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. I know it depends of agency and city, but based on your experience, on average, how much is the art directors salary after graduation?

    The 100k math above is pretty scary.


  2. Thank you guys. I think I will choose MAS because I can have a fresh start. VCU requires work knowledge of the softwares and I am pretty behind on it? what a shame.

    Hi Bosilawhat,

    How is SF, to live work and study? as well as cost of living? Is it too expensive to live there as everyone say?

    About the MAS there, do you see any differences to MAS locations, any advantage or disadvantage?


  3. Hi there,

    Just stumbled across your blog, and being an advertising student who is almost done with my four year degree, I've been wondering what to do after college. I'm definitely going to try and find a job- but I was thinking about trying to find a graduate program that focuses on graphic design as well, but I'm not really sure I know the difference between graduate schools and portfolio schools. Which would be a better fit considering I would like to end up on the art direction side one day?


  4. Hi Ashley-

    That's a good question. While I hesitate to tell anyone that a degree doesn't matter, if your goal is to be an art director and work for an agency, your degree doesn't really matter. What recruiters and creative directors will be looking at is your portfolio. That said, if you think you'll ever want to do something other than just work at an agency–like work client-side or teach–a master's degree may carry more weight.

    So the question then becomes which school will give you a chance to put together the best portfolio. Check out our “Portfolio Schools We Like” links on the right side of our main page. They all have different selling points. I'd advise you to start researching them early, and once you narrow your list down to a few schools, visit them and get a feel for what they're like.

    Hope that's helpful.


  5. And if I wasn't clear, the difference between grad schools and portfolio schools is that grad schools are accredited universities where you'd earn a master's degree (e.g. VCU, SMU, University of Oregon, University of Texas), whereas portfolio schools (Miami Ad School, Creative Circus, etc.) help you build a portfolio but you won't earn a degree. There are great options of both types.


  6. Thank you for getting back to me! You definitely gave me some good things to think about. I will most definitely look into portfolio schools for sure.

    Oh and I forgot to ask you- in your opinion-is getting a bachelors degree in advertising and then possibly going to a portfolio school the right path to make it to being a creative director one day? I don't know what path you or any other successful creative directors took. Like I said, I just found this blog, I wasn't sure if you guys were in portfolio school currently or out working in an agency now.


  7. Hi, Ashley. Sorry for the delay. Personally, I would recommend getting your bachelors and then going to a portfolio school. That's what I did. It's what most of my friends in the industry have done. There are some exceptions. But you should get your bachelors for sure.

    We are not currently in portfolio school. In fact, we've been in the industry for well over a decade now. We've taught in portfolio schools off and on since.


  8. Anonymous, I've read about Boulder Digital Works, but I don't have any first hand knowledge of it. Ties to Crispin are definitely a plus, not to mention living in Boulder. If you find anything out, please share with us.


  9. I know this is a really old post, but I thought I'd throw my two cents in. I'm a student at the Creative Circus in the copywriting program and I didn't submit any spec ads. I submitted poetry, albums I appear on, artwork, and lyrics. They just want to know if you have creative potential. I can't really speak for any other school, though.


  10. Do you know how good is the AD program from the Creative Circus? Any experience with grads or portfolios reviews overthere?


  11. I don't have first-hand knowledge of the AD program, but I've seen some great students come out of the Creative Circus. My advice would be to call up the school and ask to speak with some of the teachers and the students. That's the best way to see if it's a good fit for you.


  12. After researching porfolio schools, I recently attended an open house at the Creative Circus and really got to see the work of the students as well as meet them and the instructors. It seems pretty intense but they have great work to show for it and I really liked the vibe of the school. I would suggest if you are on Facebook to connect with some of the students currently in the program so that you can get an idea 1st hand from someone in the program and not just the “Glitter” you read on the site, etc. I also just wanted to mention that FIU offers a Masters program in Communications/Global Strategic Mgmnt in conjuction with the Miami Ad School in Miami, FL if there are some who are concerned with “Masters v. Portfolio”. Btw I have no connection with any of these schools just sharing information.


  13. Thanks for your reply…and sorry I got back to u late. I didn't set this up to send me a notification if there were responses I guess.

    I've been working at a small agency and have racked up about 5 or 6 projects that I could put into a portfolio to go apply at a REAL ad agency. Funny thing is, I dont even know for which position to apply! Junior Art ____? Creative Assistant_____? Associate ______?

