A book needs to show strategic thinking, an appreciation of how agencies make money, Mac skills, a killer campaign for a boring brand and a sense of humour. And no urinals, Jim Davis says.

Putting a student book together is like preparing a meal for a bunch of jaded food critics. It can contain all the finest ingredients, be cooked to perfection and presented with Parisian panache, but still it won't be to everybody's taste.

Alice Taylor, who heads the post-graduate advertising students at Falmouth College of Arts in Cornwall, agrees. "Getting the balance right is very hard," she says. "Different creative directors like different things."

Perhaps the first lesson of all is to accept that you can't please all of the people all of the time. But there are steps you can take to create a book that's not only more palatable, but reflects your achievements to date and, more importantly, hints at your potential. And once these basics are in place, you can start adapting your book to specific agencies, teams or creative directors.

If a particular creative director is passionate about copy, make sure you include some strong examples in your portfolio. Find out what accounts an agency has and work up an ad for one of them before you go to see them. You may be able to adapt one that's already in your book, but at least it shows you're informed and interested in that agency. A little flattery, even if it's insincere, never goes amiss.

"When I ask students where they'd like to work and they answer 'Mother' or 'BBH', I'm tempted to say, 'well, go and work there then'," Dave Waters, the creative director of DFGW, says. "I'm quite happy for them to lie, but I expect them to at least have the common sense to answer 'DFGW'."

There are no set rules about how many pieces of work to include, but generally it's best to keep things short and sweet. Taylor recommends eight or so campaigns of around three executions each. The emphasis, she continues, should be on press and poster work, with two concise TV campaigns at most. Andrew Cracknell, the former executive creative director of Bates Worldwide, is less prescriptive. "If you have three brilliant ads, put them in," he says. "Five might be equally valid. I'd suggest less rather than more." And echoing Taylor's sentiments: "It's clear from meetings of the IPA's creative director's forum that there's a huge difference in opinion as to what the actual job entails, and therefore what students should include in a book."

Cracknell's quite adamant about what he doesn't want though - ambient ads. "I really don't need to see another urinal or paving stone in a book," he says. "That's not how an agency makes money. Students should understand that."

Kit Dayaram, a former Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College student, who landed a job at M&C Saatchi last year and a Campaign Press silver this year, maintains that a compelling portfolio needs a strong rhythm.

"It's almost like reading a novel," he says. "You need an intro that really grabs you and then you've got to maintain a flow. You need to vary the pace and mix fun stuff with serious stuff. I was really hard on myself. I kept asking myself, if I were a senior creative could I be arsed to read the thing all the way through?"

He reckons it's worth including one radio script, as often it's the junior teams who end up working on radio campaigns, and perhaps a slightly left-field piece that helps people remember you. Dayaram included a self-briefed campaign selling Barbie dolls to boys.

Chris O'Shea, the creative director of Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB, also recommends a touch of the unexpected. "I'm not averse to seeing a book jacket or a great piece of design in there," he says. "Even a revamp of the Eiffel Tower. You rarely see that sort of thing anymore, the boundaries have become too narrow."

O'Shea bemoans a lack of context in many of the books that "come in remorselessly" to his agency. Often, he says, it's not clear whether the executions are small ads, press ads or posters, "They all seem to be a strange size that bears no relation to the real world."

That students should demonstrate a grasp of the day-to-day realities of advertising in their books is something that everyone can agree on.

"Sixty-second commercials for 'shatterproof lollipops', 'belly button fluff removers', or whatever, don't do teams any favours," Dave Dye, the creative director of Campbell Doyle Dye, says.

Examples of advertising for real, everyday brands tend to score more points than fictitious ones, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to improve on the VW campaign. Choosing a brand that doesn't market itself, or something that's close to your heart, say your favourite brand of mountain bike or magazine, is a means of achieving that critical point of difference.

It's worth remembering too that a portfolio isn't a precious artefact but an organic sales tool. When you show your work to a creative team, ask them questions about how the work could be improved. If they're vague, press them for fuller answers. And don't just leave it there. Take their comments on board and adapt your book accordingly. Then try to see them again. This demonstrates tenacity and the ability to react to criticism - both prerequisites of a successful creative.

Because of this need to be reactive, it's best not to polish your work to gleaming. Taylor advises "stylish roughs" with hand lettering, structured enough to show layout expertise and hinting at an appreciation of typography.

It may be worth having one or two more finished pieces, to demonstrate Mac skills, but any more might "make teams nervous - they'll think you're precious, a designer, not an ad person". If you're looking for a job outside the UK, however, expectations may be slightly different. It's worth doing some research to find out what goes down best.

And what of the age-old conundrum of having a portfolio packed so full of goodies it's just asking to be plundered by voracious, amoral creatives?

Well, it happens. It's probably best to take it as a compliment, a sign that your work is already good enough to cut it out there. Zelda Malan, the former Saatchis creative who now teaches ad students at Bucks and Central St Martin's, agrees. "There is a certain amount of what I call 'psychic vampirism' in the industry," she says. "You just have to have the confidence to know that if you're any good, you will do millions more during the course of your career."

HEAD TO HEAD: how to survive the interview process

The angst, stress and terror of his first few interviews for a job in advertising have stayed with Tim Mellors, the chairman of Grey Worldwide.

He'd collect his dole and hitch down to London from Nottingham, to endure a half an excruciating hour that could potentially change his life. "For many people it's a frightening experience," he says. "It's a false situation and no-one in the room is comfortable with it."

These days, Mellors sits on the other side of the desk. He's interviewed hundreds of hopefuls and, as a trained psychologist, knows exactly what he's looking for. More than that, he's been putting something back, getting involved with D&AD and other institutions to help students improve their interview technique and presentation. His main piece of advice is a simple "be yourself".

"Everyone will tell you that a decision has been made within the first two minutes," he says. "So when you walk in the room, you should know what you're trying to put across and do it quickly." As a rule, he continues, interviewees fall into two camps, "diffident and apologetic" or "fiery and pushy" - both are forms of smoke-screen.

"Everyone has a zest and magic inside them," Mellors says. "We want a window into who you really are, not a role that hides it." Rather than coming out with pat answers, showing you have a real passion by talking enthusiastically about an exhibition, a talk or a film, for example, will help you stand out from the many others competing for the same job.

As a form of rehearsal, ask yourself some telling questions. "What sort of person am I?" "Why do I want to work in advertising?" "What do I want to achieve?" Get to the bottom of these curlers and most of your bases are covered.

Before you go for your interview familiarise yourself with the agency's work, and develop some talking points. Practice is invaluable - try not to be discouraged by the number of interviews you attend, by telling yourself you're getting better all the time.

Dress comfortably. If you feel self-conscious in your Sunday best, don't wear it. Be reasonably smart, but not flashy or formal. And finally, don't hire a gorilla suit or come with your head sticking out of a cardboard box. Chances are it's been done before, and the culprits probably aren't working in the advertising industry.