The Biggest Mistake New Graduates Make on Their Online Portfolios

It’s graduation season. Caps are flying high, diplomas are in hand and parties are underway. And soon it will be time for another post-graduation rite of passage: compiling a professional portfolio. Recent graduates are frantically combing through their computer files and scouring Google Drive folders searching for work samples to showcase their real-world professional skills. 

It’s Portfolio Time, and I want to help! 

I have reviewed a lot of online portfolios of soon-to-be or recent graduates, and here is the biggest mistake I have seen on many of them: the writing samples are not formatted as real-world professional writing examples. 

I typically see portfolios where a soon-to-be or recent graduate has included at least one, but usually more, academic papers and/or other writing samples that still look like assignments and not professional writing samples. Some still have their assignment cover pages attached! 

The success of your online portfolio hinges on your work samples. Unless you’re in the academic or research field, most prospective employers do not and very likely will not read your senior thesis or any well-researched and written paper on, well, anything. Even if it’s interesting and you scored an A+!

Academic papers are not scannable, let alone inviting to read. But it isn’t just “papers” that can be the issue. I have seen well-written event plans and public relations campaigns that lack effective and realistic formatting too. So while you may have followed the directions and even gotten an A, that doesn’t guarantee that your writing sample is ready for the real world. Not all instructors stress real-world formatting requirements or provide templates to follow. 

A soon-to-be grad asked me to review her portfolio. She had included a copy of an online newsletter that she had written for a student organization. The writing was very good, but it looked awful. Every article and bit of text was centered and hard to read. The bullet points were not aligned properly, and there were no images. When I mentioned it, she admitted she wouldn’t do it that way now that she has discovered Canva and has taken my digital publishing course. My recommendation: “Redo it.” Her response: “You mean I can do that?” 

Yes, you can do that. 

New graduates often don’t realize they can edit and change their writing samples. These are your work samples! You can revise, reformat, edit and tweak until you’re satisfied with the result. Spruce up the writing too. You’re a better writer now than when you were a sophomore. I always give students final grade feedback with final edits and suggestions, and I will tell them: Make sure to revise such and such before using it as a portfolio sample. 

Most prospective employers will certainly at least scan an academic paper that has been transformed for online readers. So do this  —  tweak or completely transform all of your writing samples, whatever it takes, so they are visually appealing and scannable. Even just adding a large, in-color title and matching colored subheads larger than the regular text can have a profound impact on the visual appeal of any text-heavy document. 

Visually appealing, scannable and professional means your work samples DO HAVE:

  • Clear visual hierarchy, especially for any reports/long reads
  • Properly formatted titles/subheads, larger, bold, color, not underlined
  • Hyperlinks embedded in anchor text (no naked urls!)
  • Copyright-usable images/illustrations that are not too close to the text
  • Short paragraphs as much as possible
  • Short introductions to contextualize why and for whom you created the work  

Visually appealing, scannable and professional means your work samples DO NOT HAVE:

  • Assignment cover pages or APA headers. While you certainly want to contextualize the sample and be clear that it was created for a course, there’s no need to mention the course number or professor’s name on the sample itself. 
  • Grades. You don’t need to supply your grade when you’re introducing and contextualizing your work samples from coursework. People assume that if it’s in your portfolio, you are proud of it and did well on it. 
  • Bibliographies and in-text citations for feature writing. When was the last time you saw a bibliography at the end of a New York Times or Forbes article? Feature articles and blog posts do not have bibliographies, even when discussing research. You document and attribute your sources through embedded links that have descriptive anchor text. Never paste a naked link like this: or else you really will look like it’s 1999. Reports that may have a reference list or bibliography at the end should still have embedded links that clearly attribute sources and information in the text. 
  • Orphaned text. This is the subhead that sits alone at the bottom of the page. There is a lot of orphaned text in college writing. I am not sure why this is true, only that it is. The fix is easy. Just read this How-to-Geek post.

Here is my blog post on creating scannable blog posts, and the advice applies to online text in general. 

How to share your samples

Don’t make anyone download and open a Word Doc or PowerPoint. PDFs are always better because they preserve formatting and will show in a preview window in most content-managed systems like Wix and WordPress. If you visit my links/handout page, and go to the handouts, you’ll see how the pdfs appear on a WordPress site. You can view them, read them and download them if you choose. 

Wix has very good resume templates that let you recreate your resume on the site itself, but you will still need a pdf version so someone can download it. 

What about slide decks?

Be careful when including any slide decks as portfolio samples. Make sure they are well done, emphasize visual communication and are not crammed with too much text. You can redo them now and improve them by doing them on Padlet, which is one of my favorite presentation platforms that makes it very easy to incorporate live websites into presentations. Here is what my Social Media Marketing presentation looks like on a Padlet from a link. 

My other favorite app for slides is Canva. Once you’re over the learning curve, Canva is another excellent tool for creating visually appealing slide presentations (and for customizing your website header) that can easily be embedded into WordPress using the embed link and into Wix using the embed code. Embedded media, whether it’s a presentation, video or infographic, looks the best when that option is available.

If you’re working with Powerpoint or Google Slides, I would opt to download it and share it on your portfolio as a PDF. You can’t embed a PPT or Google Slides in WordPress or Wix without a plugin. 

Hubspot has tons of free business templates you can work with.

Work from templates that have the hierarchy and formatting built in. For business proposals and templates, Hubspot offers 87 free business templates. When my students write feature articles, I have them use an article template from Canva, or even free Google Doc newsletter templates can work. 

For articles, give yourself a byline under the title/headline. Give it a realistic title/headline, not “Article About my Favorite Hobby,” but “Finding Home: Quilting as a Therapeutic Art Form.”  Here is some advice on writing a good headline for an article or blog post. 

What are your portfolio challenges or tips?

Transforming your writing samples is not hard once you know how you want them to look. It’s often just putting in some extra effort into the formatting and then reviewing the writing. But it will be time well spent once you start getting interviews and then your first post-graduation job. 

I hope this post is helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or other suggestions for online portfolios and writing samples. Leave me a comment below. 


2 responses to “The Biggest Mistake New Graduates Make on Their Online Portfolios”

  1. Cool stuff!.
    Here is what I think of it
    Great blog post! I appreciate the advice on transforming academic papers into real-world professional writing examples. My question is, what are some examples of visually appealing and scannable formats for work samples that recent graduates can use in their online portfolios? Have you seen any particularly effective formats or templates? Thank you!


    1. Hi Ely, I always give my students the basic format with the subheads built in. Here’s an example for a social media campaign template.
      The Hubspot templates I link to are very good. I also like Canva for templates.
      Let me know if this answers your question!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

About Me

Hi, I’m Susan, and yes, I really am a college professor who teaches blogging, professional writing, social media, PR and all things communication to undergraduate and graduate students in Philadelphia. Welcome to my blog!

Subscribe to the Blogging Proessor

%d bloggers like this: