How to Choose & Apply to an Acting College Program
By Allie White
February 23, 2017
You’re nearing the end of your high school career. Maybe you’ve loved these past few years, or maybe you can’t wait to get to college. Maybe you’ve dabbled in playwriting under the wing of your favorite literature teacher, or maybe you’ve starred in every spring musical since freshman year. Maybe you’ve loved acting in your friend’s DIY films, or maybe you’ve counted down the days to summer vacation when you got to attend performing arts camp.
Whatever contact you’ve had with acting thus far, it’s been enough to instill a love of the craft, so much so that you’ve decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in acting. You’ve taken the first step of choosing the type of classes you’re looking for and the degree you’ll receive at the end of it all, but now it’s time to decide where.
No two college programs are alike, so it’s important to consider all the factors before choosing where to apply, let alone accepting an offer. Just like any other career path, acting is a specialized skill that needs training and nurturing, and the school you choose to help you on this path can make all the difference.
Luckily, we’re here to help! Below you’ll find all the information you’ll need to make the right choice for you, from the questions to ask when you’re just getting started, all the way to determining why one program might be a better fit than another.
So you want to be an actor?
High school graduation is looming and you’ve decided acting is your calling. Before going all-in on a performing arts degree, it pays ask yourself a few questions to determine whether this is really the path you want to spend the next years of your life pursuing.
What is a BFA? How is it different from a BA in acting?
First things first: A Bachelor of Fine Arts is the standard four-year undergraduate degree in the US for students pursuing an education in the visual or performing arts. The main difference between a BFA and a BA (Bachelor of Arts)—aside from one letter—is that the former is a more intensely focused, professional, specialized program. The latter is typically more general, often branching out to other areas of the performing arts.
When it comes to BFA vs BA, there’s no right answer. It’s a personal preference and a decision you should make while taking many factors into account. Do you want to spend most of your time acting, or would you like to focus on a more general curriculum? Does the idea of a time-intensive, potentially longer program excite you, or are you looking to be done with school in four years flat? Are you comfortable spending most of your time with the same group of like-minded students, or would you rather switch it up between classes?
Will I also need an MFA?
While many actors choose to pursue an advanced degree, a Masters of Fine Arts is absolutely not a requirement—a BFA will provide you with an excellent professional foundation. And let’s not get ahead of ourselves here: finish your undergraduate degree and then we can talk grad school.
Can I take non-acting classes?
The answer to this question depends on the school and the program. As mentioned earlier, a BA affords more opportunity to take classes outside of your prescribed degree as it’s meant to be more of a general, humanities-based approach to acting. Some have a few acting classes and a lot of theater history and technical classes. Others are heavy on technique, giving you the opportunity to learn dance, speech, movement, etc.
BFAs, on the other hand, are considered professional degrees, and so there’s often little room to deviate from the prescribed curriculum.
What if I decide I don’t want a BFA?
Again, this depends on the university. A BA affords a bit more wiggle room since you’ll have already completed coursework toward a liberal arts degree. Since a BFA is highly specialized, it’s possible those credits won’t all translate into something else, which could mean an extra year or two of study, depending on how far into the program you were when you decided to change things up.
That said, it’s also important to be aware of whether a program operates on a “cut system.” In short, this means that students are evaluated at certain points during their college careers so the faculty can determine whether they can continue in the program. If a student is cut from a BFA program, that doesn’t mean he or she won’t graduate. Rather, it means the BFA track will be discontinued but the student can choose to study via a broader track, like a BA in drama, or choose another field completely.
According to Victoria Bartley, a master college admissions counselor at educational consulting company IvyWise, the most important thing to remember is that adults change careers all the time; students who pursue a general education or major in an unrelated field can always get an MFA later. “Nothing’s irreversible. There’s no one path to getting into acting or becoming a doctor or lawyer.”
Can I go abroad?
Luckily for you, young thespian, many acting programs do allow their students to study off-campus at some point. For example, Rutgers University has a partnership with the Globe Theater in London that allows juniors to spend a year abroad with the Bard, and the Boston University School of Fine Arts requires its second-semester juniors to study globally, from Arezzo, Italy to Tel Aviv, Israel to Auckland, New Zealand.
Beginning the Search
Alright, you’ve committed to pursuing your craft. Now let’s answer some basics that can help you sort through all the options.
