Using Portfolios in Interviews
A Powerful Tool For Selling Yourself
by Tom Washington

Portfolios enable job seekers to showcase their strengths and they’re doing it in ever increasing numbers. They work for managers, professionals, recent college grads, and those who work in the trades. It is hard to imagine anyone who could not benefit from a portfolio. Work samples can include marketing programs developed, an advertisement you created, or an engineering design you produced. There are hundreds of portfolio items that job seekers have effectively used in interviews.

While their use is growing, less than one percent of job seekers use portfolios in interviews. For that reason, a well-designed portfolio can set you apart from the competition and cause you to be favorably remembered.

Portfolios Sell People

An engineer designed electronic connectors for computers. When asked about his products at interviews he would reply, “I can tell you, but let me show you.” He would then pull out samples and place them on the table. The engineering manager interviewing him would invariably pick them up and a conversation would ensue. At that moment it was two colleagues speaking about things of mutual interest. The interviews always went well.

A public relations specialist with a hospital was applying for a promotion within his own organization and discovered that his personnel records contained little about his successes. He had assumed he was the odds on favorite to win the promotion, but after learning that those interviewing him would know little about his reputation, he decided to create a portfolio.

In his portfolio he placed examples of the press releases and other writings he produced after the hospital received bad press due to medical errors. His portfolio contained the negative articles, as well as his responses, including press releases and the plan of action he prepared for the hospital. Finally, he showed the news coverage that came out after his press releases. These articles were much less critical, enabling the hospital to weather the storm. He won the promotion.

Creating Your Portfolio

Many things can be effective in a portfolio. One client had pictures of himself standing in front of a $6 million piece of equipment he sold to an oil refining company. The unit was over sixty feet long and fifteen feet high. Interviewers not familiar with such equipment would immediately grasp its size and complexity. As the interviewer would look at the photograph, my client was describing the sales process and how he would structure deals so he could beat the competition. Then he would close by saying he was number one in his company in selling that type of equipment.

Another person, with a background in HR management, uses his portfolio to show how his actions have improved the work climate and have cut recruiting costs. By improving the work environment, turnover has consistently been reduced, saving tens of thousands of dollars each year in replacement costs. His portfolio has numerous charts and graphs which provide proof of the cost savings. It is very impressive.

Begin by considering all of the things you’ve worked on that you’re proud of. What visual item could you use to enhance a story or demonstrate a skill? Determine if there are items that you could give to the interviewer. Giving something for the person to handle, or even keep, can be powerful. Steve, an architect who wanted to concentrate on architectural renderings (drawings of the exteriors of homes), spent many hours and a couple hundred dollars developing a brochure with great drawings of five unique Pacific Northwest homes. That brochure left a lasting impression. Leaving something with the interviewer causes the person to think about you each time the item is looked at.

Pulling It All Together

Begin your portfolio by selecting artifacts you may want in the portfolio. Your portfolio will primarily consist of written documents, drawings, charts, and photos that you can place in protective plastic sleeves and put in a three ring binder. Like the engineer above, consider something you might stick in your pocket to show at an appropriate time. While the interviewer is looking at it you can be describing the history behind it.

Studies and observation indicate that two types of documents have the greatest impact on employers and are considered the most credible: direct demonstration and third party validation. Direct demonstration includes writing samples, a computer program you wrote, or a marketing plan. Third party validation would include a letter of appreciation from a customer, a letter of recommendation from a boss, portions of performance reviews, or transcripts from college. Both types are very valuable as you sell yourself. One client finds customer letters are particularly effective and they instantly strengthen his credibility. Some experts in the use of portfolios believe that showing good artifacts increases credibility tenfold.

Using Your Portfolio In Interviews

Using a portfolio during an interview requires practice and understanding of how to use one. The key is to know what points you want to make about each artifact. Once you’ve selected your items, practice using them.

Know what points you want to make about each item. Explain what problem you were working on and what problems were solved. An engineer might explain that the problem was fitting all of the electronics into a small space. An artist or photographer might mention what techniques were used to create an interesting effect and how it required several tries to get it right. An engineer or product designer might bring the actual product, or, more likely, would bring drawings and photographs. Be selective. In any given interview you might show just a few items. Keep it interesting. Watch the interviewer’s face and body language to determine how interested he or she is in your material.

Opening your portfolio for the first time might be initiated by a question such as, “How much experience do you have in process improvement?” Your response could be, “Process improvement has been one of my key functions for the past five years. Here’s an example of one of my major process improvement projects.” This is stated as the person simultaneously picks up the portfolio, sets it down close to the interviewer, and immediately opens to the right page. As the candidate describes the project, he also explains what the graphs reveal, as well as the significance of a photograph.