    I really wanted to focus on video, but have some knowledge on photography and graphic design as well. What position should I be looking for? THANKS AGAIN!!!


  14. Thanks Greg…that ebook looks awesome! I always wanted to be a creative director…but I suppose on the art director's path? I can copywrite pretty damn good though! Ugh…idk. I was a Communications major in school and I didn't learn any of this stuff. Just figured I'd get paid to spit out ideas and work to get em completed 😛


  15. YEah that book was great…wish I read it about 2-3 yrs ago but oh well, nothing I could have done about it anyways.

    In it, you mentioned that copywriters and art-directors sometimes switch roles. That said, can my portfolio be a combination of copy/visuals? Is it too lame to include a storyboard that I was proud of (and got a lot of props from my agency) in a portfolio?

    Ur awesome for helping….direct me to any other sources if I'm getting tedious with u.



  16. This blog has some incredible insight that is very difficult to find! I appreciate the time you have taken to help everyone out.

    I was wondering if it would help to go to an AdAgency for an informational interview and tell them about my hopes to attend Book Shop in Orange County, or would it be a waste of my time to meet with someone before I have a portfolio together? I am desperate to get out of the serving industry and want nothing more than to get my foot in the door while attending a portfolio school.

    Any advice helps! Thank you so much!


  17. You can always try to set up an informational interview with an ad agency, but it will only help you in getting information. It probably won't help you get your foot in the door in any way at that point. Unless you genuinely have questions about the agency, it's probably better to get some work that you can show people and get feedback on.


  18. It doesn't matter whether you're a copywriter or an art director. Your portfolio should have a combination of copy and visuals in it. That's all part of communication and makin' ads

    But be clear on your role. Read what my late friend Sonya had to say in this post: http://makinads.blogspot.com/2008/05/rehashing-portfolio-night.html

    Look at CAs and One Shows and Cannes Lion finalists. If your storyboard stands up to that competition, include it. If it doesn't, keep working.


  19. Although the program is the same in every location, as someone who teaches there, what would you say is the best MAS location? The one where the best work comes from and where there is more opportunities for internships? I ask that because the teachers might not be the same in every location. Also because i wouldn't be able to be traveling and changing location, i would most likely stay at only one place for the 2 years for money and family purposes.


  20. That's a good question, Anon. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about the different MAS programs to feel like I can give you an informed answer. I teach at the SF program (and have for a long time) but don't know much about the other schools. Asking current and former MAS students might be your best bet. If you contact one of the schools, they can probably put you in touch with some students. Sorry I can't give you a more helpful answer.


  21. Great post! I am currently exploring portfolio school for copywriting. I live in Atlanta so portfolio center and creative circus are the 2 I'm looking at. My biggest issue is the schedule of classes. I can't imagine not being able to work! I understand the payoff is worth it, but I have to make a living and since I am recently out of undergraduate, I have no savings. Are there any portfolio schools that offer evening classes that you know of?


  22. When I taught at the Chicago Portfolio School a few years ago, it seemed most of the students held jobs during the day and spent evenings and all their free time at the school.

    I'd look into your student loan options. That's what got me through VCU. It's a debt you have to pay, but you should never skimp on your education or your career. Remember, you're laying the foundation for what you'll be doing for the next 30-50 years of your life.

    Good luck!


  23. Hi, I am looking for schools to apply and decided to check students awards from the last couple years. I found a lot of ads from MAS in these awards and that brought me a question. How important is these awards when choosing a school? Are the school where more students get awards better than the others or it doesn't really matter?


  24. Hey Anon-
    I'd say the award shows are a great place to start when you're trying to see what portfolio schools are making a name for themselves. But they are not the end-all, be-all. Some schools are larger, therefore submit more work to award shows and have better odds. But it's a great way to start a list (or you could start with the list that Greg and I provide in our book, The Best of Makin' Ads–link at the top of our blog).

    On the other end of the spectrum, the best way to make your decision, is to visit the schools. Talk to students, faculty, sit in on a class or two. How the school feels to you is the most important thing in making your decision.

    Thanks for the question.


  25. Hi!

    I stumbled upon this blog while looking up advertising graduate programs and I'm so happy I did. Your work has been really insightful and has given me a better idea of what I'd like to do going forward. That being said, I still have some questions I'd like to ask.

