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Your guide to building a career portfolio

Your guide to building a career portfolio

Artwork by: Alexandra Shevchenko

  • Decide on a portfolio format that fits your career goals
  • Assemble work samples from previous positions and projects
  • Select work samples relevant to the sought-after job
  • Preface with a summary that describes your career journey
  • Format the portfolio so that it can be easily perused
  • Regularly update a career portfolio with new accomplishments
  • Key takeaways

Besides resumes and cover letters, job-seekers can get a lot out of a career portfolio that acts as proof of their skills and accomplishments. The contents of a career portfolio can vary depending on how technical or creative someone’s previous jobs were, but most portfolios will benefit from the design and formatting principles listed in this article.

If you’re applying to a new job position and feel that a resume or cover letter won’t suffice, a professional career portfolio is the next logical step. With this next step comes several questions: How should your portfolio document be formatted? What sort of work examples should you add? How can you customize your portfolio to demonstrate your suitability for the job? This article will strive to answer all these questions and more.

The traditional image of the portfolio is a manilla envelope filled with sheets of paper and photographs, or an electronic document containing much of the same. In more recent decades, many professionals have hosted their portfolios on custom-made websites or job platforms such as LinkedIn. Even as the medium of portfolios has changed, the purpose of portfolios has stayed the same: to catch the attention of employers and provide concrete examples of your past accomplishments. 

With the following guidelines, you too can create a portfolio that is calibrated to fit the career that is right for you and catch the attention of recruiters. Here’s what this article will cover:

  • Choose a Portfolio Format That Matches Your Career History

  • Assemble Work Samples From Previous Positions And Projects

  • Select Work Samples Relevant To The Sought-After Job

  • Preface With A Summary That Describes Your Career Journey

  • Format The Portfolio So That It Can Be Easily Perused

  • Regularly Update Career Portfolio With New Accomplishments

Decide on a portfolio format that fits your career goals

The contents of a portfolio vary depending on a job-seeker’s background…and so does their  general format.  Professionals who work in technical fields or create written content will often fill their portfolios with samples of text extracted from the reports, narratives, essays, and articles they composed. Artists, actors, photographers, graphic designers, or architects, on the other hand, will fill their portfolio with visual samples of their best and most successful creations.

When putting together a format for your portfolio (or borrowing a format from templates online), think carefully about what your portfolio will contain and what style of document would best present these contents. Under special circumstances, you may even want to abandon  the traditional document structure in favor of audio recordings or video clips, or create a portfolio file closer in form to a slideshow than a letter.

Assemble work samples from previous positions and projects

To create a career portfolio that puts your work on display, start by assembling digital (or physical) samples of the work you did in previous positions – the more you can find, the better. Professionals who previously worked in creative positions often accumulate small libraries of documents or graphic designs on their computers; even a brief search through these archives can quickly dredge up professional work samples guaranteed to impress HR staff – articles, reports, slide presentations, strategies, and so on.

Not every career generates physical or digital samples of work that a job-seeker can share with interviewers. If you yourself have no documents/visuals from your earlier careers, one alternative is to create detailed biographical entries that describe previous jobs in detail or list official awards and commendations you received from past supervisors. 

The language of these job bios should be clear and direct, but detailed as well, describing both the formal responsibilities you upheld and the unexpected skills you mastered while interacting with colleagues, superiors, and unexpected challenges.

Select work samples relevant to the sought-after job

After assembling your “pile” of relevant documents, graphics, job bios, and commendations, examine each one of them and select the ones most relevant to the career you’re currently pursuing. If you’re planning on applying for a new management position, for instance, it’s better to select work samples that demonstrate your ability to craft proposals or plans and put them into action.

Expert Tip

When selecting work sample documents or graphics you created while working in an old position, make sure those materials don't contain proprietary information your former company doesn’t want released publicly. 

Content created for public-facing company websites is usually fine to include in career portfolios. Content with financial details, internal contact information, or long-term corporate plans should not be included. The same goes for work samples that demonstrate your greatest weaknesses without showing how you surpassed them.

If you’re not  sure whether a sample document or graphic is proprietary or not, send a message to your former supervisor asking if you can use the material as a work sample. Sometimes these managers will give you permission to use old work material in your career portfolio if you censor or remove certain parts.

When assembling your career portfolio, it’s important to prioritize work samples from your more recent jobs, since they will generally depict your skills and knowledge in their most mature and experienced form. If the total span of your work experience exceeds 10 years, it may also be prudent to downplay or omit work samples that are 10+ years old since they’ll be very out of date and may alienate interviewers looking for employees newer to the job market. 