Toward the end of the interview, you might consider handing the portfolio to the interviewer, suggesting that she might like to see some of the things that you had not previously covered. Since all of your documents will have captions, the person can gain insight about you just by leafing through and stopping at points of interest. By watching where the person is, you could provide a brief commentary on the significance of what is being looked at. It can even result in the interviewer asking you questions that were not originally planned for. Since the questions are being driven by your accomplishments, the questions asked almost always enable you to shine.

Any metrics, charts, graphs, tables, drawings or other items should have captions with descriptive statements so the reader has an understanding of what she is looking at, in addition to your own narrative. Use PAR (Problem, Action, Result) when describing how you achieved your results.

Outside of the art world, few managers have seen a portfolio. For this reason they can be leery, or at least unclear as to what to do with a portfolio. Quickly overcoming any initial reluctance is important, and knowing how to bring it out at the right moment is essential.

Bringing the portfolio out for the first time in the interview is a key moment. Open your portfolio anytime you have a document that will help confirm your skill or experience. It could be in response to the question, “Can you work well with difficult people?” You might say:

I work well with all types of people, including those who find it hard to get along with others. People tell me they enjoy having me on their team. I work hard at understanding other people and their points of view. If people don’t warm up to me right away I try to figure out why. I once had dealings with a person who was skeptical that I really wanted to help his team succeed. Within several weeks he became a supporter. I have a short letter from him describing our relationship.

After opening the portfolio to the letter and letting the person read it, you could say, “Let me tell you the story behind it.” The letter will serve to make your story more believable.

Michael Mottola and John Knapp, both HR executives who have been using portfolios for years, always wait for an appropriate question before opening their portfolio. Since they know exactly where everything is, they quickly go to the proper page and position it so the interviewer can easily read the material. Neither asks for permission, they simply show the item. Out of curiosity or interest, everyone has allowed them to show the item.

When Mottola is asked a question about his labor relations experience, he might reply “I can tell you about that, but here is a complimentary letter from my former employer that should be revealing.” Interest in the letter creates an interest in other items in the portfolio.

Portfolio items help people better understand a point. When John Knapp is asked about his compensation experience, he explains through graphs, how his compensation plans decrease turnover and aid in recruiting. Trying to describe it is difficult, yet with the color graphs, everyone quickly grasps what he did.

After having used the portfolio to respond to two or three specific questions, interviewers begin to get a feel for the value of the portfolio. Then, if you believe it will be useful, you can ask the interviewer if you can show other related items. Few interviewers will decline the offer.

When you share an item from the portfolio for the first time, carefully observe the reaction of the interviewer. If the interviewer shows little interest or even disinterest, you could show another item to see if you can stir up some enthusiasm. If there is still no interest, this is apparently one of those few people who are unable to see the value of what you are showing. In such a case, use stories where appropriate, without resorting to the portfolio.

Mottola will occasionally get a “That’s a lot of information,” when showing his 40-page portfolio. Since Michael always leaves a copy of the complete portfolio, he will respond, “I’ll leave it with you in case you’ll want to review some parts later.” This relaxes the person who is then open to whatever Michael shares.

Mottola finds that turning his portfolio into a spiral bound format, available at most copy and print shops, works well. On the cover he simply has his name and “Human Resource Professional” below his name. He provides a portfolio for everyone who interviews him, including all panel members. There is obviously a cost, but he looks at it as an investment.

When someone asks, “Have you ever…?” or “Give me an example of a time when…” or “What experience do you have in…”, use a brief statement that then leads to opening your portfolio. Help the employer visualize you adding value to her organization:

I’d like to show you an example of a key project I was involved with while at Beckwith Medical Devices. We were having problems hiring high quality people because our recruiting procedures often took so long that our top candidate frequently found another job before we could make an offer. I created a flow chart showing all the steps that were currently required to make a hire and also the time typically required for each step. (shows flow chart and takes 30 seconds to describe what it shows) I then created a chart showing the cost of not getting our top candidate. By showing our CEO all of the costs associated with not getting our top choice, the CEO gave me a mandate to cut the time from 85 days to 45 days. With this mandate I was able to remove some steps and also got commitments from key managers to complete their portion in half the time. There was some initial resistance but it switched to total support when they started getting their first choice.

