How to use a portfolio in an interview

Getting a job can be as easy as learning how to show-and-tell 

Many career counselors advise students and new graduates to take a portfolio of work with them to job interviews. Your portfolio holds evidence of your experience—examples and copies—of anything you've worked on and/or accomplished in school, at a job, or in volunteer work. For many students, a portfolio offers a comfortable way of demonstrating ability with "real life" examples.

Artists and news reporters, for example, traditionally use portfolios to showcase their work. A graphic artist working as a web designer, for example, might bring printouts of the development of a web site from initial drawings through completion. An artist going into advertising might bring samples of ad campaigns. Reporters bring "clips" of stories they have had published. A reporter's portfolio might include several articles as they were submitted to an editor plus the finished, published product in order to demonstrate that they've had experience writing stories and that the stories were publishable.

You can ask a number of people what to include in your portfolio—e.g., a career counselor, a faculty mentor, an adviser or mentor from your field. Many will be happy to look through your portfolio and critique your selections. However, having the right ingredients in your portfolio isn't enough. The key to success is presenting the contents at the right time during your interview.

Heidi Perman advises students at the University of Minnesota - St. Paul on how to get the maximum value from their portfolios. She offers these guidelines:

Make Your Portfolio Stand Out

While the number of items in your portfolio will vary according to your interviews, Perman says:

  • If the job description you are matching is comprehensive, you'll include more items than if the job description is fairly general.
  • Add a list of short- and long-term goals to your portfolio. When an employer asks about those goals, you can demonstrate that you have thought about them by pulling out your list.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

One portfolio won't work for all interviews (although you'll probably use many of the same pieces for your interviews). And, there is no "right" number of items to include in your portfolio. Remember—you don't have to show everything you've brought, but you also don't want your portfolio to be so thick and full that it looks as if you've brought everything you have ever accomplished.

To prepare your portfolio for an interview, review the job description and choose examples of your work that relate to the skills the job requires. Then, review the pieces you've selected to include in the portfolio for this specific interview and order them within your portfolio according to topic. You want to be as organized as possible so that you can avoid shuffling through your papers to find examples.

If you can, practice answering questions while pulling out examples from your portfolio. Contact your career services office to see if you can participate in mock interviews to practice your presentation skills.

It's Show-and-Tell Time

Using your portfolio during the interview is like a grownup version of show-and-tell. Remember: There's a right time and a wrong time to present your portfolio or its contents to an interviewer.

Don't hand over your portfolio at the beginning of the interview—the employer will be tempted to look through it while talking to you and may not give you his or her full attention. Or, the employer will listen to you and not see the great examples of work you've included.

Don't save your portfolio until the end of the interview. The employer may have a very limited amount of time to spend with each job candidate, so he or she may not have time to skim through your portfolio before the next interview. Your portfolio will go in a briefcase to be examined later (if at all), at which time your work will not make a good connection to your interview.

Also, don't put original documents into your portfolio—sometimes employers ask to take your portfolio with them. Make copies of everything that you include and be prepared to leave this copy of your portfolio upon request.

Here's how your presentation should work:

  • The interviewer will ask you a question.
  • Take a moment to think about your answer—and to pinpoint (in your mind) something in your portfolio that relates specifically to your answer.
  • Answer the question. Then say, "I have an example of this in my portfolio."
  • Next, open your portfolio and find the document as quickly and smoothly as possible.
  • Introduce the document to the interviewer. You might say something like, "During my internship at XYZ Company, I designed a widget supply chain that streamlined the process for my department. I have a drawing of the process that I believe demonstrates the skills we have been talking about."
  • Whip out your document. Then, be quiet. Wait for the employer to look up (this is a signal that the employer has finished examining your document) or until the employer asks a question about your work.
  • Or, if the silence is too uncomfortable, you can point out specifics of the example you are showing.
  • The interview will then naturally flow to another questions—and another example from you.
  • At the end of the interview, when the employer asks "Is there anything else you want to share with us?" you can show a project that you feel especially proud of from your portfolio. Or, you can ask the interviewer, "Can I share with you any other items from my portfolio?"

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