In a competitive hiring environment, job seekers need to do everything they can to stand out and impress employers. From specialized resumes and cover letters to interview preparation, candidates have plenty of opportunities to make a good impression. But there’s another tool you have at your disposal you may not have leveraged yet — a professional portfolio.
A career portfolio showcases your professional skills and abilities in a big way. It’s a tangible approach to highlighting successful projects, work samples, testimonials, and your expert knowledge in an easy-to-digest format.
But what should you include in your portfolio and how should it be organized? Use this guide to find out.
What Is a Professional Portfolio?
A professional portfolio is a compilation of work samples, professional projects, and other career-specific achievements or information that is used to demonstrate your skills and abilities to potential employers.
Portfolios come in two formats: digital and physical. Digital portfolios are typically personal websites whereas physical portfolios are hard copies assembled in a binder.
Professional portfolios are most often used by:
- Web designers
- Graphic designers
- User experience designers
- Product managers
- Software developers
- Creative directors
- Marketing professionals
- Project managers
- Interior designers
- Tattoo artists
- Cosmetologists and estheticians
What to Include in a Professional Portfolio
Although portfolios can cover a variety of industries and professions, most professionals include similar sections and tailor them to their specific field or career. Here are some of the most common sections to include in your career portfolio.
A professional portfolio needs to include some basic personal information, like your contact details and a general overview of what you do. But it can also point to professional profiles, blogs, and social media accounts. It’s where you can throw in a dash of personality and tell hiring managers about who you are as a person by using clever copy, photos, and sharing your passions outside of the office.
Regardless of the format, you should cover this information in your professional portfolio:
Your contact information is pretty straightforward. You should provide:
- Your full name
- Photo (optional)
- Physical address
- Website address if your portfolio is printed
- Phone number
- Email address
Whether you’re using a physical or online portfolio, you can include some relevant professional links for hiring managers to explore. For example, consider linking to:
- Your LinkedIn profile
- Relevant professional social media accounts like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook
- Industry-specific platforms like Dribbble for designers and creatives, GitHub for developers, or Behance for photographers and illustrators
- Your blog
About Me Section
Your about me section is where you briefly explain your professional history, such as your career path and education. But it’s also where you can add some personality. After summarizing your work experience and relevant skills, consider mentioning some of your hobbies or interests — especially if they’re in line with your prospective employer’s company culture.
Some professionals also include a mission statement or objective in this section, such as their professional goals or the type of role they’re looking to fill.
Your Resume and Cover Letter
Your resume and cover letter are essential additions to your professional portfolio. You can either link to them as PDF attachments, display them on a webpage, or print them off. Although the hiring manager has probably already seen these documents, combining them with demonstrable career achievements and work experience can help to emphasize your suitability for the position.
If you have an online portfolio and host your resume and cover letter on a website, it will be hard for you to customize them for each job. In this case, offer a general resume and cover letter on your website and use tailored versions for specific jobs and companies when submitting job applications.
If you’re using a physical portfolio, feel free to use the same resume and cover letter that you applied with, as long as it’s customized to the employer.
In a professional portfolio, your work experience section should consist of relevant, recent, and impressive samples. It needs to demonstrate your core competencies, professional abilities, and technical skill set. Try to be selective about which projects you include and aim for quality over quantity. Here are some examples of what to include in the work experience section of your career portfolio:
The work samples you showcase in your professional portfolio can be from a variety of different employers, clients, industries, and volunteer experiences. As long as they’re recent, relevant, and remarkable, they’re worth featuring.
When selecting work samples to include, choose projects that:
- Clearly and impressively demonstrate your professional abilities
- Showcase technical skills, like your familiarity with specific software programs or hardware
- Have quantifiable results based on the goal of the project — a number you can refer to, like a percentage or monetary increase
- Were completed for notable clients or employers
Work examples can be made up of writing samples, logos, videos, photos, apps, or any other tangible work product depending on your profession and industry.
Along with examples of your work, include details about each sample, such as:
- Who the project was for
- When it was completed
- What your personal contributions were
- The goal of the assignment
- The results of the project
Although the way you present and annotate your work samples should make them into miniature case studies themselves, you can also include case studies as standalone examples. This is especially useful for people who have limited samples or who participated in a project from a planning or management position.
