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Ultimate Guide to the AP Studio Arts Portfolio

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The Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum is a great option for high school students who are interested in taking on challenging coursework and who are interested in pursuing advanced standing or receiving college credit. AP courses are offered across a range of disciplines, including STEM subjects, social science, and visual arts.

In 2016, only around 50,000 of the 2.6 million students taking AP exams submitted AP Studio Arts Portfolios. This represents a scant 2% of all AP students. But don’t let these numbers discourage you. The AP Studio Arts courses typically aim to support a diverse group of students striving for high levels of artistic achievement, and the pass rate for these portfolios is exceptionally high compared to other AP scores. If you are interested in submitting an AP Studio Arts Portfolio, whether you have taken the class or are planning to self-study, read on for a breakdown of the course and portfolio and CollegeVine’s advice for how you can prepare for it.

About the Courses

The AP Studio Arts courses are designed to engage students who are seriously interested in the practical experience of art. The classes offer experience in critical analysis along with innovative art-making processes and products. They seek to encourage creative and purposeful investigation of formal and conceptual issues, emphasize the creation of art as an ongoing process based on informed and critical decision making, and help students to develop technical skills. In these classes, you can expect to become familiar with the functions of visual elements, develop independent thinking skills to shape your own artistic endeavors, and contribute originally and critically to your culture through art.

There are three AP Studio Arts courses: Studio Art Drawing, Studio Art 2-D Design, and Studio Art 3-D Design. In each of these courses, the theory and study of creating art remains the same, though the medium and product of your work changes. Though the distinction between AP Studio Art 2-D Design and AP Studio Art Drawing may seem ambiguous, it is rooted in the central artistic skills developed during each and the ways in which these skills are assessed. For more about this distinction, read page 8 of the course description

While there are no formal prerequisites for any of the AP Studio Arts courses, you should have prior experiences in the studio arts, including instruction in the conceptual, technical, and critical thinking skills used to critique and create art. Though many students create their portfolio during the course of a single school year, many others create their portfolio over several years. This is acceptable, but if you are submitting work that was produced in the previous school year, make sure to check the most recently published AP Studio Art requirements to ensure that standards and regulations have not changed. 

The assessment for AP Studio Arts courses varies from most other AP classes in that there is no formal exam element, and the entire score is based on a portfolio of student-selected work that is submitted for review. In each of the AP Studio Arts courses, students submit work that highlights their skill in three categories: Quality (Selected Works), Concentration (Sustained Investigation), and Breadth (Range of Approaches). Work submitted in the Quality portion of your portfolio should demonstrate mastery of design in concept, composition, and execution. It should be your best work and it may include pieces also submitted in the other portions of your portfolio. Artwork submitted in the Concentration portion of your portfolio should highlight the in-depth process of tackling a particular design concern, showing your process over time. Finally, works submitted in the Breadth portion of your portfolio should illustrate your range of ideas and approaches to making art.

In years past, students have generally performed quite well in the AP Studio Arts. In 2016, approximately 80% of all students who submitted Studio Arts portfolios received a score of 3 or higher. Though only around 15% of students received the top score of 5, almost a third of all students submitting work received a score of 4 with another third receiving a 3. Only about 2.5% of students who submitted portfolios received the lowest score of a 1.

A full course description that can help to guide your studying and understanding of the knowledge required for the exam can be found in the College Board course description.

Read on for tips for preparing your portfolio.

Step 1: Study Your Craft

Your work in the AP Studio Arts course should not simply be a collection of pieces produced over time. Instead, it should highlight specific areas of focus, critical thinking, and sustained, meaningful reflection. Your studies will be informed and guided by observation, research, experimentation, discussion, critical analysis, and reflection, relating you individual practice to the greater art world. You will need to document your artistic ideas and practices over time to demonstrate conceptual and technical development. Teachers will help you to become an inventive, original, and thoughtful “artistic scholar who can contribute to visual culture through art making.”

In particular, your teachers will focus of the skills necessary for producing a successful portfolio. You will need to be able to recognize quality and areas of weakness in your own work in order to be successful on the Quality portion of your portfolio. You will need to be able to concentrate on a sustained investigation of a particular visual interest or problem to be successful on the Concentration portion of your portfolio. And finally, you will need to master a range of approaches to the formal, technical and expressive creation of art to be successful on the Breadth portion of your portfolio.  While your teacher focuses on preparing you for these successes, you can expect instruction in: 

  • Critical analysis
  • Evidence-based decision-making
  • Innovative thinking
  • Articulation of design elements and principles
  • Systematic investigation of formal and conceptual aspects of art making
  • Technical competence with materials and processes to communicate ideas
  • Incorporation of expressive qualities in art making
  • Demonstration of artistic intention
  • Creation of a body of work unified by a visual or conceptual theme

To fine-tune your critical analysis, creation process, and arrival at a finished collection of work, you should expect to closely study other art pieces. Whether in class or individually, you should use museums and galleries as extensions of studio time along with art books and Web resources. These various forms of investigation, interaction, and critique will provide important examples for the serious study of art.

Step 2: Know What is Required in Your Portfolio

As you begin to create art for your portfolio, keep in mind what the finished project will need to include. Your final portfolio should demonstrate the artistic skills and ideas you have developed, refined, and applied over the course of the year (or years) to produce visual compositions.

You may choose to submit any or all of the Drawing,,Two-Dimensional Design, or Three-Dimensional design portfolios in a single year or over the course of several years. Each portfolio will include three sections: Quality, Concentration, and Breadth.

