My daughter applied to a number of art schools and schools with art programs several years ago. I thought I would share what we learned from the process since there are many repetitive posts on what should be in a portfolio. This should provide you with a big edge over others that don't read this:
First, do NOT do all or even do mostly 3d work. Do NOT do all or even mostly 3d work. Did I say that enough times? If you were applying to graduate school in animation, having a 3d porfolio would be appropriate. However, for undergraduate design and art programs, it isn't appropriate or even desireable!
Schools will tell you what they want for their portfolio on the schools' web sites. FOLLOW THEIR DIRECTIONS TO THE LETTER!
For the most part, they want observational drawings. Thus, you should have drawings of objects, buildings, people and animals. Drawing forest scenes and flowers is good too. DON'T just take pictures and copy them over! You want to draw from observation.Also, if a school wants 10-15 pieces, only send your your best 10-15 pieces.
Secondly, you want diversity in your portfolio. This has two meanings. You should draw a variety of objects such as people, animals, rooms, buildings etc. Secondly, you should use a variety of mediums such as pencil, pen, acryilac etc. Don't just focus on one medium..
Thirdly, and this is the clincher, attend national porfolio day in your area with your potential portfolio in both your junior year and senior year before you submit your portfolio. In fact, if you have a sufficient number of good drawings, I might even suggest going to porfolio day while a sophomore year in order to get feedback.
You need to really listen to what is said about your portfolio by the reviewers because each school looks for some slightly different stuff.
For example, Syracuse wanted lots of color pieces. CMU School of Design, wanted a few pieces that show motion such as four pictures of a hand doing different phases of a magic trick or flipping a coin.
RIT wanted strong drawing wth a diversified set of subjects. You can learn what each school wants by going to portfolio day. However, it is CRUCIAL that you read over the school's website, which discusses what should be in the portfolio for that school.
You would be amazed at home many kids didn't follow the directions given on the web site. We were at CMU's interview and portfolio review. Even though CMU clearly requested drawings from observations with some diversification, at least half the kids did otherwise. One kid used only photographs. One gal only showed drawings of faces. Some kids only used one medium. At least one girl showed great drawings,but they were clearly copies of printed work such as ads, famous pieces etc.
Bottom line: Follow the instructions on their web site.
Finally, make sure that your portfolio pieces are professionally arranged and photographed. Don't just send in paper. Put copies of the pieces in a nice folder with a cover letter describing each peace. Number your pieces so that the reviewer can tell what description goes with what piece.
Have your pieces professionally photographed. There are photographers who specialize in portfolio pictures.
Bottom line:Be professional about everything you do and about everything you send the school.