How to Create a Success Portfolio That Will Win Over Interviewers

By Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job”; speaker on career issues; twitter: @Lilymwhiteman

Although it doesn’t say so on the invitation, every job interview is really a Bring Your Own Success Portfolio —BYOSP—event.

What is a success portfolio? A collection of tangible materials that validates your qualifications and proves that you would succeed on your target job.

Why Portfolios are Compelling

Diane Stark, formerly a senior transportation planner in Alameda County, Calif. and a veteran of many hiring committees, explained: “Your portfolio strengthens your case because it provides objective evidence of your productivity. By contrast, most applicants base their employment pitch solely on uncorroborated promises of their productivity.”

Also, because employment pitches that feature concrete, eye-catching materials appeal to multiple senses, they are more vivid and memorable than oral pitches alone, Stark said.

What to Include

What types of materials should go in your portfolio? Work products that parallel the demands and cover the issues addressed by your target job.

These may include reports, press releases, articles, publications, printouts of Web sites or PowerPoint presentations you produced; programs of events you organized; maps, blueprints or other relevant graphics; articles that discuss your work; or artwork you created. In addition, Stark urges recent grads to include in their portfolios relevant academic papers, preferably with praise from professors and transcripts.

Your portfolio may also showcase positive feedback you’ve received, such as annual evaluations, write-ups accompanying promotions, noteworthy awards, praising e-mails from executives, and evaluations from trainings/presentations you delivered. In addition, a former chief of staff of a Congressional office recommends submitting glowing written references from former supervisors, if possible.

Also consider including in your portfolio a summary of a case study that will help you ace the inevitable interview question: “Provide an example of a successful project … or a project you’re most proud of.” Your case study should concisely cover one of your best successes that is relevant to your target job in less than one page. Under a snappy page title, describe your case study with fast-read bullets that are logically positioned under the following headings: Project Description, Project Goals, Obstacles, My Actions and Project Results. Ruthlessly edit unnecessary details from your case study. And practice incorporating your case study into oral answers to questions.

If your portfolio showcases group projects, clearly identify your contributions, said Shirl Nevas, a graphic artist who has experience managing a federal graphics department in Washington, D.C. Moreover, because computers make plagiarism easy, Nevas advises applicants to authenticate their artwork by providing rough renderings and concise summaries describing how projects evolved. “D.C. can be a small town,” said Nevas, who has reviewed some portfolios that contained work produced by other local artists.


Mere delivery of your success portfolio is unlikely, by itself, to vault you ahead of your competition. Rather, to be truly impressive, your materials must be organized and presented strategically, hiring managers said.

The first rule of portfolio organization is that less is more. “Most interviewers are busy, so just give them your most relevant highlights,” Stark said. Likewise, Nevas said that she is more impressed by five strong design pieces that were used by the client and show a breadth of work than by 15 mediocre pieces. Nevas recommends positioning your most impressive pieces first and last in your portfolio.

Once you have selected your materials, package them in an easy-to-skim format, perhaps in a binder with dividers or pockets Tracy Marshall, chief executive of Stratecomm, a D.C. web development firm, suggests also providing interviewers with electronic versions of your documents on a CD, DVD or USB key, if appropriate.

Label your portfolio with typo-free printing or neurotically neat penmanship.


But don’t just dump your portfolio on an interviewer’s desk as if it were a stack of junk mail. “Remember, everything you do should beat your competition,” Stark said.

So artfully weave your portfolio into your conversation, she advised. “When you refer to your portfolio, position it for easy viewing by all interviewers, and point to it. Maintain eye contact. Look up! This takes practice,” she said.

If, by chance, your interview doesn’t provide an opportunity to segue into your portfolio, when your interviewer asks you if you have any questions at the end of the interview, say, “Yes, I do. But first, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a moment to show you some examples of my work that would give you an idea of what I could do on this job.”

Alternative Strategies

Consider hyperlinking your LinkedIn profile to your work products that are posted on the Internet, such as social media sites you manage, or to a Dropbox that contains your multimedia work products, such as videos. Refer interviewers to your hyperlinked profile in your cover letter and/or resume.

Another alternative/complementary option: if, for example, you apply for a job as a webmaster, you may showcase your work to interviewers on a tablet with bookmarked pages or on your online portfolio. But if you do so, check beforehand that your interview room will be wired. But even if you’re assured of Internet access, always come equipped with a Plan B, such as a quick PowerPoint presentation that displays screen shots of your work.

If you plan any kind of software demonstration, bring extra copies of your software and hardware, said Robbie Rich, chief operating officer of Markquest, a Bethesda, MD firm that helps companies compete for federal contracts. She warned, “You want your demonstration to show what you or your company can do without wasting time on help-desk calls.”


  • When you’re invited to an interview, ask for each interviewer’s name and title.


  • Prepare for each interviewer a portfolio containing your résumé (interviewers might not otherwise have it handy or remember it), business card, reference list and show-and-tell materials.


  • Don’t leave preparation of your success portfolio to the last minute. Selecting appropriate materials, finding supporting documents, and editing and practicing your delivery will be time-consuming.


  • Be selective: Only include your best and most relevant materials. Don’t repeat the mistake of a job applicant who—as one hiring manager recalled in horror—submitted a success portfolio “that was thick enough to choke a rhinoceros.”


  • Emphasize key text with a highlighter, and annotate materials so that they’re self-explanatory.


  • Introduce your portfolio to interviewers with pride and confidence but without cockiness.


  • Leave a portfolio for each interviewer to keep, if possible.


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Anne Hull

Great tips. Lily! Especially important is tailoring your “brag book” for the recipient(s). This means doing some homework on not only the role you want and the organization, but also looking at LinkedIn or other social media to see if their outside interests pop up. You may volunteer with similar organizations and would want to include that morsel.