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College Applications - Performing Arts Edition

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

Applying to college is a daunting task - just ask any high school senior. There’s essays to write, forms to fill out, decisions to be made and fear of rejection. But, eventually, things begin to make sense and you find your “fit” - or discover several of them. You begin to receive multiple acceptances and choose a college that feels right to you.

Applying to college for the performing arts, however, is entirely different. The application process for performing arts programs, specifically theatre and musical theatre, is highly competitive. But if you have a passion for performing, and have been working on your craft as an actor, singer and dancer for years, you probably can’t imagine doing anything else. There are many excellent programs out there and it’s important to do your research, but also to understand how the application process differs from one that is purely academic.

You will still need to apply in all of the “regular” ways to be admitted academically, but then there is the artistic admit, which is separate. So not only do you have to meet the academic requirements for a school, you must also pass an audition (or several auditions, in many cases.) You will select and prepare audition material (typically two songs and two monologues, and often dance), film “pre-screen” videos, learn choreography, write artistic essays, and audition, live, in front of program directors. Since the admit rates to these schools are notoriously low and the audition process highly subjective, you will have to apply to many more schools than a typical student. Forget everything you’ve learned about “safety” schools. With the performing arts, the only “safety” schools are non-audition programs where you meet or exceed their academic requirements and can afford tuition. Most of these types of programs offer a general degree in theatre, but may not be as intensive as you would like. There are a few notable exceptions, and you will need to see if they would also be an academic and financial fit.

Then there’s the degree itself - you must determine if you want a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) or BM (Bachelor of Music), both of which offer conservatory-style training, or a BA (Bachelor of Arts), which is more general and may allow for double majors. There are both audition based and non-audition-based BAs, but most BFA and BMs require an audition. Cultivating a college list is a very different experience with this route, as you have to research every aspect of the program rather than exploring the university’s general requirements. Sometimes, this may work in your favor - many of the notoriously hard-to-admit colleges and universities will relax academic requirements for performing arts majors (think University of Michigan and Carnegie Melon). But these schools are extremely competitive on the artistic side (they have thousands of applicants vying for around 20 spots.) The most important part of the application process is to cast a wide net, and include lesser-known schools with strong programs on your list.

Once you’ve developed your list of potential schools, you will have to determine what each school requires. Many may pre-screen, meaning they will ask you for a video and invite you for an in-person audition only if you pass the video portion first. Over the past two years, most schools have agreed to a universal pre-screen, where the requirements for the audition are the same, which makes the process somewhat easier. There are also schools that do not pre-screen, but have a limited amount of audition slots you can sign up for, and these usually fill up quickly. Schools often host auditions on-campus, virtually, or participate in the National Unified Auditions, which take place yearly in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. There are also regional consortium-type auditions, with several schools in attendance at once, which usually take place in the fall and may serve as pre-screens or final auditions, depending on the school. These are wonderful ways to discover new programs and practice your audition skills, without having to actually apply to the colleges first.

Most colleges and universities will require you to fill out a regular application before submitting a pre-screen or scheduling an audition. There are some that ask for the pre-screen before the application, so it is important to do your research early. Keeping a spreadsheet with all the schools’ general and program-specific requirements is a good way to keep organized. Many students decide to hire a consultant to help them keep organized, as well as an audition coach. Audition coaches can be very helpful in guiding you to choose the best material to showcase your unique talents, and to assist you in presenting the most polished version of yourself possible.

The process of applying for a college based theatre, dance, voice or musical theatre program can feel overwhelming. But with the right resources, and a passion for your craft, you will find your perfect fit. There are so many colleges that offer training in the performing arts, and new programs are being developed each year to meet the increasing demand for them. If performing is your dream and passion, you can make it happen!

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