(Re)Using Homework Assignments to Build a Professional Portfolio

By Al Dickenson
January 18, 2023

College students generally have no shortage of homework assignments. With heavy course loads, four or more years of class-taking, and hopes for jump-starting your career, there will be plenty of take-home assignments to be done. Many students might consider discarding these past pieces of work, but it may be more prudent to wait and see what opportunities arise. There may be alternate uses for those papers you sweated over for hours.

No matter what sort of career you move into, employers want relevance. While relevance may be the number one item, workability is equally important. Having project samples from your college years is a super valuable asset. For those in more soft skills-based industries, like marketing, writing, psychology, and perhaps some other healthcare-related or adjacent fields like fitness and data management, building a portfolio of previous work can be an essential part of your career journey. Even for those focused on the hard skills, maybe planning on going into zoology or teaching, having some material you can pull out of your hat at a moment's notice to show prospective employers your thought process and analytical capabilities never hurts.

There are numerous ways you can use your hard work in the classroom to benefit yourself beyond the confines of college life.

Finding a Publisher

If you have written any papers, whether rigorous academic works or personal reflection pieces, and plan on entering graduate school or hope to work in industries like publishing, journalism, or marketing, try to find places to publish your work. You already did the research and developed your material. Chances are, no one outside of that classroom would ever see that writing sample otherwise. If you feel particularly proud of it, share it with the world. Your college newspaper may publish it. Other publications could make use of your diligence and hard work.

The first time I published an article outside my high school or college publications, it was a reused homework assignment. The professor wrote at the bottom of the page that I should find a local paper to publish the piece. She felt it was a well-written and well-argued opinion piece about local politics. The paper accepted the article on my first pitch, with a few minor tweaks. I have never looked back, searching for all sorts of places to publish a variety of my college material. Multiple other newspapers, magazines, and outlets have picked up some of my work, including Sage Scholars and an academic journal whose editors thought a history paper of mine was noteworthy. Due to one professor's encouragement, I will be a published author in an academic anthology next year, for which I will be forever grateful. Take it from me: You never know where this road will lead you.

Widen the Scope

To dispel a common myth, portfolios are not only for humanities and professional studies majors. I have seen countless jobs for people in the hard sciences and technical fields where they want demonstrable skills like analytical thinking and creative problem-solving. The ability to put out a thoughtful piece on a scope of issues, be it literary or political, or anywhere in between, can be incredibly valuable-especially if a third party publishes it. As someone who has worked in the human resources and recruiting fields, it shows dedication and tenacity in your work, particularly if it leaves your comfort zone. Liberal Arts majors, take note: step outside your comfort zone and take some risks in the sciences and technology industries.

Aside from building your public or personal portfolio, there are other uses for your old homework assignments. You may want to hold on to comments professors or other readers and viewers made, or you may want to reminisce about a particular project of which you are proud. Holding on to your work in digital or physical format may lead you to advantages later on.

Don'ts of Reusing Material

There are a few things to watch out for when reusing class material. Taking an item of yours directly from a class project and searching for an outlet to showcase it to the world is unlikely to get you into trouble. Professors tend not to like when students lift assignments from one class to another. While sitting in your professional communications course, you may remember the awesome proposal you created for last year's entrepreneurial business class and how it would be a good fit for pro com. But the communications course will have different objectives and processes, even if the surface of the assignment is the same. If a professor finds you reused content, there could be penalties, ranging from assignment failure to being removed from class. It never hurts to ask your professor about the possibility of reusing or partially reusing material but tread lightly in this uncharted territory.

Likewise, taking pieces and attempting to publish them in multiple locations can cause headaches regarding search engine optimization and other things. It never looks good for individuals to "double-dip." If you end up making a duplicate article in two (or more) locations, it could result in neither of them wanting to work with you again.

That said, there's no harm in using work with the same basic information and reusing some of that knowledge while taking different approaches to the main themes or content for different publishers. Sometimes it is necessary to use similar content to make a broader point, but be sure that the pieces you are reusing are not too similar to avoid any conflicts mentioned above.

I highly recommend reusing homework assignments and projects from high school and college to see if a portfolio can be built or skillsets showcased. As other Sage Scholars authors have mentioned, the work you do in college can launch your publishing career, even if you have no intention of pursuing a life of writing. You put hours of hard work, plus blood, sweat, and tears, into your projects and papers. There is no need to let those go to waste.

Al Dickenson

Al Dickenson graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran College with bachelor’s degrees in history, communication, and English. He currently serves as an editor for an international equine practitioners’ magazine in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, his hometown, where he lives with his wife. He also works as a freelance journalist, photographer, archivist, and historian, and he enjoys hiking and reading, particularly about history.
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