Dear Students, We’re not Zombies, but we definitely want your brains.

Or, how to show your student portfolio without turning the experience into a horror story.

Unless your family owns an ad agency or design studio, landing a job in this industry can be an extremely frightening experience – and the odds are not in your favor. Let’s do a little math: in any given market, there are only so many agencies with only a minimal amount of entry-level creative slots available. If you then look at the number of graduating students vying for those positions, well, you don’t have to be Dr. Frankenstein to figure it out. The top shops will hire the top students – end of story.

But don’t get creeped out just yet. You can at least shift the odds somewhat in your favor by nailing the interview. Here are a few tips and some pointers to put the hex on some of your portfolio presentation fears:

1. Make an appointment. Seriously. Unless you’ve made the evening news, it would be a rare occurrence for someone to pick up the phone or push a text message asking you for an interview. Don’t show up unannounced in the lobby. Don’t randomly throw a “Hey are you guys hiring?” line on the agency’s Facebook page. And never ever, ever have your mom make the appointment call for you (yeah, that happened).

You can be friendly, courteous and professional when making your appointment, too. It won’t kill you. And please try to be flexible and allow the interview to be made at convenience of the creatives at the agency – not just convenient for you. Also, visit as many firms as you can. More appointments lead to more interviews which lead to more opportunities. That’s a nice little trifecta.

2. Show up on time. Do we really need to elaborate on this item? No. Show up on time. That is all.

3. Look the part. We don’t expect you to roll up in Armani or Jean Paul Gaultier, but you can dress for success. Don’t come in sporting flip flops or some other beachwear. And, ladies, save the sexy dress for your Saturday night date. Don’t neglect basic personal hygiene – toothpaste and mouthwash are pretty cool. Dirt-encrusted finger nails – not so cool. Don’t coming in reeking of cigarettes. Don’t wear a hoodie during your interview (what are you the Unabomber?). Look, just do a quick mirror check on yourself, okay?

4. The book. It doesn’t need to be a “book” per se, but this thing or device that carries your precious work should be pretty tight. If you are using a traditional portfolio case it would be nice if it is not torn, battered and beaten all to hell. The pages shouldn’t be ripped and your stuff shouldn’t be crammed in haphazardly, or falling out on to the floor. Clean, consistent and organized is the key here. Unless you’re showing some sort of viral campaign, hair, marinara sauce and insects (live or dead) should not be part of the presentation.

Exhibiting your work on a laptop or your iPad is great idea, and a slick way to exhibit your goods. An iPod, not so much. A handful of napkin sketches, definitely not. A custom or themed presentation can go a long way as long as it’s not too crazy or crosses that undefined line we call overboard.

5. The work. The items noted above – all superficial. They matter, but not as much as the work. This is the make it or break it part of your show; the sound of applause or the sound of crickets chirping quietly in the distance.

Here’s the deal: if you are a creative, then show creative solutions to ordinary design or marketing problems. Most agencies and studios want to see that killer idea in your book, not some so-so work that any stiff with a Mac can pull off. Your thought process is what counts, that spark or twist that makes a headline sing with a visual, or a logo that transcends the mundane.

Show your best work and go for quality over quantity. Creatives would love to see five knock-out ideas rather than one great piece followed by 23 chunks of filler. Cut the fat and remove those weaker pieces.

It will also help your cause to tailor your work to the agency or design studio that you are interviewing with, so perform your due diligence and know what kind of firm you’re interviewing with. If you’re interviewing with a shop that specializes in corporate identity, they certainly don’t want sit through half-an-hour of your anime sketches. Conversely, a web or social media focused shop doesn’t want to slog through your logo-heavy book.

Another tip, students: there is no law that says you can’t modify your student work after the project has been completed or graded. Not satisfied with it? Change it. It’s your portfolio, not your instructor’s. Also, just because one of your student projects migrated to the real world realm and was professionally printed doesn’t mean it automatically goes in your book. Unless it’s great, unless it’s strong – do not put it in your portfolio.

6. Back to you. This is, after all, an interview and personality counts. Chances are high the interviewer is making mental notes on your presentation skills and your personality. Take care to know your work and make your presentation in a comfortable, professional manner. Don’t be fidgety, don’t be negative about your own work, and be prepared to answer questions about why you did what you did.

There may be cases where the interviewer will ask you a rough question about your work just to see how you handle yourself in a touchy situation. Yeah, we do things like that, but for a number of reasons. One, if you get defensive and can’t handle criticism well, how will it be when a creative director or art director asks you to change or revise your work? Secondly, if you can’t think on your feet, how well will that fly if you’re in front of a client?

Bottomline – be prepared for your interview and show pride in your work. Be confident, but not cocky. Also, try not to cry. There’s no crying in advertising.

7. The other side of the table. That means us, the evil creative and art directors digging their claws and sinking their fangs into the neck of your defenseless little portfolio. Actually, only some of us are evil, the rest of us – just overworked. That aside, you have an incredible opportunity here; that is to pick the brains of some of the top design or adverting minds in the industry. That alone is worth the price of your anxiety.

Listen to what they have to say about your portfolio, take it as constructive criticism and use this “free” art direction to improve your work for your next interview. Not all of the comments you hear will be spot on, but if you keep hearing the same comment about the same piece then you should take it under consideration.

8. The closing. As the interview winds down keep it upbeat and thank everyone for their time and the opportunity, then lay your proposal out on the table. Meaning, be assertive and ask what the possibilities are. If you are offered a job, that makes things pretty easy. If it’s left ambivalent or the word is “we’re not hiring at this time,” be gracious, say thanks again and move on. No big deal, it’s all just part of that thing we call a learning experience. A follow-up thank you email, phone call or mailed-in piece is usually a good idea and exhibits a level of interest, and professionalism.

Hopefully, your instructors have already prepared you for the interview process. If not, we hope these pointers will help you get through.

In the spirit of Halloween, we’d love to hear about any horrific interview experiences you’ve sat through. Post them here. Who knows, it may help a student land that plum job.

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