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Things to Focus on in the Final Semester of College

As the spring semester begins, for many aspiring illustrators this will be their final set of classes before graduating. Having taught senior illustration majors for eleven years, I thought it might be useful to share my advice for those embarking on their last semester:

Don’t worry about style. Worry about voice.

“Style” is something that’s going to get thrown at you a lot in your final semester as you begin to cobble together a portfolio. Yes, your style should be cohesive and marketable, but it’s not the end of the world if it isn’t. It will get there eventually if you keep at it. Instead, what I’d suggest focusing on is voice. Look inward and think about what it is you have to say about the world and your life. Developing a voice in your senior year will take you much further in the long run than developing a style. Once you know who you are and what you have to say, how you say it will happen naturally.

Forget the assignments

Class assignments are great. However, if they feel like class assignments when placed in your portfolio, they don’t really do you any good. Instead, you need to focus on your own work. Go into your sketchbooks. Explore concepts and ideas that matter to you. And bring that stuff into your assignments. If your assignments still feel too much like class work, supplement your portfolio with your own self-initiated projects. This will serve you far better.

Experiment often

Now is the time to make mistakes—and breakthroughs. When you’re working on professional jobs it’s hard to take risks since there may not be the time or the client’s confidence to do so. Your final semester of college, though, is the perfect place to do that. If your work looks the same at the beginning of the semester as it does at the end, you’re doing something wrong. Don’t play it safe. Experiment as much as you possibly can.

Get to know your teachers

Your teachers can oftentimes be the people who get you your first gig or recommend you for things later down the road like day jobs, fellowships, or gallery shows. Get to know them. Speak up in class. Don’t be one of those forgettable students in the back that no one remembers two years later. Trust me, you’d be surprised how getting in with your professors can help your career.

Try to get work now

Don’t wait until after you graduate to start sending out promo cards. Do it now. The longer you wait for your work to be “ready”, the longer you’ll continue to wait. You might even wait so long that you blink and it’s ten years later and you’ve never done a professional gig. So try to get work while you’re still in school. If you do get a gig, then your teachers can even help you with it. It’s far less stressful to have a professor personally guide you through the process the first time than it is to do it all on your own. Another bonus is that all those things your teachers are talking about become much more relevant when you’re actually going through the experiences in real life. It will actually make your senior experience more educational.

Don’t go to grad school immediately afterward

Grad school is wonderful and there are certainly some great MFA programs in illustration out there. However, I’d recommend not going to grad school immediately after graduating. You need to be out there in the real world trying to do this thing for a year or two first. That’s the only way to know if you actually like it and want to continue on with your education. If you do decide to continue, your professional experience will provide you with a clearer focus for your MFA pursuit. So put those grad school dreams on the back burner and, instead, focus on what your life might look like in the next year or two if you actually attempted this thing.

Look for a day job

Finding a day job is hard. Really hard. Make your chances a little better by beating the post-graduation rush and look for one now. Get your resume together, cozy up to your teachers for some good references, and hit the streets (both real and virtual). If you can line up something before you graduate, you will be beating 95% of your fellow students. It’s a strong leg up and will help your transition from college to “real life” far less vomit-inducing.

Final thoughts

Second semester senior year is awesome. However, many students fall prey to senioritis and try to coast in their final semester. Don’t be that student. If you truly want to do illustration as a career, your final semester may, in fact, be your most important one. Now is the time to work your butt off, grow tremendously, and prove to the world why you deserve this. These suggestions should help you get the most out of your last four months of college.

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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