Portfolio Collection and Special Purpose Portfolios

What is a portfolio?

"The professional portfolio: think of it as a collection in progress, a place where you store those things related to your training, work experience, contributions, and special accomplishments. It is the place to document all your work-related talents and accomplishments so that you have a good sense of your 'assets.'

As you gain a clear understanding of your lifework story, you'll increase your ability to see your potential and communicate it to others. This newly gained insight can assist you in assessing where you are on your career track."

-from Portfolio Power by Martin Kimeldorf


An effective portfolio is a visual representation of your experience, strengths, abilities, skills - the things you like to do, and do best.

Physically, it's a collection of things - artifacts - tangible materials - that represent work-related events in your life.

(But, always remember that you may have developed skills that are now work-related while you were playing team sports, while pursuing hobbies or volunteer activities, or simply pursuing your interests.)

The portfolio provides "evidence" of your potential by demonstrating, or representing, what you accomplished in the past.

Two of the most important graphics for the whole site will fit about here.

One graphic is of a large file folder with artifacts floating in the air above it (arrows point into the file folder), representing the items that can be put into a portfolio collection. The second has the large file folder with several special purpose portfolios being formed from the larger collection, with the items being recycled back into the larger portfolio collection when they have been used.


An artifact is any tangible object/item that can represent your accomplishments and qualities.

In the same way that archaeology reconstructs a civilization from artifacts, a portfolio reconstructs your work life from artifacts. In both cases, the artifacts are fragments that represent pieces of the whole.

Artifacts include:
1.) Work products you've made on the job. You could include reports, computer print outs, graphics, handouts, published articles, etc.

(Also see Information Ownership.)

2.) Something you've created to summarize or "represent" things you have done. It could include:

a summary of evaluations from a workshop, a bar graph that shows rising sales figures, or a chart showing your contribution to a team.
a statement of your philosophy, or you could symbolize your philosophy by using an image or developing a collage of images.
a photo of you accepting an award (particularly if the award is an object designed to sit on a shelf.)

One size does not fit all
Because individual skills, qualities and knowledge can come from so many different places, even the career portfolios of twins would almost certainly be radically different from each other.

Self-assessment is important
An effective portfolio is a visual representation of your strengths. This means that you can present both your skills/abilities (what you can do) and your characteristics/qualities that speak to work style (how you do it). Thus, you need to know what you do well and what you want to do. Self-assessment is a necessary first step. (For more information on Dependable Strengths Articulation Process.)

A "learning" portfolio is not a "career" portfolio

The learning portfolio, as instructors and educational institutions tend to use it, focuses on documenting the process of all learning that has occurred in a specific context. (Students may be encouraged to include early, stumbling efforts that lead to more accomplished learning, for example, actual exams that range from poor to excellent, so the student's learning and improvement can be seen.) When you are focusing on learning assessment, this can be very useful. Also, students are encouraged to include their reflections on the learning experience.

However, a "career" portfolio (ideally developed for interviews for a specific category of jobs) focuses on one's potential for accomplishing specific work. It is built on the assumption that learning has happened. Employers are not interested in the learning process itself, but on those skills, abilities, experience, or personal qualities that relate to the specific work they need to have done.

Not knowing the difference between these two kinds of portfolios and their purpose can be a problem for students who lug a 3-inch-thick notebook "portfolio" full of class projects along to an interview, thinking that their only goal is to prove that they have learned something - anything.

What are the differences?

Portfolio Traits Learning Portfolio Career Portfolio
Length Long (10-100 pages) Brief (3-20 pages)
Focus / Purpose Diffuse - purpose to document (all) learning that has occurred in specific area, including trail of improvement, focusing on content and process Narrow - purpose to demonstrate that individual has work-related skills, abilities, qualities necessary to fulfill the potential of specific job
Audience Educators responsible for learning assessment, who want to see evidence of all skills learned, and of related cognitive development Potential employers, who want to see only the relevant skills, abilities and qualities demonstrating how this individual will do the job in question
What to include All evidence of learning in specific course(s) Only evidence of skills, ability and qualities relevant to specific job
Person who determines what is to be included Educational professional (responsible for educational assessment) Owner of portfolio (applying for job)
Form and appearance of portfolio Notebook is usual - can be large, may contain substantial text, usually organized in chronological order, with explanations of relevance to learner Professional binder or notebook - should be thin with limited sections of text, organized by categories relevant to job, with graphics, captions, etc.

Clearly, learning portfolios and career (job) portfolios are parallel but different. Either can be contained within a person's permanent portfolio "collection," but they are not interchangeable. It is easy to imagine a student drawing examples for a job portfolio from the learning section of a portfolio collection, but the reverse is less likely.

 How do you make a portfolio?

You start by developing a portfolio "collection" that contains all of your artifacts, but, much like a resume, you want to focus the temporary portfolio you'll use for a specific event, so that all the items are relevant to your audience and support your purpose.

If your "audience" is an interviewer (for a job), you'll want to focus the "career" portfolio so that evidence of your ability to do that job is crystal clear. Your "purpose" is to demonstrate that you have successfully accomplished the tasks represented in the portfolio (which should parallel the job description), to support your assertion that you can do the job. If your "audience" is your current boss in your annual review, your "purpose" is to focus that temporary portfolio on evidence of your good work in that particular job in the past year.

Whenever you make a portfolio (for any specific, temporary event), your choice of artifacts from your collection will depend on your specific audience and your purpose.