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Applying to Art School: Understanding the Application Process

By EricIvyWise Master College Admissions Counselor

Interested in applying to visual or performing arts programs in college? The application process, while not completely different than regular undergraduate admissions, can be more nuanced and requires a lot more prep and consideration. From finding the best-fit program to putting together a portfolio, here’s what you need to know about applying to college as a fine arts student.

Like athletic recruitment, an art talent adds an additional layer to the college research and application process. Swimmers spend hours in the pool refining and perfecting their strokes, and in parallel, the visual artist painstakingly sketches and paints until their vision is realized. And the questions remain the same: How central do you want this talent to be to your college experience, and how will you be evaluated with this additional component of your application? There are several elements to consider.

BFA vs. B.A. 

We begin where all responsible college counselors begin: What do you want your college experience to look like? Some students want to be in the studio for their entire four (or five!) years. Others want to strike a balance between studio work and another disparate academic interest (history or environmental science, let’s say). Fortunately, there are options for everyone. It just takes a little more investigation to find the right fit. One primary decision point is deciding whether you want to pursue a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) or a B.A. (Bachelor of Arts). The former will have you dancing, acting, or sculpting from the moment you step onto campus, and your focus will be narrow within your chosen medium. Your professors are likely working artists in their areas of expertise, and your peers are very focused. High-level performance might be your goal (Alvin Ailey, Broadway, or the New York Philharmonic). The path is both a blessing and a curse, as professional opportunities are scarce and often short-lived. But, hey, dream big!

An artist electing to pursue their craft within a Bachelor of Arts framework will find greater flexibility. That is, while a considerable amount of time will be spent in studios or rehearsals, students will find time to balance their art with coursework in other disciplines that need not be related to art in any way. Perhaps you are a photographer who wants to study business. Or maybe you are an oboist who has a penchant for engineering. At large universities, the artist can straddle two internal colleges and pursue a double major. While at smaller liberal arts colleges, they simply find a dual concentration. I have found in my experience that this is a much more pragmatic avenue. Oftentimes parents are soothed by the idea that you will have something “to fall back on” in the event that you cannot sustain yourself in the art world.

There are a handful of colleges that offer five-year BA/BFA programs. These are often called “dual degrees.” These require extremely high-level achievement in both the arts and traditional core academics. The New School (Parsons and Eugene Lang College), Brown/RISD, and Columbia/Julliard are a few examples.

Reflecting on Your Arts Application 

Importantly, are you talented? This seems brusque, but it’s critical to assess if you plan to move through the arts application process. It’s important to get objective feedback throughout your journey as an artist, regardless of discipline. And whether you are a classical pianist, actor, or contemporary dancer, you should honestly assess your ability. