, maybe 98%. The rare exceptions are top-of-the-class wunderkids from dedicated programs like the University of Texas or the BYU Adlab. Sure, you can get by without portfolio school. Just like people make it into the NBA without playing college ball. It happens. But that’s a huge bet.

So let me address each of these concerns as best I  can.

COST: Portfolio schools can be expensive. But it’s your career you’re investing in. Skimp on your education, and you’re only limiting your job prospects.

GOING SOLO: In portfolio school, you’ll be paired with writers and art directors who are hopefully trying to do their best work, too. You’ll be instructed by people with more experience and more interest in your success than you’ll ever get from a book or magazine. If you’re putting your book together on your own, you may as well be doing it in a dark closet.

INTERNSHIPS ARE A WAY IN: They’re really not. Don’t get me wrong, internships are very valuable. But if you want a job as a writer or art director, it’s not like Mad Men, where you take a job as a receptionist and eventually work your way up into the creative department. More and more, internships at top agencies are for portfolio school students in between semesters.

I DON’T WANT TO WAIT: The year or two you put into a portfolio school program will give you more of a jump on your career than taking a menial job at a direct mail shop that lets you put your book together in your down time. Portfolio schools are a launch pad, not a time suck.

Which portfolio school should you look into? That’s your call. Jim and I are both graduates of the VCU Brandcenter, and we can’t say enough good about that place. We’ve also both taught at the Chicago Portfolio School, which we’re big fans of, and Jim’s taught at the Miami Ad School in San Francisco, which is a killer program. We’ve seen great books come out of all three, as well as the Creative Circus, Portfolio Center, and Brainco. If you can get into W+K 12 or the new school from 72 and Sunny, more power to you.

Is this US-centric? Probably. But I gotta be honest, I spent two years working in Europe, and I didn’t see any program that comes close to those I’ve seen in the US. Maybe the Bergh’s School of Communication. They’ve won some notable student awards, but I can’t read their homepage. I’ve also seen some great student books out of Brazil, but, again I’ll plead ignorance in my native tongue. (If you’re a graduate or teacher of a portfolio school outside the United States, let us know. We’d be happy to sing your praises here.) Also, it’s no surprise the number of foreign students coming to American portfolio schools has been on the rise.

[Update 3/22/13: 72U has revised their program. Read about it here.]

[Update 5/16/13: For a comprehensive list of portfolio programs, check out The Best of Makin’ Ads now available on Blurb.com.]

[Update 6/30/14: VCU Brandcenter’s Ashley Sommardahl wrote this great post on How to Pick a Portfolio School, and offers a list of questions students should ask when applying to programs.]

172 thoughts on “Why Portfolio Schools?

  1. MAS and VCU both have excellent programs. Almost anyone in the industry will tell you they're two of the top three. You graduate VCU with a Master in Communication. I don't think there's such thing as a Master in Copywriting. I assume MAS gives you the same (although their degree is technically through Florida International University).

    As an alumnus of VCU's Brandcenter, I can't say enough about what a great program it is. But if you work hard, you can't go wrong with either.

    Good luck!

    Like

  2. There is no number one portfolio school. There are only very good schools with different offerings. The VCU Brandcenter is very different from 72U, but both are great programs.

    I suggest figuring out exactly what you're looking for and asking those schools for more information. Dig through their web sites. Call them. Ask to speak to their teachers. And their students. Start by clicking on the portfolio schools listed in the sidebar of our blog. All the best ones are there.

    Treat it like you are getting married. Because as far as your career is concerned, you kind of are.

    Like

  3. Thanks Greg,
    if i opt MAS , which place is fine for copywriting, i mean the staff, people , etc
    and if i opt VCU will i be placed in some good agency after my program?? , i am an international student so i feel my placement as important?

    Like

  4. To answer your first question, you'd have to speak to the MAS students. I'm sure they're all good, but some may be better than others. Email the school and ask to trade messages with some of their students. They'll be more than happy to help you out.

    I can't possibly answer your second question. No school can guarantee if you'll be placed in a good agency. That's up to hard work, talent, and luck.

    I've seen really poor portfolios come out of great schools like VCU and MAS.

    I've also seen really amazing portfolios come out of schools I thought were mediocre and poorly run.

    The difference? Hard work, talent, and luck, none of which any school can control. And hard work is the only variable you can control.

    I've seen students with great books leave great programs then struggle to do great work in their careers.

    And I've seen students who I didn't think were very talented land jobs at some of the best agencies in the country and build an amazing body of work.

    Is it a total crapshoot? Not exactly. But don't think that going to any one program will guarantee you career success. The best you can do is stack the odds in your favor and work hard.

