Are You Making These Portfolio Mistakes?

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This post summarizes five portfolio mistakes that could be red flags for hiring managers—with advice about how to fix them.

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Anyone looking to get a job (or change jobs) as an instructional designer knows that a portfolio is a must. I’m not saying you can’t get a job without a portfolio (I have), but these days, ID candidates are usually expected to have one. A portfolio is your opportunity to show a potential employer what you can do. But if you’re making these five portfolio mistakes, it could be a missed opportunity.

Portfolio Mistake #1: Forgetting About Mobile Compatibility

Not making your portfolio mobile-friendly could cause your application to get skipped over by busy hiring managers who may be reviewing candidates’ submissions on a mobile device while they’re headed to a meeting, on their lunch break, or otherwise not at their computer. Some hiring managers may check for mobile compatibility as part of their screening process, especially if they value tech savviness or focus on microlearning.

Ideally, both your portfolio website and your eLearning samples should be responsive. Nobody wants to have to zoom and scroll to read your website on their phone like it’s 2005.

Portfolio Mistake #2: Not Proofreading Thoroughly

Hiring managers like attention to detail. They want to know that when you turn in work, they won’t have to worry about the quality of that work. If your portfolio is riddled with errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling, chances are high that it will be passed over in favor of someone else’s that’s error-free.

It can be hard to catch our own mistakes. That’s why it’s critical to have other people review your portfolio, resume, and cover letter before sending them to a potential employer. If you don’t have anyone in your life who’ll do this for you—or if you want an L&D eye on your work—there are several FREE communities where you can ask for feedback. Here are a few of them:

Portfolio Mistake #3: Not Targeting Your Target Audience

As instructional designers, part of our job is understanding our target audience and designing an experience that’s tailored for their needs. A portfolio is no different.

If you want a job in corporate L&D, your portfolio should include projects that a businessperson can relate to. Those applying for higher education positions should include relevant projects for that audience. If you’re applying for work in K-12 schools, then by all means, highlight K-12 examples. But if you’re wanting to work as a corporate ID, and your portfolio only showcases K-12 projects, a hiring manager might wonder if you can translate your skills to adult learners.

Another part of tailoring your portfolio to your audience is understanding that hiring managers are busy people who aren’t going to review 20 project examples on one portfolio before making a hiring decision. Even just three examples are enough to give a potential employer an understanding of your skills. More than five is probably overkill. If you have a lot of samples and are having trouble narrowing down which ones to highlight, consider the type of work you enjoy most and want to do more of. That’s the kind of work to showcase in your portfolio.

Also keep in mind that busy hiring managers won’t want to read long blocks of texts or click five times before they get to your sample. You want to make it as easy as possible for that hiring manager to see how awesome you are and say yes to hiring you!

Portfolio Mistake #4: Focusing Too Much on the Tool

One mistake I’ve seen over and over is focusing solely on authoring and development tools, rather than providing context about the project. Unless you’re applying for an eLearning Developer role, you should focus as much (or more) on your instructional design decisions as you do the tools you used.

Describe the problem you helped the client solve and how you came to the solution. How did you analyze the learning needs? What did you learn about your target audience? Why did you select the delivery method you chose? What factors drove your decisions? How did the solution impact the organization once implemented? Answering those questions will highlight your instructional design skills, which is what employers really want to see.

Portfolio Mistake #5: Presenting Something That’s Not Yours

I saved the worst for last. Presenting something that isn’t yours is the worst portfolio mistake you can make. Here are four examples that fall into this category:

Group Projects

Showing off a project you completed with someone else is not bad in and of itself. It shows that you can work as part of a team. It becomes a mistake when either (a) you pass it off as something you did independently or (b) your entire portfolio consists solely of group projects, so a hiring manager isn’t sure what you can do on your own.

Rise Templates

Articulate Rise comes with some templated courses that are populated with placeholder content. It should go without being said that you should not present one of those pre-made courses as your own in a portfolio. However, I’ve heard of people doing just that, so I’m here to tell you . . . don’t. Just don’t. Could you use one of these templates as a place to start, if you make substantial changes and improvements? Maybe. But I don’t recommend it, unless you can do something truly innovative with the course.

Using Copyrighted Material

If you’re not currently working as an instructional designer, it can be challenging to come up with original content for a sample course. But that doesn’t mean you can take content from the internet all will-nilly. Even if you cite your sources, you could be guilty of copyright infringement. Here’s a post where you can learn more about copyright issues, and another one with advice about how to get material for your portfolio.

Taking “Inspiration” Too Far

When creating a portfolio, it’s helpful to look at other people’s portfolios for inspiration. But make sure that’s all it is. Recently some L&D leaders I respect expressed their disappointment and disbelief on social media about someone posting a portfolio that was nearly an exact copy of someone else’s. There’s just no excuse for that kind of theft. A portfolio isn’t a Bob Ross painting—you can’t just copy one you like. Your portfolio should be uniquely yours, and it should accurately and honestly showcase projects YOU did.


To recap, here are five common portfolio mistakes to avoid so you can wow potential employers and get the job:

  1. Forgetting about mobile compatibility
  2. Not proofreading thoroughly
  3. Not targeting your target audience
  4. Focusing too much on the tools
  5. Presenting something that’s not yours

What would you add to the list? What questions do you have about creating a portfolio? Let me know in the comments!

Upcoming Event

If you are an educator looking to transition to instructional design or another L&D field, register now for TLDC’s upcoming FREE event, “Transitioning to Learning and Development,” scheduled for August 29 through September 2. The schedule is still being developed, but this event promises to be pure gold for teachers entering L&D. And yours truly will be speaking!

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