Universities and portfolios of work

Updated: Jan 19, 2019

When applying for a creative writing course, or other creative course, many universities require a portfolio of work. Some will ask for previously written stories, poems, book chapters, essays, etc (which was the case with Goldsmiths, University of London). A portfolio for Royal Holloway consists of two topics, with a certain restrain in volume (for 2017, at least). In this post, I provide my portfolio (which helped me get a conditional offer from the uni), for anyone looking to apply, or maybe someone just looking to read.

(Some more tips on applications and portfolios at the bottom of the article)

Topic 1: A place where I grew up

I walk in silence over the renovated area of South Park. I scrutinise the new pavements and flower pots. The tiles form rectangles of grey, separated by yellow. Red bricks frame large pentagons, filled with flowers. A large fountain takes centre stage. A group of teenagers is perched like birds on the railings surrounding it. I pass by them and continue along the pavement.

My mind instinctively jumps to the time when the echo of communism could still be heard through the hexagon-shaped footpath that was in the place of today’s sea of colour. Though the entrance to the park used to carry little to no pigment, I’ve never associated it with negative feelings. In fact, I can see myself — one year old, blonder, shorter, pacifier in my mouth, gaiting in a manner suiting my age, stumbling like a student after a long night out. My brother is close by pushing my empty stroller as my mother watches over me.

Suddenly, a year older, I near a tall mountain. I am two, and I am racing my best friend to the top, as we grab onto flowers for support, just to later be surprised by a landslide. We reach the peak almost simultaneously. Drenched in sweat and breathing heavily, we gaze at the cheering crowd at the base of the mountain. Standing proud in our great achievement. Sixteen years into the future, I find myself at the base of the hill once more. Only this time, I climb it in three long strides and I can’t see anyone cheering — just random passers-by, who don’t even deign to give me a side glare. I ignore their ill manners and continue on my journey.

I enter an immense forest. I look down at the little hands of the four-year-old me. It’s autumn. I collect pine cones and seedpods. My mother takes a picture of me and my brother, who has to squat so we can be on the same level. The tree reaches the sky, it’s peak piercing through а cloud. My vision refocuses on a squirrel, a few branches down. It’s holding a nut, chewing quickly and hastily repositioning it ever so often. I look away. My brother is now on the other end of the forest. My heart fastens in worry that I’ll lose him among the trees. I start at him with determination. I run on a field of golden and flaming leaves. Just as I am getting closer, I trip over a branch and my face is buried in the mud. I start crying. I hear a loud thud next to me. I am lifted up. My face is wiped clean and I see my mother, holding a wet wipe, smiling reassuringly. As I look to the ground, I discover that I’m levitating. My astonishment is not long, for I realise I’m being held up by my brother, who puts me back down. He takes me by one hand, my mother by the other and we walk together towards the end of the forest.

The flashback ends as I take the first step onto the asphalt. The patch of tall trees now behind me. Its ten meter diameter no longer disguised by my imagination, I become aware of how inconsequential my feelings during that day were.

Along the main lane, hidden behind a sea of shrubs, flows The Pearl River. The beer bottles and overgrown bushes disappear to be replaced by a pair of bikes lying on the ground and my best friend and I talking about Percy Jackson. On the opposite bank of the river, we see a Manticore. We quickly devise a plan. My best friend is to create a diversion by throwing rocks at it, while I set up my bow and arrow. I do so as quickly as I can and just as the Manticore lunges at us, it is struck by my lethal shot. I laugh at my childish foolishness, but find immense joy in my memories. My smile fades, however, with the realisation that I am surrounded by the litter left behind by intoxicated youth. I hurriedly find my way back to the main lane.

As I struggle to climb the steep hill towards the end of the park, I compare my childhood perceptions to the present day ones. Although everything seems so different, I am yet again rejoiced at my stroll through South Park. Eighteen years have gone by, my physical and mental state greatly changed, mostly for the better. And as I reach the top I come to a few conclusions. One — that I will probably forever struggle with climbing this hill. Two — that I must continue to find the joyfulness of childhood. And finally, that South Park will always be one of the first associations I have with growing up.

Topic 2: (Write a story beginning with the following sentence)

At night, before I go to sleep, I leave my phone on the bedside table. Tonight is no different. Hence, I am very surprised that upon waking up after a dreamless night, my phone is missing. I get up with the intention of asking my parents if they have displaced it. One search of every corner of the apartment later I conclude that my parents and phone are nowhere to be found.

Anxious and confused, I walk out of the apartment and into the elevator, where I see my buddy Jake. I sigh in relief.

“Oh, Jake, it’s so nice to see a familiar face,” I spit out as the elevator starts moving.