    Like

  5. Hi,

    You mentioned about the top three schools and that MAS and VCU are there. What is the 3rd one in your opinion?

    I believe VCU might be the best school but since I want AD and I am not proficient in the Adobe Creative Suite yet, I was thinking that other school will fit best my needs since VCU doesn't offer technical classes. Should I worry about it?

    Like

  6. The 3rd best portfolio school would probably be a tie between all the rest. Seriously, there is no ranking system of portfolio schools, just like there is no ranking system of agencies.

    Here's what I would do if I were you: Write down the three things you absolutely have to have in a portfolio school. It might be the prestige of the program. Or the city where it's located. Or a full-time dedicated teaching staff. Or getting a Masters. Or a 1-year program vs. 2-year. There's no right or wrong, only your personal criteria. Then start looking into all the portfolio schools you can. We've listed all the ones we're familiar with in the side bar of our blog.

    DO NOT fall into the trap of thinking there is a silver bullet program. No school can guarantee you a job. Or a great book. So find the school that best fits your criteria, apply, and then work hard.

    Like

  7. Hi Greg,

    Not sure if you still respond to comments on this post, but I just wanted to thank you and say that this article (and comments) pretty much single handedly convinced me to attend a portfolio school! I believe they offer everything I've been missing and have applied to VCU and Portfolio Center.

    I have only one question tho…there is no way I can afford this alone. Do you think it would be unwise to risk large sums of student debt to take this chance?

    Like

  8. Hi, Kevin. Yep, we still respond to comments. A long, long time ago I was in your shoes, and I took out a student loan to attend VCU. Turns out, almost everyone in my class did the same. It's not unwise. It's what you do when you're serious about your career. Good luck!

    Like

  9. I don't know how current this is and if you're still commenting on this thread, as there are no dates listed for people's posts. But I am thrilled to have come across this and thankful for all this very helpful information. I am the parent of a son who just graduated with his BS in Business (Marketing) and who wants to go into advertising. Two positions, which he thought were pretty definite after graduation, strangely ended up falling by the wayside, so he now has to start all over again and decide where to go from here. He had 2 summer internships while in college at 2 great, big-name agencies, both in their New Business departments, but he really wants to be an agency creative (copywriter). It seems like the 2 alternatives to prepare to be hired in the creative area are to go to portfolio school or get a creative internship, and you already wrote in your blog how you feel that portfolio school is the better way to go. I was relieved to read here that most people attending portfolio school already have been to college and have a Bachelor's Degree, because when my son first talked about the possible need to go to portfolio school, I definitely wondered why we had just paid for the past four years of his education, so thank you for saying that! I feel much better!

    I have a some questions: He has told us that when someone new to the field is hired as a creative, it's always (or most usually anyway) as an intern position, even for those who have graduated from college. So if you go to portfolio school, and then get your first job, are you still just hired as an intern?

    And how do internships (which are not associated with college or ad school) work — are they for a set amount of time or open-ended? Do you then get made into a official employee at some point down the road, and if so, generally how long does that take? Does the pay change at that point?

    My son is interested in the Chicago Portfolio School — I believe you said that the longer you work on a portfolio, the better it becomes, so for that reason you're more in favor of 2 year programs, although it sounds like you still do like CPS as well. Do you feel that he would get what he needs from the CPS program for copywriting, and for learning how to write ads for all kinds of media like TV and radio as well as print?

    How important do you think having an internship during portfolio school is, either like what the Miami Ad School has, or like I think I read here, that many people get internships between semesters of ad school? With CPS having no internship component, and being only one year with just a few weeks between quarters, making that impossible, do you feel this is a problem or issue? Would you ever suggest for a CPS student to take a quarter off to do an internship (so essentially you'd be done in 5 quarters this way)? If so, would that put you at a disadvantage trying to get hired 3 or so months after everyone else in the program has looked for jobs?

    Thank you for this wealth of information!

    Like

  10. Thanks for your questions. My parents had a pretty similar reaction 16 years ago after I'd just spent four years getting a degree and then started talking about going back for more. I'll answer each of your questions as best I can.

    “He has told us that when someone new to the field is hired as a creative, it's always (or most usually anyway) as an intern position, even for those who have graduated from college. So if you go to portfolio school, and then get your first job, are you still just hired as an intern?”
    • Not necessarily. It used to be more common for people to get internships during school, then get hired as a junior once they'd finished their program. That's changed a little over the past 5 years or so, and now it's become common for graduates to take internships for 3-4 months after graduating. Sometimes several internships. While many portfolio school grads still get junior positions, there's no real shame in taking an internship, particularly at a good agency. It's all about finding an opportunity to work with good people and do great work early on. Pay is not great either way, but livable. But working on projects/for clients/at agencies that will let you do great work is invaluable starting off. An internship at a great agency beats a full-time junior position at a mediocre agency hands down. And like I said, most internships are only 3-4 months. It benefits the agencies and the interns, neither of whom are totally committing. Think of it as dating before marrying. Many internships do turn into full-time gigs (with better pay, benefits, etc.).

