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First Year Writing Portfolio

Ana R., Writing Center tutor & FYW instructor

Please keep in mind that these are only general guidelines; always defer to your professor's specifications for a given assignment. If you have any questions about the content represented here, please contact the Writing Centers so that we can address them for you.


Portfolios are typically used by artists who want to showcase the work they did over a period of time in one easy-to-review packet. A photographer’s portfolio, for example, may contain pictures that he/she took throughout the year to show the progress that the photographer made in his/her technique or to showcase the best pictures he/she took that year. Many first-year writing programs throughout the nation have adopted the final portfolio as a way to showcase the progress or best works of a writer during the class. The final portfolio often takes the place of a final exam, with a large percentage of the final grade derived from the portfolio. As such, you must pay special attention to your first-year writing portfolio so that your final grade reflects your hard work throughout the quarter.

Please remember that your instructor may have specific portfolio requirements that do not match the information included in this section. If there is a conflict between the information in this section and what your instructor requires, always follow your instructor’s instructions. If you have any doubts about what your specific portfolio requires, I recommend that you check with your instructor.

Types of Portfolios

There are two main types of portfolios: the best works portfolio and the process portfolio.

The Best Works Portfolio

The Best Works Portfolio contains the revised and polished essays that you feel represent your best work in the class (hence, the name). Although you may include initial drafts or revisions of the essays, you should only include the essays that you feel were successful. Think of the photographer’s portfolio. If a photographer was applying for a job at the New York Times, he/she would only include his/her best photographs in the portfolio in order to impress his/her prospective employee.

The Process Portfolio

The Process Portfolio contains essays that demonstrate your process and progress in class. In a Process Portfolio, you may include texts that are unfinished or that were done incorrectly to show what you learned from the exercise. For example, if you want to show how you learned to use concrete descriptions to communicate effectively, you may include a text in which your descriptions were vague and general (the opposite of concrete). Then you would also include a text in which you used concrete descriptions successfully. In the reflection part of the portfolio (which I will describe in detail in the “Typical Components” section of this page) you would explain how you learned to use concrete descriptions.

Typical Components

Most first-year writing portfolios contain a few basic components. However, your instructor may have specific components or requirements that differ from the information on this page. As I mentioned earlier, you should always check with your instructor for any specific directions regarding your portfolio.

The Cover Letter

The cover letter introduces your portfolio and is usually the first part of the portfolio that your audience sees. In the cover letter, you should briefly describe the portfolio (whether it is a best works portfolio or a process portfolio) and its components. You should also mention any specific components you would like to highlight. For example, if you are really proud of a specific essay, you may want to tell your reader what makes this piece special to you. Finally, you may also want to describe any specific considerations that you want your reader to keep in mind as he/she reviews your portfolio. For example, if your portfolio has a special theme or visual design (this is particularly important with electronic portfolios), you may want to describe it to your reader in your cover letter.

The Revised Texts

Most portfolios will require a number of revised texts. These texts may be essays, letters, proposals, narratives, etc. that have gone through multiple drafts. Your instructor may also ask you to include the rough drafts, notes, and outlines of the texts to show your writing process. You should remember that your instructor will look for thorough revision, not simply for superficial editing and proofreading. You must not only look at the comments your instructor made on your draft, but also read over your draft and try to think of ways that you could make it better. It is always helpful to have another pair of eyes look over a draft that you are revising. I suggest you make an appointment with a Writing Center tutor at any point during your revision process to get more input on your draft and suggestions for revision.

The Reflection

The reflection is perhaps the most important component of the portfolio. The reflective component of the portfolio may take many forms. Some instructors require a formal reflective essay while others require a more informal reflective letter. Sometimes instructors require many short reflections, each attached to each text included in the portfolio. Whatever format your reflection takes, it will most likely contain the same type of information.

What do I mean by reflection? Reflection takes place in many aspects of our lives. We reflect when we think about and analyze our actions in order to draw larger conclusions from them. For example, you may reflect about your actions at a family gathering to draw conclusions about how your relationship with your parents is changing now that you are a college student. When you reflect about your writing or your writing class, you think about what you did in class to understand how those actions affected you as a writer. What specific learning goals did you accomplish? What did you learn? What do you now understand about writing and the writing process that you did not understand before this class? As you answer these questions, it is important that you use evidence from your portfolio to support your answers. For example, if you are claiming that you learned about the importance of revision in writing, you should describe a specific writing assignment for which revision played a key role. If you are claiming that you learned how to avoid run-on sentences, point to a specific sentence or paragraph that demonstrates what you learned. By including specific evidence, you show your reader that you have thought deeply about your process and your progress as a writer.

A Word about e-Portfolios

Many first-year writing classes are now requiring electronic portfolios. Electronic portfolios work the same way as print portfolios. However, they often also incorporate images and color. As you design your electronic portfolio, think of how you want your audience to respond to it. Select images and colors that are relevant to your work and that portray the message you desire. For example, if you want your portfolio to look professional, choose images and colors that convey professionalism. Your instructor may require you to use a specific platform (software) to create your portfolio or give you some suggestions and let you choose a platform for yourself. In either case, think about how the “look” of the platform will affect the message you are trying to convey. Finally, pick a platform that you are comfortable using and that you can access easily. If you cannot access the platform from your home and/or school computer(s), you may want to reconsider your choice. To view sample student e-portfolios and to read about possible portfolio platforms, visit this link.

As always, check with your instructor for portfolio requirements.


“Essay Examinations and Portfolios.” The St. Martin’s Handbook. Ed. Andrea Lunsford. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 903-919. Print.

Reynolds, Nedra and Rich Rice. Portfolio Keeping. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.

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