Breaking into copywriting can be hard: It seems like you need experience to get a job, and you need a job to get experience. Well, it turns out this isn’t quite the case, and one of the ways that people have found to get around this seeming Catch-22 is portfolio school. But, like any school, it can be expensive and time-consuming. So let’s dive deeper, and find out if portfolio school is really a necessity—or if there are alternatives.
Today’s question is actually inspired by a lot of posts I’ve been seeing on LinkedIn forums. (And if you haven’t yet joined the LinkedIn group for new and aspiring copywriters, now’s the time.) Over and over, people have asked if they need to go to portfolio school to get a job as a copywriter. And it seems like a smart track to take—except that there’s an even smarter one.
First, let’s define what a “portfolio school” actually is. A portfolio school, or an ad school, is a school that offers courses or programs designed to help you build and improve your portfolio. They’ll pair you up with a designer and teach you how to concept, kill your bad ideas and create ads. Sounds good, huh?
Well, there are three big downfalls to portfolio school.
First, of course, there’s the cost. Especially if you’ve just gotten out of college and you’re eager to get a great job (and start paying off that student loan), portfolio school is just going to take another chunk out of your savings—or require another loan. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in investing in yourself, but you need to know your options to make sure you’re not paying more than you need to for the same experience.
The second downfall to portfolio schools is time. After all, the oneyear—or, more often, two years—you spend in portfolio school could be spent building your portfolio with paying clients. When you enroll in portfolio school, it’s like enrolling in college again: You learn on their schedule and by their rules.
And the third downfall to portfolio school is that there are no guarantees. Of course, there are no guarantees with college either…but isn’t that part of why so many people are upset to find themselves jobless graduates? What I mean is that you may put all of your money into this course of study, but never earn it back.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some very important positive elements about portfolio schools, too.
First, you need to get training in order to become a copywriter. The right portfolio schools will teach you the fundamentals of copywriting and teach you how to incorporate it into your work.
Second, you need to practice to get better. Portfolio schools will kick-off project after project, just like in an agency or in-house agency, and you’ll get your practice in spades.
Third, you’ll get connections. You’ll meet other copywriters and designers. And, as long as the courses are taught by truly talented professionals (not professionals who are looking to supplement their incomes), you’ll meet seasoned veterans, too.
Great, right? Sure—except that you can get all three of those on your own, without the time, cost and risk of enrolling in portfolio school.
You need to get training. This is non-negotiable, but you get that. Well, with the advent of this amazing internet, you no longer have to enroll in school in order to get it. You can find courses online that will teach you what you need to know (including, of course, our very own Comprehensive Copywriting Academy). Just make sure that the course will teach you copywriting fundamentals and tactics, as well as how to work with a designer, how to present your work, how to navigate the project process, how to build your portfolio and how to get work.
Practice. Well, the only way to get practice is by digging right in. You want practice writing ads? Start writing ads! Take the training from whatever course you choose and then create some ads. Create ads for brands that you would like to work for—keep them in the brand voice and make sure you get the right message across. These are called “spec ads”—they’re ads that you’ve made up to show potential employers what you can do. (Just make sure to label any spec ads as such.)
And connections. Guess what? All of the connections you need aren’t housed within a portfolio school. They’re out there in your city, working in in-house agencies, ad agencies, marketing agencies or working at home on their own. And you can find them pretty easily: Get involved in industry groups in your city. Attend industry events. And, if you want to get to know designers (oh, just, hypothetically, so you could create some spec ads with them) find some on LinkedIn, look at their online portfolios and connect up with them. (If they don’t have their online portfolios listed on their profiles, they’re not at a professional level yet and you don’t want to work with them anyway.)
So the final verdict. If you have the time and money, sure, going to portfolio school is a very solid option for getting your training and building your book. (As long as you choose a good school! If you go this route, do your homework.) But do you need to go to portfolio school? No.
If you’re ready to dig in, start learning right now and start building your book with ads (both spec and real), then you have plenty of options and opportunities right in front of you. Your top objectives are to become the best trained professional copywriter that you can and to build a great portfolio. And you don’t need a brick-and-mortar school to do it.
Your turn! How do you feel about portfolio schools? Let us know in the comments below!
Want to get into copywriting? Here’s more info:
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Copywriting Q&A: The Best Backgrounds for Getting Into Copywriting
Copywriting Q&A: So, How Much Do Copywriters Make?
Copywriting Q&A: How Soon Can You Make Money?
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Last Updated on March 1, 2016 by Nicki Krawczyk