Planning Your interview

To plan an interview using a portfolio you should first predict the questions that will be asked and determine with which questions you’ll use an item in your portfolio. Begin by analyzing the want ad or job description. Skills, knowledge, education, or experience that are mentioned as required or desirable, are highly likely to come up in an interview. Then list questions you’ve been asked in the past. With all of these questions and potential questions, determine if you have artifacts that can demonstrate your ability in those areas.

To know which items to use you first gather information about the organization you are interviewing with. This will give you clues about points you will want to emphasize. Then, during the interview you will listen intently to everything the interviewer says in order to gain insight into problems, challenges, and opportunities, as well as abilities and qualities the person is particularly interested in. Then you will ask a few questions to gain further insight. With all of that information you will determine what in your portfolio you especially want to emphasize. Based upon your development of your agenda, you will know what types of questions will enable you to share those points. This is similar to the salesperson who makes a recommendation or offers a solution only after learning the customer’s needs.

Using Your Portfolio For A Wrap-up

There are usually opportunities during an interview when you can just offer to take a person through some key parts of your portfolio. This often comes near the end of the interview and it might give you 5-7 minutes to share some important aspects of your background that you had not yet covered.

Panel Interviews

Panel interviews typically create higher stress than meeting one-on-one. Therefore you want to do everything possible to reduce the stress if you are taking a portfolio with you. Visualize yourself facing 3-6 people, with each of them asking one or two questions. Imagine answering a question by directing them to an item in your portfolio. Some deal with the issue by having a portfolio prepared for every member of the panel. Carrie Straub, an author on portfolios (Creating Your Skills Portfolio) and one who has used them for years, prefers to have copies of pages and she passes them out to panel members as she describes what is on each page.

Quickly scan the list below to get a sense of the artifacts that people have included in their portfolios. The basic principle of a portfolio is that you include things that you believe will positively impact employers.

Writing Samples (can include photos of cover)

Published articles (in a company newsletter, a professional association newsletter, a newspaper, or virtually anything with a readerships of 50 or more
Books (chapter or partial chapter, table of contents) Include reviews
Published letter to the editor
News releases
Documentation of new or revised processes
Software documentation
Technical writing samples (include sample drawings)
White papers
Research reports
Marketing plan
Grant writing (the proposal, indicate if successful, possibly the amount)
Documents on how to assemble something (include drawings)
Examples of edited material (include your editing notations and include the final draft, thus showing the impact of your editing)
Translation (show the document in its original language and your translation)
Course handouts
Samples of recommendations made to a boss or group (shows persuasiveness and logic)
Business or work related documents

Work samples

Timelines, schedules, PERT charts used in project management

Accomplishments (longer descriptions than what appears in your resume)


List degrees, diplomas, certifications
List courses completed
Describe class projects and include results
Official transcripts

Cum laude
Employee of the month
Rookie of the year
Letter of commendation
Bonuses awarded
Trips won
Team/Department award
Letters of thanks/praise from customers, clients, coworkers
Articles written about you or articles that include you (including In-house company newsletter, school paper, local newspaper, magazine, professional organization newsletter)
Articles in which you are quoted

Computers: Lists of software, systems, languages

List application software experienced with (can rate on a 1-5 scale)
List operating systems experienced with
List computer languages experienced with

Examples of work done on computers

A design or chart done with Visio or a Visio-like product
A drafting example done with computer aided drafting software
A design done with computer aided design software
A three dimensional drawing done with drawing software
Computer generated graphics using Flash and other such programs
The coding of an actual program
PowerPoint slides
Reports created with spreadsheets, database managers, accounting software, inventory management software, enterprise software, etc.
Community service
Work samples
Letters of recognition
Photos of projects, programs

Letters from people describing the successes of your projects or events
Article about you in a newsletter
Summary article of a talk you gave to the membership

Photos (almost always with captions)
Getting an award
Acting as a host or emcee
Things designed, built
Point of sale display
Trade show booth
Book cover
Happy customer with product in hand

Graphics created
Charts, flow charts, graphs hand drawn or with graphics software
Drawings, sketches, paintings, sculptures, photographs
Reviews of art, graphics, music

Teaching/workshop presenter

List of classes, workshops, courses taught (could include how many times given)
Include descriptions, course syllabus
Summarize reviews from students/attendees (90% rated workshop good or excellent)
Quote from some of the reviews (“Jan’s talk brought this complex subject alive in a very understandable way.”)
Overheads, PowerPoint slides, photos
Audio or video clips


Evaluations or portions of evaluations from supervisors
Letters of reference from bosses, coworkers, customers, clients, professional colleagues, teachers, people who can vouch for your character
Letters should specify certain skills/strengths you possess

For more detailed information on producing a portfolio:

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