applying to arts colleges

A Q&A About Performing and Visual Arts Colleges and Universities

April 22, 2022

Art school is a real college. There are a lot of misconceptions of what a degree in the performing and visual arts entails… that an arts degree is not rigorous, that graduates will have less options in the employment market, or that as a performing or visual arts student, I will get to solely focus on the work I want to make. These are all myths and do not reflect the history of arts-based education offered in today’s colleges, universities, and conservatories. Options for arts-based bachelorette degrees are wide ranging and there is a right fit program for just about any student looking to pursue a creative focus education.

How Do Art Degrees Apply to the Real World?

Often the biggest obstacle for a student who is interested in studying the arts in college is the parental or societal belief that a degree in art is not helpful in today’s marketplace. Fortunately for the students earning degrees in the arts, just the opposite is true. We are at a crossroads where technology intersects with culture and marketing that has been the basis for what is known as the creative economy. Over the last decade the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has forecasted the increasing need for artists and designers, in today’s job force, where rapid changes is the norm and where art and technology are integrated the need for creative thinkers and collaborative problem solvers will continue to grow.

College Types

There are many different types of schools offering quality education in the performing and visual arts. I like to break it down to four distinct categories; students can begin to narrow down their preferences based on type of institution.

Four-Year College and Universities

College and universities are good fits for students who want to both major in the arts and also experience a broad range of liberal arts and sciences (even possibly double major outside the arts.) These types of institutions can range from smaller liberal arts colleges to private and state research-based universities. A select number of these college and universities have professional schools embedded withing their campus that offer highly competitive students the chance to study in a conservatory or art/design school while also being a part or the larger institution. 

Four-Year Performing and Visual Arts Colleges

Most of these colleges are stand-alone private non-profit institutions with few acceptations. These art schools offer solely performing and/or visual arts majors along with liberal arts classes. All degrees offered are with-in the arts and students that choose to attend art schools generally want a smaller college atmosphere that will surround them by others who have the same passion for the arts. Unlike liberal arts colleges and universities, students enrolled in these type of art schools may not change majors outside the scope of the arts that the institution offers.

Conservatories

Conservatories are professional schools designed to preserve and perfect the knowledge of the performing arts, in general without the traditional liberal arts curriculum. Conservatories commonly regard the arts as both an art form and a discipline, nurturing legacies of the past as well as offering contemporary issues and challenges. The majority of students who choose conservatories self-select, or are recommended by instructors or professionals in the field. Conservatories are generally stand-alone institutions, but there are some that are also embedded in larger colleges or universities for performing artists that want a more traditional college experience. 

Vocational, Career and Technical Schools

These institutions are designed to prepare students for direct entry into a particular arts-related field. Coursework is practical and hand-on, giving a feel for the  tasks that will be required in a particular job. The primary goal of these programs is to make students marketable at entry level at graduation. Most of these school only offer completion degrees (not BA, BFA, or BM’s) and without an accredited bachelorette degree, a student cannot move forward into any graduate/master’s program. 

Majors

Think globally! Thinking about a job in the arts is different from thinking about a career in the arts. An arts education is much more than just technical training.

When choosing a major, look beyond the title and read the detailed description of the curriculum to make certain the program delivers what you are looking for in a particular area of focus. Many colleges (specifically in the design fields) refer to their majors by different names for marketing purposes, so this extra research is vital to finding what you are looking for in a major. 

Most undergraduate majors in the arts push young artist in unknown directions, this opens doors to explore areas most never new existed prior to college. The ability to adapt, grow , and move forward is important in today’s work force and vital to all performing and visual artists.

Auditions and Portfolios

Most private art colleges or conservatories, and many selective public and private universities with professional schools or conservatories embedded in them, require a portfolio review or audition for admissions. Each program request different materials and have procedure unique to their admissions process. Just like any college search, students should begin building their college list as early as possible, waiting until the last minute may result in their audition or portfolio not reaching its potential. Successful applicants allow ample time to rehearse, create their best work, prepare essays and artist statements.

Notes on Auditions

It doesn’t matter if you are preparing an audition and interview for music (classical, jazz, world, ethnomusicology, etc.), dance (ballet, world, contemporary, etc.), theater (acting, musical theater) there are three major “P’s that are very important:

  • Punctuality: Arrive early and allow plenty of time before the audition to warm up and organize your thoughts. If a physical or vocal warm-up is not built into the audition, do so on your own.
  • Professionalism: Remember that the audition begins the minute you walk/drive onto campus or off-site location.
  • Preparedness: Students should contact each university, school, or conservatory that requires an audition 6 months in advance to get specific requirement for particular areas of study or instrument.

It is important that students realize that the audition begins the moment thay step on a campus!

Note on Portfolios

Unlike a face-to-face Audition for the performing artist, a visual arts student’s portfolio represents him or her to a college as a potential student and artist. For many programs, the portfolio and statement will be the main determining factor in the admissions process. The majority of programs will want to see works that fall into three distinct categories, some colleges require a combination of two or three categories, and others want to see only one category.

  • Observational Art: Drawing or painting of a still life, landscape, figure model, or portrait as the subject matter and rendered as accurately as possible. The image should not be taken from a photograph or the artists imagination.
  • Personal Art: This is art done usually outside the classroom and reflects the artists unique use of materials, subject matter, and concept. Work can be completed in any medium.
  • Home Exam: This is work specific requirements  that is a college may ask you to complete for your portfolio. These projects are usually posted to the departments or admissions webpage each summer.

Right Fit 

Beyond the type of school or the major, finding the right fit school for students in the performing or visual arts may have some special needs… here are just a few:

  • Do the campus facilities meet your needs?
  • What type of equipment do you have in my area of practice (is it up-to-date)?
  • Is there adequate studio/practice space?
  • Are the ample performance/exhibition opportunities?
  • Whqat is the arts community in my field like outside of campus?
  • Does the library meet my major’s needs?
  • What is the access to labs/classrooms after hours?
  • Are the instructors known in their fields?
  • Is the school/program respected in my field of study?
  • What are the internship possibilities?
  • Can I study abroad?

Does an Undergraduate Degree in the Arts Limit My Options for Graduate School?

If a student is planning on receiving a BA, BFA, BM, or BArch degree, they are eligible to apply for graduate school both inside and outside the arts. In some specialize programs such a medical school there may be some required extra course work.

Lastly

The key to a successful application is to start researching college types and majors early, build a college list that has reach schools as well as safety schools, and not leave your supplemental materials (auditions, portfolios, essays, and artist statements to the last minute. The majority of arts-based programs are looking at supplemental application material to see where you are at this point as an artist and your potential for growth. The most important part of the audition and portfolio process is too have fun during the process!

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Kavin Buck, Author

As an admissions professional in the performing and visual arts, Kavin Buck is the former Director of Admissions at Otis College of Art and Design, Director of Enrollment and Outreach at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, and Vice President of Enrollment at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Kavin has conducted workshops in schools and conferences throughout the country on finding the right fit arts program, portfolio development, and supplemental application information and is a past president of the Western Association for College Admissions Counseling.

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