Concrete Tips to Make Your Design Portfolio Stand Out (As a Student)

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September 10, 2019

Let’s face it–competition is on the rise.

Not only is it getting harder to get accepted into good internships and jobs, but as students, you are expected to know more than just good composition–you’re also expected to know how to appeal to your target audience.

Whether you’re into designing for fashion brands or consulting for digital companies, you’ll soon learn this to be true.

When it comes to presenting your digital portfolio to the very wide world, this is no different. You NEED to know what your recruiters are looking for.

In this post, I will provide you some essential advice on how to make your design portfolio stand out as a student who is looking for an internship or a job.

#1: Know Who Your Target Audience Is

This is probably the best place to start. As a matter of fact, you should write this down BEFORE you start designing your website.

Be more specific than just “recruiters.”

Here’s a more concrete way to start: write down the top 3 companies you want to apply to.

Now, what industry are they in? What kind of designs would they want to see from you?

If they’re in fashion, then they’ll likely be looking for examples of designs you came up with that match their style of branding.

If you’re applying to Prada, make your designs look luxurious. If you’re applying to Nike, make sure you design more towards athletic gear.

For me as a UI/UX design student looking into digital tech companies, I knew I had to show recruiters that I was able to design for both web and mobile.

I also knew that I would be more valuable to the company if I knew how to code too, so I learned how to code in HTML, CSS, Javascript, and JQuery (to name a few that are good to know).

Ultimately, your target audience, the recruiter, is looking at what value you can bring to the company.

#2: Explain Your Design Process

I get it–you only want to show recruiters your glorious, final design. I used to share this itch too!

However, you aren’t fooling anyone into thinking you had a sudden epiphany of a life-changing design that had no hiccups along the journey.

The reason you aren’t fooling anyone? Because this hasn’t happened to recruiters either. They know that there will be screw-ups, messes, and, if you work with others, potentially arguments.

Show recruiters the process you took. Show them HOW you reached your design.

This is how you get to show your strengths.

If you’re great at collaborating with others, explain how you helped your team get to the finished product.

If you’re very organized, share how your organizational and planning ability allowed you to more quickly run through multiple iterations which, in the end, produced a holistic and well thought-out product.

For me, I knew that showing my process was absolutely essential because UX is about getting proof from your users (rather than just a pretty design that you think is awesome).

That’s why in my online portfolio, I walked the readers through the exact steps I took to reach my conclusions, including doing competitive analysis and usability testing.

#3: Show You’re a Well-Rounded Individual

You might be applying to a large company that seems like this big, corporate entity that is just looking at your skills, but ultimately, they’re people who want to work with other people they want to be around.

As a UI/UX designer now working a full-time job, I can tell you that who you work with makes up around 50% of whether you wake up excited to go to work or not.

I mean, these are people you’ll be seeing from nine to five, five days a week, basically every week of the year.


So remember, recruiters are human beings that want to find people who are a great cultural fit. They’re looking for individuals who they can get along with.

That’s why I can’t stress enough that you need to show a little personality in your portfolio.

If you have a sense of humor, let it show in your writing. Make a joke about a time an experiment went sideways.

If you failed at something, tell them how you failed. Show them how you picked yourself up with gumption (aka grit) and continued to move forward. Tell them how it helped you grow as a designer.

When I worked at a startup, we didn’t have enough money for me to stay in time to get our next round of funding.

However, I wrote in my portfolio the exact ways I still grew as a designer from my experience working there:

  1. I learned to take responsibility for my designs because I was the only designer
  2. I learned how to juggle other important tasks besides UI/UX design because I wanted to do everything I could to help us succeed (like creating demo videos for potential investors)
  3. I learned how to fail early and quickly and pick myself up

Show you’re human, because those recruiters you’ll be working with are also human.

#4: Have at Least 3 Projects on Your Portfolio

Having three projects on your portfolio is enough to show your diverse ability, but not so much that it’s hard to flesh out each project in detail.

Of course, this is not a hard and steady rule. For example, you can show more than three projects but only go into great detail with three (and highlight them at the very top to be seen first).

You want the projects that you display to look and feel special–like you put a great deal of time, energy, and passion into each one.

It’s like how Apple used to focus on creating a very few products extremely well while other companies were kinda sorta making all kinds of products under the sun.

When I first coded my online portfolio in my sophomore year of undergrad, I tried to stuff as many projects into there as I could.

It was only when I stepped back and tried to look at it from a recruiter’s point of view that I noticed it simply looked like I was trying to fill in information–and quite badly at that.

To make it even worse, I even displayed projects I wasn’t really that proud of. In the end, that only made my portfolio look, well, eh.

The bottom line? Be very intentional with what projects you choose to display to recruiters. They WILL look through it and notice both the good AND the bad.

#5 Show a Passion Project

Do you know what really shows initiative? A passion project of your own.

Show recruiters that you’re designing something outside of school. This not only shows initiative but also shows your ability to lead your own project.

Some things you can describe:

  1. What problem were you solving?
  2. Who were you solving your problem for?
  3. What was your process like?
  4. What mistakes did you make, and what did you learn from them?
  5. If you worked with others, how did you contribute to the team and their success?

For my own passion project, I built a marketplace for students to buy and sell goods and services.

With this project, I wanted to show people that I’m capable of both designing and coding, so I first found a problem (ie students wanted to buy/sell to non-sketchy individuals in a quick and painless fashion), then I explained how I designed, prototyped, and tested with users along with a team.

Ultimately with a passion project, you’re telling people, “Hey, I’m capable of taking charge of stuff, and I’m passionate about designing in my field.”


I know the running can be tough when there are so many other talented designers out there, but if you’re able to show your passion, expertise, and individuality to recruiters, you’re bound to find a company out there that appreciates you and what you have to offer 🙂

Goal #6: List Ways You Can Exceed Client/Stakeholder Expectations

This is something I wish I had done many times.

Someone once told me,

“There are not a lot of people who say they’re going to do something and actually get it done. I’m glad you actually do the things you say you’re going to do.”

Not only did hearing that make me feel good, but it made me know that I’m doing something right.

When you exceed people’s expectations, you gain a great reputation.

You show them that you’re prepared, hardworking, intelligent, and trustworthy.

People like this tend to attract other people to them naturally. And over time, the effect adds up and people start wanting to know you and work with you.

Exceed their expectations and you’ll reap the rewards.

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