Preface with a summary that describes your career journey

Between the cover page and work samples of your career portfolio, be sure to include a page that gives recruiters access to your professional information (a name, email, phone number, website links, etc.) along with a summary that describes your employment history from past to present.

The  goal of your career summary is to describe in detail the positions you held and environments you worked in, demonstrating just how these experiences honed your skills and strengthened your business and financial acumen. 

Unlike the average resume, which focuses specifically on skills most relevant to the sought-after position, this career portfolio summary should emphasize the diversity of your experiences, presenting you as a “tool kit” that would-be employers can utilize to address challenges both expected and unexpected.



Write a career summary with the following details:

Write a career summary with these counter-productive details:

Contact information

Biographical details written in the first person (unless you’re creating a biography for a website)

The skills you relied on to thrive in previous workplaces

Personal information that’s too intimate or not relevant

Statements about your personal work philosophy and how it was formed

Personal information about colleagues or workplaces that is not yours to share

Concrete numerical statistics for accomplishments in your previous careers (i.e. the money you earned or saved, the number of product or service packages sold in a given period, etc.)

Anecdotes about former co-workers/supervisors that are scornful or critical

Hyperlinks to websites where samples of your work are on display

Descriptions of hobbies or interests outside of your career

Short testimonials taken directly from old clients, customers, etc.

Information about your age, relations, or current location

Language that’s overly humorous or self-deprecating

Format the portfolio so that it can be easily perused

As with many job application materials, a career portfolio should be well-organized and easy to read through, regardless of its specific medium. 

If your career portfolio was created in a word processor and saved as a PDF, for instance, include a table of contents near the start, list the starting page for each portfolio section, and add page numbers on each page so the recruiters you find can quickly locate the sections they want to study.

Copyable example

If you’re creating a career portfolio using a word processor or PDF software, the following template will serve you well in most cases:

- Cover Page

- Table of Contents

- Professional Photograph, Contact Information, Biography

- Career and Skill Summary

- Work Sample #1

- Work Sample #2

- Work Sample #3

- Work Samples #4 

If you’re hosting your career portfolio on an independent website, it’s important to learn and internalize the principles of quality website design. The theme and background of the website should be aesthetically pleasing but shouldn’t obscure or distract from any of your written content (i.e. use fonts that are legible and don’t strain the eye). 

Every section of your Career Portfolio (and your personal contact information) should be accessible from the website’s home page via links in the top bar, while a brief biography and professional photograph should be visible on the website’s left or right bars. Features like embedded videos or audio clips can be a fun addition to your career portfolio website, but they shouldn’t take priority over the website’s basic design and accessibility. 

Finally, the content of your website, particularly on the home page, should include SEO (Search Engine Optimization) keywords that employers and recruiters frequently type in when using search engines to find job-seekers like yourself. 

Specialized software such as Google Analytics can help you locate popular search terms for your career of choice; alternately, you can visit the websites of companies with the positions you desire and borrow frequently used keywords from their own home pages.

Statistical Insight

According to this Forbes article by Syed Balkhi, the most effective SEO strategies take into account the psychology of decision making and the mental fatigue people feel when presented with an overwhelming number of choices. (He cites an American Medical Association article about how the average person makes over 35,000 decisions in a single day.)

Among other pieces of advice, Syed recommends that website creators optimize their SEO by creating website content that is broken up into short, easily scannable segments.

Regularly update a career portfolio with new accomplishments

Twentieth century French poet Paul Valéry, in an essay about poetry, once said, “No work is ever finished [...], but [only] abandoned.” This popular writer’s aphorism, if applied to career portfolios, is half true and half false. From the moment you create it to the instant you retire, a career portfolio will never quite be finished and must never be abandoned.

After designing and refining a quality career portfolio that  can be shared with prospective employees, be ready to regularly  update it with new work samples, new skills, and new anecdotes. Sometimes you’ll want to update your portfolio after leaving an old company behind. If you intend to keep working at your current company, you may still want to update your portfolio in order to better demonstrate your qualifications for promotion or other types of career advancement. Whatever the circumstances, your career portfolio should also reflect your career goals and never become entirely out of date.

Key takeaways

  1. When adding work samples to your portfolio, select old documents, images, or job summaries that best match your current career goals.

  2. When writing biographies or career summaries for your career portfolio, include details and anecdotes that demonstrate your diverse skills and personal adaptability.

  3. Whether as a document or website, the information in your portfolio should be easy for recruiters to find and parse.

  4. Keep your career portfolio up to date, adding information/samples concerning your most recent responsibilities and accomplishments.

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