My colleague and I visited with principles of a couple of very successful design firms in the Chicago area recently (not going to name them here, but if you want to know, ask me off list). Again they reaffirmed what we have heard many times, and perhaps even more so in these lean days. What they are looking for in a portfolio is about six to eight pieces of truly outstanding work, each piece of which is polished and ideally suited to its purpose. No explanations should be necessary (though out of politeness, some explanatory text or remarks should be discreetly available). Polish the craft, but be mindful that it is only the base-level requirement. Résumé must be typographically impeccable but not showy. Display well-founded confidence. No fear of drawing (no drawing-class projects, please; just the ability to communicate an idea via the drawn line. Work that looks like student work is the kiss of death. (Gotta love the catch-22-ness of this, if you are a student. That is all you have been doing for the last four years) OK, so quit weeping and weed out all the projects that look the same as all your fellow students. Retool or rework the few that stand apart. Don’t cling to a half-good idea, only the truly good ones.
OK, so that is the ideal. We all know few live up to that coming out of the gate. But it is not bad to keep those ideals in mind. Your portfolio will always be a work in progress. And I have it on good authority that most of those very same designers who tout such high standards in hiring would be ashamed to show you their own first portfolios. So believe in yourself and your ability to learn, grow and adapt.