    I've graduated from Brown where I doubled in American Studies (focusing in Popular Culture, Media and Broadcast) and Visual Arts, because I've wanted to go into advertising for years, but my school didn't have a communications or advertising program and I'm now working as a creative product marketing manager (focusing mostly on video production). I'm looking to go to a grad/ad program that would simultaneously help me build my portfolio for art direction, but also result in me having a masters degree (and also specializes in job placement). I've been looking into the MAS + FIU dual degree program, but I haven't found any reviews of the dual degree program, and also the VCU Brandcenter. I've been leaning towards the MAS + FIU program mostly because of what I've heard about MAS (and the fact I've been dying to live in Miami for years and I'm originally from VA and have minimal interest spending time in Richmond, let alone living there), but I didn't want to choose MAS without hearing about the dual degree program.

    So, my questions are:
    1) Is the MAS + FIU dual degree program good/worth my time and money?

    2) Other than MAS + FIU and VCU Brandcenter, what other programs could I attend to simultaneously get the ad school experience coupled with a masters degree?



  26. Hi, OSB.

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I know where you're coming from. My undergrad school didn't have a solid advertising program either. And I spent a year afterwards working as a project manager doing car advertising for a quasi-ad agency.

    I went to VCU and got exactly what I wanted: a solid portfolio, a network of rock star classmates I still keep in touch with, a summer internship at a great agency, and the kind of job prospects I was hoping for after graduation (like most of my classmates, I was hired within a couple months). The fact that I got a Masters was just gravy. I've never used it. Never really needed it. But it's nice to have. I'm still somewhat involved with the Brandcenter, and I'm pretty confident hard-working graduates can still come out with every the program gave me.

    I don't know much about MAS+FIU. I hope their program is as robust as VCU's, because I think competition is good for schools, and options are great for prospective students.

    I don't know many other ad schools of that caliber that will give you a masters degree. Maybe the University of Oregon and the University of Texas.

    So two pieces of advice:

    1. Call (or if you can afford to, visit) both schools. Ask to speak to students and teachers. Try to get a feel for which one will best suit your needs and expectations.

    2. Put your choice of city way down low on your list. I was weighing the two schools in Atlanta with VCU. I would have rather lived in Atlanta. But VCU had a much better program at the time. And in a program that intense, it's not like you spend a whole lot of time out on the city anyway. Spend two years putting together the best book in the world. Then move to whatever city you want to.

    Good luck.


  27. Awesome blog.

    Would you recommend the Brandcenter for copywriting?

    Any thoughts on taking a once a week class from SVA or Adhouse?

    I live in NYC with a truck load of student debt as it is, but it looks like portfolio school is the best way to break in.


  28. Thanks, Anon. Glad you like the blog.

    Both co-authors of this blog went to the VCU Brandcenter as copywriters. I think we'd both say we owe much of our career success to the program. We were both in Richmond for the recruiting session last May, and the school's still going strong.

    I don't know exactly what SVA or Adhouse offer. But it's hard to imagine a once-a-week class that keeps you competitive with students who are coming out of much more intensive programs. It's a competitive industry, so you should give yourself as much of an edge as you can.

    Good luck!


  29. Holy moly! You just turned my world upside down…!!!

    I've been contemplating a career switch to advertising (from a performance based one) for a few years now, and even registered for graphic design classes at a local community college to brush up on my Adobe Creative Suite skills. I did this with the intention of eventually applying to graduate schools. Now the time has come for me to start applying, and my research has put U.Texas, Boston University, and Brandcenter all at the top of my list. I was completely unaware of portfolio schools until I was looking up information on Brandcenter at VCU and stumbled across your blog.

    As far as a career in advertising, I'm not 100% positive what I want to do. I've always done every part of my creative projects: the overall design, the graphics, the writing…. everything. And part of the reason that Texas is such an appealing program to me is because students don't apply to the creative program until after the first semester. With the majority of portfolio school programs (VCU included,) you have to decide upon matriculation what you want to focus on. Do you have any advice for someone like me who knows they want a career as an advertising creative, but don't know exactly what they want to do?


  30. Hi, Lauryn.

    When a creative team sits down to concept, it doesn't matter where the idea comes from. Sometimes it's the art director's idea. Sometimes it's the writer's. Usually, it's both.

    Once the work starts getting produced, it helps to have different people be responsible for their disciplines. The best copywriters have an eye for art direction, and the best art directors can write. But it helps to know who's responsible for what.

