I am now (rather scarily) heading into my third and final year of studying Graphic Design at Norwich University of the Arts. Time has flown by and to think that this time next year I will be looking for my first full-time job is excitingly petrifying.
Thinking about it though reminded me of this time 3 years ago when I was applying for this very university course I am about to complete. I remember it being a daunting and, at some times, confusing process so I thought I would use my experiences to help any of you out there going through it right now (or those of you that are just curious). It is important to note however that this is just what I have taken from my personal experience and there are other routes you can take to get into university instead of just A-levels, such as an art foundation.
- Finding the right university for you. Just like any other university course, applying for a graphic design (GD) course all begins with a UCAS application. The only difference with other courses however is that there isn’t as wide of a selection of universities that offer it as a course. For this reason alone it means its incredibly important to do lots of research into the universities that do offer it through their websites, student platforms and visiting them on open days. Most GD courses will be different in one way or another, some also include lots of illustration, some are very technology-driven, some are more focused on the academic aspect behind design and some just offer a lot more freedom than others. You won’t know which is right for you until you do some research
- What grades do I need? Just like the courses differ, the grades also vary between universities. When I was applying 4/5 of the universities I applied for wanted ABB and 1/5 wanted BBB. Again it’s just a case of looking through UCAS at expected grades and picking one that is motivational yet achievable, don’t underestimate yourself but also don’t put too much pressure on your shoulders. A majority of universities ask for some sort of artistic subject as 1/3 of your A-levels but DON’T PANIC if this isn’t achievable for you. I got into NUA with A-levels in maths, business studies and history and used my external design experience (which I will go into more detail in the portfolio section) to show my talent and passion in graphic design.
- Why do I need a portfolio? A majority of GD courses are all coursework based, which means you sit no exams instead you just hand in physical and digital work that you have completed throughout the year. This is why universities ask you to show a portfolio when applying for the course, so they can see you have a talent and a good understanding of what you must do to produce artistic outcomes to suit a brief.
- What do universities want to see in your portfolio? Again this differs from university to university. Some have a specific checklist of what they want include and some leave it completely up to you. A majority of universities want to see any work that you have completed in you artistic based A-level so bring in your workbooks as well as any final pieces, if your work is too big to bring in then photos work just as well. They also want to see however that you have a much deeper interest in Graphic Design so also show any external projects you have done that include things like branding, advertising, packaging, editorial layouts and even photography. They don’t just like to see the final outcomes but also your thinking processes and sketches to show how you ended up where you did.
- What can I put into my portfolio if I don’t have artwork from school? As I previously mentioned I did not get an A-level in an artistic based subject but I still got offers from 4/5 of the universities I applied for (NUA, Brighton, Reading and Loughborough). I filled my portfolio up with external projects and here are some of my top suggestions of things you can do…
IDEA 1 – Try and get some work experience at a design agency local to you. Not all agencies take on younger students but there is no harm in sending out an email to ask. I completed 2 weeks at ToThePoint and left with enough design work to fill a whole portfolio as well as a better understanding of what life as a graphic designer is really like.
IDEA 2 – Get involved in any design opportunities that you come across at school. Whether that’s designing the cover/layout of your yearbook, invitations/posters for your school prom, helping out with any publications like a newsletter or even offering to do a display board for one of your teachers it all helps!
IDEA 3 – Look online and on social media for free briefs that are posted. Websites such as Briefbox and I Am Creative offer free briefs from, in some cases real, clients that you can complete for your portfolio and even enter them in competitions. You can even get work just from scrolling on Instagram where accounts such as WeLoveWebDesign post competition briefs that if you enter could be shared on their page to thousands of followers (but even if you don’t its still a great way of filling up your portfolio)
IDEA 4 – Make up your own brief. Look around your room and pick the first brand you see (in my case its currently PG Tips). Come up with some concepts for a new logo and packaging then create an adverting campaign to sell your new products and voila you have a whole project to add to your portfolio.
- How do I get an interview? Once you’ve sent off your UCAS application a majority of universities also require you to attend an interview. Some promise interviews to anyone that applies whereas others will first ask you to submit a digital portfolio that they will then choose a few people from to offer interviews to. Just sit tight and wait for all those interview offers to come flooding in.
- What should I bring to my interview? Obviously you will need to bring the amazing portfolio you just finished putting together. Some universities also require you to bring some sort of written work as well. Different universities require different things such as ID and references but each one will send you a detailed email of what you need to bring so don’t worry!
- What kind of questions should I expect? It is important to note that these interviews aren’t there to scare you they are there so the universities can see you have a real passion for graphic design. They will mostly just ask you about the work in your portfolio as well as your inspirations behind each piece. They will want to know why you want to attend their university specifically and maybe even what inspired you to do graphic design in the first place. Some universities will throw some curve ball questions at you but don’t panic they don’t want a perfect answer they just want to get a better idea of your personality.
- What will happen in the interview? As I’ve said many times, every university is different. To give you a comparison I will quickly talk you though 3 of my interviews. BRIGHTON: I arrived and was put in a room with a group where we all layout our portfolios, we were then taken on a tour whilst the tutors looked through our work, we then had 10-15min individual with the tutor plus a first year student where we talked through my work. NUA: I arrived and played out my portfolio in a room with 6 other students, we then sat outside in a group with some first/second year students and were then called into the room individually to go through our work. LOUGHBOROUGH: I was given a tour of the university in a large group and then we all sat and waited in a room till I was called in individually for a meeting with a tutor and a student to go through my work. As you can see all universities are different and some may have even changed since I was there but none of them are any reason to panic at all.
- How long do the interviews last? For a majority of my interviews I would say I was there for an hour but some were longer and some much shorter so my advice would be to book an open return ticket. Whilst you’re in the city/town that the university is in you might want to stick around and do some shopping or go for a meal or just generally get a feel for the place you could potentially be spending 3 years in.
That’s about all I can remember about the application process. I will however just add in that in comparison to a lot of other courses (and due to the interviews being quite late in the year) most offers for graphic design courses come in quite late so don’t be disheartened if all of your friends are getting offers and you are still waiting to hear back!
If you have any other questions leave them below and I will be happy to answer them.
Go and grab another cuppa on me, Em x