How to Build a Professional Work Portfolio

The Prepped Team

November 16, 2021

10 minutes

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When it comes to your job search, standing out from the pack is tough, which is why you should take every opportunity to shine. One of the ways to do this is by showcasing your accomplishments with a work portfolio – in addition to a winning resume. We breakdown what a professional work portfolio is and which roles require a portfolio as a part of the job application process.

What is a work portfolio?  

While a resume is typically a one or two-page summary of your experience, skills and achievements, a work portfolio expands on this. It’s an opportunity to showcase what you are capable of with visual and concrete samples of your work, as well as any awards or certifications you have earned. Read more about the do’s and don'ts of resume writing and editing.

What careers require a portfolio?

Typically, if you are pursuing a career in a creative industry, a work portfolio will give your application a boost. Some examples include:

  • Web design 
  • Graphic design
  • Writer 
  • Photography
  • Advertising
  • Marketing
  • Interior decorating
  • Teaching positions

However, even if you work in a field where a portfolio isn’t traditionally used, it’s still a great way to stand out. If you’re an IT professional and you’re a C++ Certified Professional Programmer, include proof of this at your interview. Someone entering the field of Human Resources can demonstrate they’ve taken additional professional development courses in team building and leadership.

Why is having a work portfolio important?

It’s not uncommon for HR professionals to receive hundreds of applications for one position. That’s a lot of resumes to read through. It’s one thing for your resume summary to state you’re an innovative designer who can integrate interactive media into a website; it’s another to actually show a hiring manager an example of a kick-ass website you designed. A professional work portfolio will help set you apart in an interview. It also helps to convey the story of who you are and your brand far better than a few bullet points on a resume.

4 ways to create a strong portfolio

There’s no right or wrong way of putting together a work portfolio. Your portfolio is an opportunity to showcase your creativity (which is the number one soft skill employers are looking for). Here are some points to consider:

1. Decide what examples of your work to include

This isn’t the place to include the lifeguard certificate you earned in high school if you’re applying to work in finance. Consider the story you want to tell - about yourself, the skills you’ve developed, and examples of your work. Ask yourself, is it relevant to my industry? Does it support the skills and experience highlighted in my resume? If you have a robust collection of work you’ve already produced, showcase your best examples and lead with the most impressive to make an impact.

2. Think visually

While some careers lend themselves naturally to a visual medium, for others, you may have to think outside the box. For example, someone who works in UX design can showcase the evolution from prototype to finished product. Or if you work in sales, create a colourful chart showing your steady increase in revenue year over year or for each quarter. A public relations professional could include coverage they landed for previous clients coupled with the number of media impressions it would have received.

3. Keep it simple

While a portfolio allows you to expand on your resume, that doesn’t mean you should throw in the proverbial kitchen sink. Keep the format and contents of your portfolio clean and simple, so it’s easier for a hiring manager to navigate. If your portfolio is housed online, keep it to one page. Keep text to a minimum and let images speak for themselves. You should add a conscience description to each image that includes the client or company you did the work for, your role in the project and any wins. Make your portfolio easy to navigate by creating categories or grouping work under the umbrella of a client logo, if it’s online. Visually, it’s cleaner to provide a snapshot of your work, whether that’s a feature article or a marketing campaign, then link out to the original.

4.Reflect your personal brand

Your portfolio should also reflect the brand you’ve built for yourself through your online presence. This can be as simple as matching the look and feel of your LinkedIn profile. A hiring manager is looking to get to know who you are. Like your elevator pitch, a work portfolio is another opportunity to tell your story and what makes you unique. Your portfolio could include a short paragraph on why you wanted to pursue the career you did or how your background led you to a particular industry. While you want to add some personal flair to your portfolio, also look at it through the eyes of a hiring manager. What conclusions might they draw from how you present your work?  If you’re unsure, ask a trusted friend or family member to review your portfolio and give you feedback. Personality is important, but you also want to come across as polished and professional.

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The benefits of a physical vs. digital portfolio

Physical portfolios

Traditionally, a portfolio consisted of a printed, physical copy of your work and achievements. However, today most people create a digital portfolio. The advantage of a paper portfolio is it’s instantly accessible in an interview, making it easy to back up your skills and experience with hard copies of what you are capable of. You don’t have to gamble on whether a hiring manager took the time to search out your online portfolio before or after your interview. The downsides are you still want it to look professional, which means investing in quality paper, colour copying and presentation covers. You should also expect to leave a physical portfolio with your interviewer, so factor in the costs of replicating your original.

Digital portfolios

A digital portfolio is inexpensive, if not free, to create. All you need is a little sweat equity. An online version of your work is easier for group interviews (while saving a few trees) and can also be a vehicle for your creativity and technical skills. The downside, of course, is you can’t rely on being able to present your online portfolio during your interview. Be sure to include the URL on your resume and on your LinkedIn profile, so a hiring manager has the opportunity to view it. You also want to ensure your portfolio is mobile-friendly.

Resources to build a work portfolio

Whether you decide to build a physical portfolio or design an online version, there are a number of free or cheap resources available to help.

1. Canva

Canva is a free online design tool that can help you produce a sleek online or physical portfolio. The design platform also has suggestions on what to include in your professional portfolio and how to present your work.

2. Contently & Muck Rack

Writers and digital content creators can sign up to Contently or Muck Rack to create an online platform for their work free of charge. Both sites make it easy for you to upload content and aggregate your work in one place.

3. Behance

Behance is home to millions of artists, photographers and UX designers. Users can create a project of images, video, or other digital content that have a related theme. The site is free to use, and each project has a unique URL that can be shared.

4. A personal website

Crafting an impressive digital portfolio doesn’t have to be daunting. There are a number of other free websites that will make it easy for you to display your work and showcase your skills.

Let Prepped help you stand out in your job search

Though they may not always be necessary for every profession, a work portfolio is a great way to compliment your resume and cover letter as part of your job search. Sign up for Prepped to gain access to free resumes and templates that will compliment your portfolio and help you stand out as the right candidate.