    I think that answers the questions about length. Pay can vary. We pay our interns $15 an hour. Other agencies probably vary, but not a ton. Full-time junior positions, depending on the agency and the city, can vary as well, but the range is probably around $30k-$50k a year. Again, the opportunity to do great work is more important than the money.

    “Do you feel that he would get what he needs from the CPS program for copywriting, and for learning how to write ads for all kinds of media like TV and radio as well as print?”
    • Whether or not he gets what he needs from his time (a year) at CPS is really up to him, his dedication, and to a certain degree the teachers he has. Schools like VCU and SCAD (university-affiliated portfolio programs) tend to have higher entrance standards and will quickly send you packing if you don't work your butt off. Other programs like Miami Ad School and CPS tend to be easier to get into, but students really have to be self-motivated. The portfolios that come out of those latter programs are, I would say, more inconsistent and on average a notch down from VCU and SCAD. But a great portfolio can come out of any school if the student is motivated enough.

    “How important do you think having an internship during portfolio school is, either like what the Miami Ad School has…?”
    • It's a bonus, but I would not choose a school based solely on that. Like agencies, the quality of internships can vary greatly. Some are excellent experiences and can lead to jobs. Others aren't very helpful. I don't feel like having no internship is a big problem–it's more about the portfolio that comes out. And while some schools are on semesters, with everyone graduating in May, many schools are on quarters, with students graduating every quarter during the year. So if your son did, for example, take a quarter off for an internship, graduating a few months after his classmates wouldn't make a difference. Whether or not I'd recommend he take an internship mid-way through really depends on where that internship would be.

    I hope that helps out. If you have more questions about it or would like to chat, I'm happy to hop on the phone as well. Good luck.

    Like

  11. Hi:

    Im so glad to find this blog . I am a very junior copywriter in top Agency in Taiwan (a little Island country next to China , maybe famous for HTC and ASUS )

    Im satisfied with my job now , client and company are all the top level , but there is a dream that I want to study at States since my senior high , my plan is after I got two year of copywriter experience then I'll prepare to apply schools.

    I know copywriter jobs really need very profound words skills and cultural background , but I still have a little hope to apply copywriter program (UT austin or VCU , ha ha Im Chinese , I think to please my parents with MA degree is a must) or even be a copywriter in states , is that possible?

    What's more , Im interested in digital creative also , in Taiwan some digital agency even don't have copywriter jobs , the traditional copywriter jobs is combined with account and planner ingredient called “creative planner” or something like that , Im curious about that if I have better chance that I go to study digital media program? or even I have better chance to get a job in digital copywriter than traditional copywriter? Thanks a lot!

    Harper

    Like

  12. Hi:

    Im so glad to find this blog . I am a very junior copywriter in top Agency in Taiwan (a little Island country next to China , maybe famous for HTC and ASUS )

    Im satisfied with my job now , client and company are all the top level , but there is a dream that I want to study at States since my senior high , my plan is after I got two year of copywriter experience then I'll prepare to apply schools.

    I know copywriter jobs really need very profound words skills and cultural background , but I still have a little hope to apply copywriter program (UT austin or VCU , ha ha Im Chinese , I think to please my parents with MA degree is a must) or even be a copywriter in states , is that possible?

    What's more , Im interested in digital creative also , in Taiwan some digital agency even don't have copywriter jobs , the traditional copywriter jobs is combined with account and planner ingredient called “creative planner” or something like that , Im curious about that if I have better chance that I go to study digital media program? or even I have better chance to get a job in digital copywriter than traditional copywriter? Thanks a lot!

    Harper

    Like

  13. Hi:

    Im so glad to find this blog . I am a very junior copywriter in top Agency in Taiwan (a little Island country next to China , maybe famous for HTC and ASUS )

    Im satisfied with my job now , client and company are all the top level , but there is a dream that I want to study at States since my senior high , my plan is after I got two year of copywriter experience then I'll prepare to apply schools.

    I know copywriter jobs really need very profound words skills and cultural background , but I still have a little hope to apply copywriter program (UT austin or VCU , ha ha Im Chinese , I think to please my parents with MA degree is a must) or even be a copywriter in states , is that possible?