What’s the difference between a conservatory and a traditional college with an acting school/program?
A conservatoryfocuses solely on the arts. Yes, many offer writing or theory or history classes, but they’re all tied to the art being studied ie. Screenplay Writing or History of Theater or Music Theory. Basically, you’re not likely to find Anthro 101 or Chem 275 at a conservatory. Victoria Bartley, a master college admissions counselor at educational consulting company IvyWise, says students at acting conservatories “focus on [their] craft from multiple angles: history of drama, scene work, how to use your body and mind as an instrument in performance. Liberal arts is broader by definition.”
Similarly, the “typical” college experience isn’t likely to exist at a conservatory—no Greek life, no football team, etc. What you will find, however, is a fierce dedication to and perfection of the study of the performing arts since students often spend up to 40 hours a week working on their craft. The fierce application process, small class sizes, and world-class faculty and resources means some of the best performing arts training can be found at conservatories.
Another option is a traditional college or university with a performing arts school or program. Unlike conservatories, these programs often allow students to take classes outside their designated school for a broader education. Depending on the program, students graduate with a BFA or BA in their chosen field.
Can I get financial aid/scholarships?
Yes! Financial aid and scholarship opportunities will depend on your school and financial situation, but you have plenty of options. According to Mary Anna Dennard, Backstage Expert and the founder of College Audition Coach, there are a few things you can do to get started:
FAFSA: “This is the acronym for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Even if you think you won’t qualify for need-based financial aid because your family makes too much money, you must fill it out anyway. Many schools require first-year students to fill out the FAFSA and you might even be surprised to learn that your family does indeed qualify for some form of aid—especially if you have more than one child in college at the same time. The U.S. Department of Education uses the FAFSA to determine eligibility for federal student aid, including loans, grants, and work-study. The FAFSA may also determine eligibility for state and school aid as well.” (Need some help filling out your performing arts FAFSA? We’ve got your covered.)
CSS Profile: “Some private schools may also require you to fill out the CSS, which is more detailed than the FAFSA. Check school websites to determine which applications are required.”
Local scholarships: “Talk to your guidance counselor about scholarships available only to students at your specific high school or in your school district. Some of these awards sponsored by local alumni, donors, and businesses can add up to thousands of dollars and may recognize you son or daughter for academic record, individual talent, or community service.
Check online: “Numerous websites and apps such as Fastweb offer searchable listings of scholarship opportunities.”
“Stackable” scholarships: “Some schools offer academic merit aid. Some schools offer talent merit awards. In some cases, schools offer both, and [you] will only be allowed to take the larger of the two awards. However, some schools let students stack both awards. Ask lots of questions about this when you get the financial aid offer letter.”
Do I care about name recognition?
Just like choosing Q-Tips over store-brand cotton swabs, opting for a big-name college is a personal preference. According to Dennard, casting directors don’t really care where an actor got his or her education, as long as the person is right for the role.
The same goes for agents: talent is talent, no matter where it was honed. That said, agents are “more likely to attend a showcase of a program that is well known, or a smaller school where they have had luck in the past.” Even so, Dennard still recommends deciding on a school based on what’s important to you. If a highly-recognizable school makes it onto that list, so be it, but remember that success is ultimately about you, not your alma mater.
How do I know which school is right for me?
If you’re starting from scratch, the first thing you’ll need to do is research acting programs and colleges. Dennard says your first stop should be one of the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s Performing and Visual Arts College Fairs. Admission is free, the fair tours all over the country, nearly 100 schools programs are represented, and you’ll be able to ask any questions you have to an actual human.
Can’t make it to a college fair? The internet is your best friend. From Backstage to Google, you’ll likely find enough information to get you started. Then, dive deeper by watching senior showcases on YouTube, joining prospective student chat rooms on College Confidential, and scouring Facebook to connect with that friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who attends the school you’re interested in.
“Really, really, really do your research,” advises Abby Siegel, a professional college entrance consultant. “Take a tour of the campus. Go to an info session. Contact the chair or professor in the department to ask more in-depth questions—it never hurts to ask a lot of questions.”
Consider everything, she says: “The types of classes offered, the methods of acting taught… are you going to be able to audition for productions as a freshman? What about senior showcases?”