The Quality portion of the portfolio is worth 33.3% of your total portfolio score. For the 2-D Design and Drawing portfolios, this section consists of five actual works submitted. For the 3-D Design portfolio, this section consists of 10 digital images, consisting of two views each of five works created. Your selected works should demonstrate mastery of design in concept, composition, and execution, and may include works submitted in the other portions of your portfolio. This section should include works that exhibit a seamless synthesis of form, technique, and content in your particular medium.

The Concentration portion of your portfolio is also worth 33.3% of your total portfolio score. This portion of your portfolio will consist of 12 digital images for all Studio Art portfolios, with some of these 12 images being detail or process documentation. These images should provide an in-depth, visual exploration of a particular design concern and should highlight your sustained, deep investigation of a specific visual idea. In this section, process documentation may be submitted to help the AP Readers to understand your thinking in the course of creating a work. For example, you may want to include images that show earlier stages of a finished work or that document ideas that you experimented with prior to settling on the direction of a particular work. Works included in this section may not also be included in the Breadth portion of your portfolio.

This portion of your portfolio also includes a Concentration Statement (also sometimes called a Sustained Investigation Statement) which describes your central idea and how you demonstrate your exploration of it. You will describe your central idea in 500 words or fewer, and describe your exploration of it, referring to specific pieces, in 1350 words or fewer. This statement will be submitted online and you may discuss it with your AP teacher before submitting your final piece. You may find more information about this written piece here.     

The Breadth portion of your portfolio makes up the final 33.3% of your total portfolio score. This portion of your portfolio illustrates a range of ideas and approaches to art making while showing your understanding of design issues across these multiple ideas and approaches. This portion of your portfolio will consist of 12 digital images, each of a separate piece of work, for the 2-D Design and Drawing portfolios, and 16 digital images, including two views of eight different art pieces, for the 3-D Design portfolio. Works included in this section may not also be included in the Concentration portion of your portfolio. 

For a summary of submission requirements for any of the Studio Art portfolios, see page 7 in the course description, or review the complete portfolio requirements for 2016-2017.

Step 3: Know How Your Portfolio is Assessed

Your completed portfolio will be scored by multiple readers on a six-point rubric. The Quality portion of your portfolio will be read by a minimum of three separate readers while the Concentration and Breadth portions will be read by at least two readers. These readers will each score that portion of your portfolio on a six-point scale without seeing the scores assigned by other readers. If there is a wide divergence in the scores assigned by readers to the same section, the section is forwarded to AP Exam leaders for review. The scores on your individual portfolio portions are then compiled to create a raw score for your portfolio. Statisticians use these raw scores to convert your score to the five-point scale that is returned to your school.      

Your portfolio will be assessed according to a rubric assigned based on which specific Studio Art portfolio you have submitted. The AP Studio Arts Drawing, AP Studio Arts 2-D Design, and AP Studio Arts 3-D Design scoring rubrics are all quite similar in that they assess your work across the same categories. These categories include use of design elements, unity, balance, contrast, originality, proportion, and overall accomplishment among many others. For a complete list of scoring criteria for each portfolio, see the AP Studio Art Scoring Guidelines.     

To review past student portfolios along with their scores and scoring explanations, see the AP Studio Art Sample Student Portfolios

Step 4: Assemble Your Portfolio

Whereas AP teachers of other subjects are not allowed in the room while their students take the AP Exam, AP Studio Art teachers are encouraged to help their students assemble their portfolios. You should take advantage of this expertise by having frequent conversations about which pieces you will include in your portfolio and where you will focus your Concentration portion of the portfolio.

Make sure to adhere closely to the portfolio guidelines. Additional pieces beyond those required, actual works of art submitted for sections in which digital images are required, or any three-dimensional pieces will not be scored. Also, do not submit an artwork that copies an existing piece of art, even if you create yours in a different medium. This is considered plagiarism and you will receive a zero for it. 

When packaging actual artwork for the Quality portion of the AP Studio Arts Drawing and AP Studio Arts 2-D Design portfolios, make sure to mount your work on matting. Any pieces that are not at least 8” x 10” in dimension should be mounted on matting at least 8”x10” so that they are not overlooked. Your original artwork will be returned to you in late June or July. More specifics on submitting actual art work can be found in the AP Studio Art Portfolio Requirements

Assessment Specifics

In 2017, the deadline for submitting an AP Studio Arts portfolio is May 5. Digital portfolios or digital portions of a portfolio must be uploaded by an AP Coordinator to the AP Program by 8 PM EDT on May 5. Actual art work submitted as a portion of a portfolio must be postmarked no later than May 5.   

To create an account through which you can upload your digital portfolio pieces for review by your teacher and AP coordinator, you will need to register through your school by contacting your AP coordinator. If you are homeschooled or attend a school that does not offer the AP Studio Arts that you want to take, you can contact AP services no later than March 1 to get a list of names and telephone numbers of local AP coordinators willing to work with outside students. Full directions for this process are available on the College Board website, though it may be difficult to find a coordinator willing to take you on due to the extended teacher involvement in an AP Studio Arts course.

Preparing for any AP assessment can be a stressful process for enrolled AP students and self-studiers alike. Having a specific plan and a firm grasp of the course content and methods of assessment will help you to feel prepared and produce your highest quality work. Use CollegeVine’s Ultimate Guide to the AP Studio Arts Portfolio to help shape your understanding of the assessment and how to prepare for it effectively. When you submit your final portfolio, you should feel confident about the work you’ve produced.

If you are a student artist interested in highlighting your artistic accomplishments as you apply to college, read these CollegeVine posts:


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.