    What's more , Im interested in digital creative also , in Taiwan some digital agency even don't have copywriter jobs , the traditional copywriter jobs is combined with account and planner ingredient called “creative planner” or something like that , Im curious about that if I have better chance that I go to study digital media program? or even I have better chance to get a job in digital copywriter than traditional copywriter? Thanks a lot!

    Harper

    Like

  14. Hi:

    Im so glad to find this blog . I am a very junior copywriter in top Agency in Taiwan (a little Island country next to China , maybe famous for HTC and ASUS )

    Im satisfied with my job now , client and company are all the top level , but there is a dream that I want to study at States since my senior high , my plan is after I got two year of copywriter experience then I'll prepare to apply schools.

    I know copywriter jobs really need very profound words skills and cultural background , but I still have a little hope to apply copywriter program (UT austin or VCU , ha ha Im Chinese , I think to please my parents with MA degree is a must) or even be a copywriter in states , is that possible?

    What's more , Im interested in digital creative also , in Taiwan some digital agency even don't have copywriter jobs , the traditional copywriter jobs is combined with account and planner ingredient called “creative planner” or something like that , Im curious about that if I have better chance that I go to study digital media program? or even I have better chance to get a job in digital copywriter than traditional copywriter? Thanks a lot!

    Harper

    Like

  15. Hi:

    Im so glad to find this blog . I am a very junior copywriter in top Agency in Taiwan (a little Island country next to China , maybe famous for HTC and ASUS )

    Im satisfied with my job now , client and company are all the top level , but there is a dream that I want to study at States since my senior high , my plan is after I got two year of copywriter experience then I'll prepare to apply schools.

    I know copywriter jobs really need very profound words skills and cultural background , but I still have a little hope to apply copywriter program (UT austin or VCU , ha ha Im Chinese , I think to please my parents with MA degree is a must) or even be a copywriter in states , is that possible?

    What's more , Im interested in digital creative also , in Taiwan some digital agency even don't have copywriter jobs , the traditional copywriter jobs is combined with account and planner ingredient called “creative planner” or something like that , Im curious about that if I have better chance that I go to study digital media program? or even I have better chance to get a job in digital copywriter than traditional copywriter? Thanks a lot!

    Harper

    Like

  16. Hi:

    Im so glad to find this blog . I am a very junior copywriter in top Agency in Taiwan (a little Island country next to China , maybe famous for HTC and ASUS )

    Im satisfied with my job now , client and company are all the top level , but there is a dream that I want to study at States since my senior high , my plan is after I got two year of copywriter experience then I'll prepare to apply schools.

    I know copywriter jobs really need very profound words skills and cultural background , but I still have a little hope to apply copywriter program (UT austin or VCU , ha ha Im Chinese , I think to please my parents with MA degree is a must) or even be a copywriter in states , is that possible?

    What's more , Im interested in digital creative also , in Taiwan some digital agency even don't have copywriter jobs , the traditional copywriter jobs is combined with account and planner ingredient called “creative planner” or something like that , Im curious about that if I have better chance that I go to study digital media program? or even I have better chance to get a job in digital copywriter than traditional copywriter? Thanks a lot!

    Harper

    Like

  17. Hi, I'm looking to change careers. I have a BA degree in Psychology with a minor in Art. I don't have any experience with Photoshop, InDesign, etc. It seems clear to me that I need to go to a portfolio school in order to make the career transition. Would you recommend taking design classes prior to my application or is that usually taught in portfolio schools?

    Like

  18. Yes. Take design classes now. You will take design classes in the programs too, but you want to always be getting better. The tools should be thoughtless–you want to be as skilled at using them as possible. Like using a pencil. And after you finish portfolio school, I'd recommend you continue to keep taking design classes. Never stop learning.

    Like

  19. Hi!

    I have a question, I heard about Brother Ad school (http://brotherad.com/es/), but you don't mention it anywhere. Isn't a good school? Does somebody knows something about this one?
    Also I wanted to know if somebody knows some good porfolio school in Spain (I'm from here and would be great save the cost of going abroad!).

    Thank you very much! Such a great blog 🙂

    Like

  20. Thanks for the question, Anon. I have never heard of Brother, and their site is in Spanish, so with my remedial Spanish I don't get the full sense of how they're different from other schools. The big questions I'd have for them (or with any school):
    • Who does your teaching? Full-time or part-time industry people? Who are they and what agencies have they worked at?
    • Former grads, where have they gone on to work? Can you connect with any of them to ask about the school?
    • Does the school enter/win awards?

    Those are the big ones, with things like length of program, cost, structure of program, etc. also figure in.

    Good luck. And if you do find out more about the school one way or the other, we'd love to hear more about it. Please let us know.

    Thanks!

    Like

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