He does not answer. Instead, he continues to stare into nothingness. I wave my hand in front of his face. He doesn’t even blink.

“Jaaaake,” I tap him on the shoulder.

There is no reaction. I feel the vein on my forehead pulsing. I shake him vigorously. I yell in his ear. The whole elevator starts shaking, as if there is an earthquake. I stand in front of him in a challenging manner. He makes no sign of acknowledgement. I roll my sleeve up slowly and slap him across the face. He does not respond. His head doesn’t turn. His face doesn’t go red. As I examine my hand, which has also been spared in the collision, I hear a “ping” and turn around.

The elevator door opens and I jump in surprise at the sight it reveals. My back instinctively finds the closest wall and tries to merge with it unsuccessfully. The elevator is looking over an enormous flaming pit. I see small volcanoes erupting in the distance. I hear people scream. The air gets hotter and hotter with every second and I find it hard to breathe. I am so overwhelmed by shock that I almost miss Jake walking past me and into the pit. I yell after him. But my screams are in vain, since the elevator door closes.

I travel in heavy silence, my heart beating quickly in my ears, and recap the peculiar events that have just unraveled. The sudden realisation that I am dreaming sends a wave of relief, which relaxes my body. My previous apprehension is replaced by the thrill of all the possibilities of lucid dreaming.

I imagine the elevator stopping at the Empire State Building. It does so instantly. I step out. It’s awfully quiet. There are no tourists and it’s completely windless. I scale the security fence with ease and look down at the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. I hesitate a few seconds before letting go of the railing and free fall down the side of the building. I try to scream — but I choke as air fills my lungs. I am just a few meters from the street. I hit the road at full speed, sinking two meters down, before bouncing up. I continue to bounce along 5th Avenue. I do backflips and air splits. I observe the New York City landscape, fold and stretch like an accordion. Out of the blue, the road breaks under my feet, chunks of asphalt fly by me as I fall into nothingness.

I hit the ground with a loud thud. I look around, but see nothing in particular. I am in a cubical room, with walls of reflective black surface. A little compartment opens at the far end of the room. I hear faint scratches as if someone is scraping the glass with a needle. From the pitch dark hole something glitters. A small metallic object, reveals itself. It has long spider-like legs, its body is an upside down bolt, screwed to a pentagonal antiprism, the two bases of which host pentagonal pyramids. In other words — it is a metallic virus-like spider. A few centimetres after the first one, a second follows, and then a third. I realise it is a whole group, marching in sync, lining up in a massive formation. When the last spider joins the horde, the room goes silent.

I stare at the creatures, my eyes trying to leave their orbits, heart pumping loudly. I dare not move, for I could cause their annoyance. I close my eyes and concentrate on waking up.

“I need to wake up,” I start repeating to myself.

The scratching resumes and my eyes fling open. The spiders close in on me. I start backing up.

“Wake up! Wake up!” I scream in desperation, as the creatures grow nearer.

My back hits the wall. I try to imagine waking up in my bed. I focus on becoming aware of my body. The first wave of spiders start climbing up my legs. I choke in an attempt to let out a cry for help. I yelp as the spiders cover the whole of my lower body, their sharp legs digging into my skin. I close my eyes as the first one touches my face.

My screams wake me up.


Thank you for reading through (or skipping through). To any future applicants, I can’t stress this enough: check your deadlines! For Goldsmiths my deadline was 14 days after receiving an email, containing details for submission, content, formatting, etc. For Royal Holloway there were two dates, depending on when you sent your application and by the time I actually noticed my deadline I had about one weekend to prepare the portfolio. So, unless you want to spend two-three days in front of the computer constantly writing, editing and re-editing — make sure you check and remember your deadline as soon as you get an email from your uni. Same goes for any course. It’s good to keep track of all your preparations in a notebook, calendar or whatever you prefer.

Creative courses are always a bit tricky, because aside from possible interviews, you usually also have portfolios and they may vary from uni to uni, so keeping track with a to-do list is a good idea. You can make it more specific and add the topics you want to write, the stories you want to attach, any additional edits you have to do, etc. And, of course, writing everything down in order of priority is very useful as well. That way it will be easier not to get caught up in something you WANT to do and neglect something you HAVE TO do.

Good luck to all!

If you have already gone through the process and have any additional tips and tricks write a response, keep the conversation going, help a student out.

Applying to university can be quite stressful, so I will be sharing some more useful information as someone who’s already gone through it. And JUST gone through it, so everything is fresh out of, well, UCAS.

First posted June 25, 2017 on Medium.com

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© Gery Galabova.