6 Tips for Performing and Visual Art Majors

In my college blog post last week for US News & World Report, I wrote about students who want to major in the performing and visual arts. Here it is….

If your child wants to major in musical theater or some other performing art, go ahead and blame it on Glee, American Idol or America’s Got Talent.

Television shows make performing look fun, but the process of applying to colleges as a prospective visual or performing arts major is anything but. For these students, the admission process can be even more nerve wracking and time consuming because of requirements for auditions or portfolios.

To learn more about what’s involved in being a prospective visual or performing art major, I talked with Halley Shefler, former dean of admissions at both the Boston Conservatory and the School of Music at Boston University. She is now a college consultant at The Arts Edge, which works with students who want to major in music, theater, arts, and dance.

Here are six of Shefler’s suggestions on how artistic students—and their parents—can navigate the admission process:

1. Don’t apply where everybody else is.

Ambitious students who are aiming for the same elite schools that are on everyone’s short list will usually be disappointed. These schools are overrun with applications and will reject most students. In musical theater, for instance, applicants tend to flock to the University of Michigan, New York University, Boston Conservatory, Carnegie Mellon University, and the College-Conservatory of Music, which is part of the University of Cincinnati.

Other wonderful school in musical theater, Shefler suggests, include Syracuse University, University of the Arts, Elon University, Otterbein College, Point Park University, Millikin University, Montclair State University, and Florida State University.

“You don’t need to go to Juilliard, NYU, or the Cincinnati Conservatory to make it in the arts,” Shefler emphasized.

2. Solicit opinions from experts.

It’s a reality that many stage parents believe their teenagers are far more talented than they are. With inflated opinions of their abilities, Shefler has seen countless teenagers apply to highly selective schools where they have no hope of attending. Families should ask outside experts to critique their students’ talent.

3. Look for joint auditions.

Going to auditions can be expensive, which is why some schools in the art fields hold joint auditions.

Some schools that offer a bachelor of fine arts program in theatre get together every year to hold a “National Unified Audition.” In 2011, the audition will be held on different dates in February in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

For visual art and design majors, there is “National Portfolio Day.” Representatives of schools will review artwork and offer feedback for the students who attend.

4. Consider traditional universities or colleges.

For lots of students, art schools and conservatories are going to be unaffordable. Many of these institutions are expensive and yet the financial aid students receive is often modest compared to traditional colleges and universities that offer a broader array of majors.

The Savannah College of Art and Design, for instance, only meets 20 percent of the typical student’s financial need, according to College Board statistics. This is a school costs more than $41,000. The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where tuition with room and board costs $47,050, typically covers 59 percent of a student’s financial need. The Boston Conservatory meets an average of 40 percent of a student’s need. In contrast, many elite colleges meet all or nearly all of students’ financial need.

5. Be prepared for the audition.

When you are at an audition, don’t wear a T-shirt and jeans. You should also not wear anything that would draw attention away from your performance. You don’t need to buy a suit, but consider choosing an outfit that you would wear on a first date, Shefler suggests.

You should also perform appropriate material during an audition. A 17-year-old, for instance, shouldn’t perform a piece that requires her to pretend to be a middle-aged woman.

6. Parents, take a chill pill.

In this time of high unemployment, more parents than ever seem to be hoping that their children major in something practical like business or engineering. But art majors end up with many desirable skills such as being able to present in front of a group, taking constructive criticism, and being equipped with excellent speaking skills. Remember, what’s most important is that students graduate with a degree!

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and She also writes a college blog for  CBSMoneyWatch and US News. Follow her on Twitter.

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2 Responses to 6 Tips for Performing and Visual Art Majors

  1. Harriet Katz November 19, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    I was very happy to see your comments about this special group of students. I work exclusively with students interested in visual and performing arts and find them to be an exceptionally motivated group. To your suggestions I would add:

    1. Research schools using any means possible, including social media. Find out who their alumni are and where they are working in creative jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment for artists and related workers is expected to grow by 12% over the next two years.
    2. Your entire portfolio, including your essays, is meant to give an overall impression of who you are what and what your passion is. Do not worry about drawing the perfect bicycle for RISD, rather show that you understand composition and have a creative viewpoint. They will teach you how to draw if that is what you want to learn.
    3. Make sure to follow the instructions for preparing your portfolio. Do not send in extra pieces just because you think they are important. Understand how to photograph your work so that you give the best representation of what you have created.
    4. Know the program the school is offering. Do not depend on gossip or reputation as some schools are better at painting while others have stronger programs in digital arts. Do not assume that all programs are created equal. If you do your research and can tell the school “Why them?” they will have a better understanding of why you are interested in their school. Try to talk to current students in the program to find out about resources such as studio space and internships.

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