Case studies should point to successful projects where you can highlight specific examples of how you used your professional experience and training on the job. How in-depth you go is up to you, but make sure to cover the following topics:
- Basic project details
- Client or employer information
- The purpose of the project
- Your responsibilities
- Any challenges you faced and how you handled them
- Your process for approaching the project
- Metrics for success
- Quantifiable results
Case studies should be more detailed than work samples, giving an overview of a project and how you contributed to it from start to finish.
Professional awards and recognitions are a perfect addition to any career portfolio. Make sure to mention the level of the award — such as local or national — what it was for, who it was awarded by, and what the competition was like.
Only mention awards or recognition related to your career unless you’re using them in your about me section to add some personality.
For example, let’s say you’re a graphic designer. If you placed first in a national design competition, that’s a great accomplishment to mention in your portfolio under work experience. But if you also won an award for having an exemplary beard or mustache, that would fit better in your about me section to add a touch of personality, if you choose to include it at all.
Awards or recognitions won by your employers or clients for projects that you worked on or contributed to also count. For example, if your ad agency was recognized for a particularly clever campaign that you were a part of, make sure to talk about it in your portfolio.
Your resume should have a section in it that covers your education, but it may not include information about your professional development since you graduated. Seminars, industry certifications, online courses, and workshops all point to your dedication to your craft and your ability to stay up-to-date in your area of expertise.
Feel free to mention things like Google Analytics Academy certifications, LinkedIn Learning courses, SkillShare and Udemy classes, and any other relevant industry-specific professional development you have under your belt. Because not all of these may be worth mentioning on your resume, having a professional development section in your portfolio gives you a chance to show recruiters and hiring managers that you’re dedicated to continued learning in your profession.
Volunteer experience related to your career can also add to your professional portfolio — especially if you are a new graduate with few work samples. For example, if you’re a junior web designer and you helped a charity or nonprofit to upgrade their website, that’s something you should absolutely include in your portfolio.
But if the only volunteer experience you have is from eight years ago and it has no relevance to your career, it’s better to leave it out.
Testimonials and Letters of Recommendation
Testimonials and letters of recommendation from previous clients, employers, and mentors are an excellent way to make your career portfolio stand out. Having professional contacts who are willing to sing your praises says a lot about who you are as a person and how good you are to work with. If other sections of your portfolio seem a bit sparse, including a glowing recommendation or testimonial is a great way to add some bulk that will impress hiring managers.
How to Organize a Professional Portfolio
Your professional portfolio should be organized in a way that’s easy for a potential client or employer to navigate and digest. It should have a clean, visually pleasing design that highlights important information and shows off your best work.
Most portfolios are divided into sections, starting with the most important and working their way down. For example, here’s a standard way to organize your sections:
- Contact information
- About section
- Resume and cover letter
- Work samples and relevant awards, courses, and volunteer experience
- Testimonials or reference letters
Keep in mind that digital and physical portfolios follow different best practices when it comes to their presentation and organization.
Digital Professional Portfolios
Personal websites are general portfolios and are harder to customize for specific employers, but they’re more interactive and easier to use than their paper counterparts. Many personal portfolio websites are made using free site templates through WordPress, Medium, or other basic portfolio platforms. Online portfolios should be clearly organized, easy to navigate, and visually appealing.
If you choose to present your portfolio as a website, you won’t be able to separate it into sections in the same way as you would with a printed version. Instead, either opt for a single-page website that scrolls from top to bottom, starting with the most important information, or create different web pages for each section and link to them from your home screen and through your navigation bar.
A PDF version of your portfolio will follow a similar format to a printed one, except you’ll be able to include working links and high-resolution images.
Physical Professional Portfolios
Aside from the standard sections, a printed portfolio should also include a table of contents and clearly defined sections. If you use a binder to organize and contain your portfolio, use dividers to separate and label different categories. Printed portfolios work best for in-person interviews and meetings.
Make sure you use quality paper and a good printer when you print your portfolio. Blurry images, faded ink, and tattered pages won’t help you to make a good impression on potential employers.
Every employer wants to hire a great employee, so as a job seeker, you need to do everything you can to show them that you should be their newest staff member. When vying for a new job, your portfolio can be the perfect way to show hiring managers that you’re experienced and skilled in your profession and that you take the opportunity to work for them seriously.
Keep your portfolio focused on your professional achievements and use it to demonstrate what makes you an ideal candidate to give you the best chance to land an offer.