Harvey Young, Backstage Expert and professor of theater at Northwestern University, advises asking yourself questions about what’s important to you: “How far away from home am I willing to travel to go to school? Would I prefer to go to college in a major city, a midsize city, or a small college town? How important is it for me to be in an LGBT-friendly or a racially diverse community? Would I prefer a broad-based liberal arts education or something more specialized, like a conservatory? Do I absolutely know what my college major will be? Or would I prefer to choose one (or more) after having taken classes? Answering these questions will yield better results for you than simply applying to the top schools in a college rankings magazine.”
Paury Flowers, recruitment coordinator at Temple University’s School of Theater, Film and Media Arts, says she’s spoken with students who “think that they’re really excited about conservatory-style training until they realize that means they don’t get to tap out of that experience at some point to feed the other parts of their soul—the part of them that may want to learn about tech or might want to learn about business.” Just like acting itself, making such decisions will come after a certain amount of self-reflection and internal debate, so make sure you’re really doing your research and asking the questions that are important to YOU.
And most importantly, Young says it’s crucial to remember that there’s more than one “perfect” school for you. “We trick ourselves into believing that there is only one college for us and that if we fail to get into that one school (or do not enroll there), then our life goals will never be realized,” he says. “There are probably a half-dozen or more schools that are perfect matches for you. Apply to all of them with the belief that admission into one of them, any of them, is all that you need. If you get into more than one, that’s a bonus.”
Check out Backstage’s guide to 25 amazing acting programs you need to know.
- How to Begin Searching for the Perfect College Theater Program
- 4 Ways to Research Theater Colleges Using Social Media
- 6 Tips for Picking the Perfect College Acting Program
- How to Create Your College Dream School List
Applying + Auditioning
When you submit your application (many acting programs require a standard application and then additional acting-focused application materials, like a headshot, drama resume, and statement of purpose), you will also typically be required to schedule your audition. Most acting programs offer a variety of dates in cities around the country for any non-local applicants, though many also accept self-tapes.
What will the audition be like?
When it comes to auditioning, it’s essential to stand out from the thousands of other applicants. One way to assert your individuality? Choosing the right audition repertoire. More often than not, this will consist of a monologue and/or song, as well as an interview. So choosing the right monologue is key.
Follow the guidelines addressed on schools’ websites for monologues and songs. They will time you and may stop you. Do not create an awkward moment. Time your pieces. Also, know exactly what you should have prepared. Some schools only ask for one monologue, some require four. And choose pieces you are passionate about. “I can always tell when an actor just ‘likes’ a piece,” says Joe Price, B.F.A. Program Director at the University of Minnesota-Guthrie Theatre Department. “Know why you chose your pieces, and have a thoughtful response. We are looking for our future colleagues, and someone to spend the next four years with.”
Tim Davis-Reed, a professor of acting at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts says, “The thinking is, ‘If I find a great monologue, or the perfect song, they will think I am great doing it.’ Your job is not to show me a great monologue or song. Your job is to use the material to show me you.”
- Nailing the 5 Key Elements of College Auditions
- 10 Tips for Nailing Your College Audition
- 4 Great College Audition Monologues
- What Not to Do for College Auditions
- 5 College Audition FAQs Answered
Do I need an audition coach?
Whether or not you choose to use a coach is totally up to you. You don’t need to specify whether you worked with a coach during the audition process, and admissions boards will have no way of knowing, so there’s no on-paper need. However, coaches can go a long way in helping you prepare efficiently and effectively for increasingly-competitive college auditions.
That said, they’re absolutely not necessary. According to Amy Rogers, director and founder of the Pace University BFA Musical Theatre program, “the truth is that while students who have coaches are often very prepared, organized, have strong repertoire choices, and strong audition skills, they do not have any kind of advantage on the final outcome of acceptances. Talent, skill, and potential will get you accepted regardless if you are using a coach or not.”
If you do choose to hire an audition coach, here are the 10 things to look for: Experience, results, knowledge, access, service, support, community, references, alumni, and relevance.
Alright, so now you have all the information you need to start the application process. But if you’re still not sure where you want to hone those acting skills, fear not. We’ve put together a handy guide of 25 of the top acting programs in the country. From large university to tiny college, conservatories to liberal arts classes, history of theater to clowning, we’ve found some of the best.