You’ve laboured painstakingly over your personal statement, you’ve risen abruptly to 5am alarms and travelled cross-country to Open Days in the search for your ideal university and you’ve made peace with your choices and released your UCAS application into the hands of fate… so what next? Well, for us art students, the most important step is about to begin.
Portfolio building is a step likely to strike the nerves, and it’s easy to trick yourself into jumping through hoops asking yourself, what do they want to see?
My first piece of advice: think not about what they (the interviewer) want to see, but focus instead on what you want them to see. Which pieces of your work can you confidently, coherently and contextually talk about; which pieces best represent your style, ambition and direction both technically and contextually?
My portfolio took around a month to pull together. As I hadn’t studied an art A-level, I was relying on older GCSE work and more current pieces I had worked on in my own time whilst I was studying. I thought initially that not having the A-level would have been a hindrance, but my self-directed approach made for a stronger understanding of what I wanted to show. I remember the last minute moments of pulling all the parts together, having fun with technique testing in sketchbooks and exploring the intersection between my passion for art and my interest in medical sciences. I embedded written artist research into appropriated paintings and sketches, photographed sculptures in high-resolution and printed all of my photography to frame in one book. I made labels for everything noting the title, size and material, and attempted to keep the format as consistent as possible.
When the interviews came around I wasn’t particularly nervous, although I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. At my first interview at a different university, we had to wait a good few hours before the interviews actually took place. In the meantime, the institution reviewed my portfolio privately and all students and family were taken for a tour of the facilities. The conversation when I was finally invited into the room was quite formal and they didn’t interest me in their approach or wider contextual thinking. I think you instant;y know the universities where you'll belong, and where you won't.
Two days later, we headed to Leeds Beckett. We got confused on multiple roundabouts on the way, and not wanting to arrive late, my mum pulled up at a traffic light and I hastily lugged my weighted portfolio to Broadcasting Place (we’ve definitely become more familiar with the roads three years on!).
Already, the fast-paced city had me intrigued. When I arrived, I was greeted by a student at reception, and taken in almost immediately for my interview. Simon Ringe, Head of Fine Art at the time, came down to meet me and carried my portfolio for me to the office. After my other experience, I thought I would be more anxious, but Simon opened the conversation talking about my travel, who I was here with, what I did in my spare time, and referencing my personal statement. It felt like my personality was being tested to see if I was a good fit - not just my ability as an artist.
We spoke about poetry and my brash decision to switch my studies from medicine to art. About 20 minutes passed before we even opened the portfolio. From there, we had more of a casual conversation: he asked me to talk about pieces which I had enjoyed making, and the critical process and aesthetic influences behind them. Then he chose some pieces that piqued his interest, and I responded in kind. When the interview had finished, Simon was very positive about our discussion and let me know I should hopefully hear the decision over the next week or two. When I left to meet my mum in the courtyard, she mentioned that I’d “never looked so happy before”.
I received my conditional offer around two days later on the UCAS system. I cancelled my other interviews that day and made the gut decision. There wasn’t a single moment over the coming months that I felt a twinge of regret for my impulsivity – it was a harmonious decision in that generally tumultuous period.
If I were to offer any advice in retrospect of my journey to here and now, there are three main things.
First, don’t be afraid to do something that you love in exchange for something practical that you have been told to believe will offer you greater, or more guaranteed, opportunities – there is a whole wealth of experience in a creative degree.
Second, don’t be afraid to change your mind, take a chance, and change your mind again – it doesn’t matter what your parents want you to do or where you think things are going to take you, life is unpredictable and it is fun to embrace the chances you’ll encounter.
Finally, have a belief in yourself but stay open to change, both intellectually and materially: meet new people, explore language, the news, society; run a film night in your studios, join a society, take a trip, make the most of your tutors - grow exponentially as a creative and, more importantly, as a person.