    While I know several art directors who've become copywriters, I don't think I know any copywriters who've become art directors. That's mostly because art directors tend to know the Adobe Creative Suite, and copywriters never bother to learn.

    I wouldn't recommend trying to bill yourself as a jack-of-all-trades. I haven't seen many people do that with any success. (Read Sonya's comments in this post: http://makinads.blogspot.com/2008/05/rehashing-portfolio-night.html) A good ad agency will appreciate cross-pollinating skills, but they're going to want to know where to put you. They're going to want to know if you're a writer or an art director. While you've done all your creative work in the past by yourself, I think that's most likely because of the structure of the agency you were in. The idea of the advertising creative who does all the work themselves works in Hollywood, but isn't very realistic in real agencies.

    I'd go with your strength. It may be art direction because you're already working with the Adobe Creative Suite. But before you put too much stock in that, read this:


    Good luck!


  31. I am urgently seeking advice. I’m a 35 years old Army Officer with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business from a mediocre online university. After 10 years of service I’m considering getting out of the Military.
    Due to my leadership experience my primarily employment options are blue-collar manager or production manager. I do not want to do neither of those.
    I’m originally from Colombia, South America. Right before I came to USA, I completed a 3 year degree in Marketing and Advertising. I remember that I loved working with advertising especially in the developing or creative stages. It had been 13 years since then. However, every single year I dream about working in the advertising field. I have 27 month of school benefits left from my GI bill (including tuition and housing) after I get out of the Army. I’m considering going back to school for advertising but I have some concerns and questions especially related to my age. Do I still have a chance to get in the field? Which one do you think that may be my best option? Thank you in advance for your advice.


  32. Thank you Greg and Jim, Please keep this blog up. There is nothing else online with so much info about portfolio schools
    I read the interview, I know that it’s going to be a challenge but I do not want to live the rest of my life wondering, “what if?” I talk to a couple friends of mine. One works at Sancho BBDO in Colombia and the other one works in a small marketing and communications agency in Madrid. Both conceded that the most renowned place worldwide is the MAS. That’s sound very appealing, especially because I'm still considering living and working abroad. However, MAS doesn’t accept GI Bill benefits. That being said, I think that my next two options are the CC and Brancenter.


  33. Yes, MAS has a great name worldwide. The undisputed best? Hmm. Who knows?

    But remember, you won't be hired for the school you went to. You'll be hired for the book you graduate with. I've seen bad books come out of great schools and great books come out of mediocre schools.

    I'm a fan of several portfolio schools, but as a VCU Brandcenter grad, I have to say they'll help you get an amazing book together. Don't feel you're settling. It's a great place.

    Best of luck. Stay in touch.


  34. hi its a nice blog to get all the great stuff..i would like to get an advice regarding my next big step..
    this is Krishna from India, i was an engineering graduate and the passion towards advertising made me junior copywriter in a local AD agency, i got an experience of 6 months as jr. copywriter, my portfolio is not that good
    now i am looking for a creative copywriting portfolio school.. actually i am interested to go for a portfolio school but what my parents say is ” go to a master level program” i really could not decide between this two..
    are there any courses which satisfy me in both ways ???
    a great portfolio and master degree in advertising??
    could you please help me in getting out of this???


  35. Hi, Krishna.
    Look into the VCU Brandcenter. You get a masters degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. But that's just a bonus. It's really one of the top three portfolio schools you can attend. I'm an alumnus, and our agency continues to recruit talented grads. Their student body is pretty diverse, too. You could ask them for details.

    You could also look into the graduate programs at the University of Texas, Southern Methodist University, Brigham Young University and the University of Oregon.

    One final word: I'm glad I have my masters degree, but the truth is it's completely unnecessary in this industry. Only your portfolio matters. A masters degree is good for pleasing your parents, and could help later on if you want to teach. But it won't help you get a job. Only your portfolio will do that.

    Good luck!


  36. Hey greg thank you,
    What do you say about MAS master program in advertising which is 1 1/2 year course, whetger i build any good portfolio there..

    i have one more doubt if i go to Vcu and do my graduate degree in copywriting whether i can manage a great portfolio at the end???
    And what was the final degree i will be awarded.. whether it is master of copywriting or master of advertising???

    Miama master program vs vcu graduate program??? please suggest me ???


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s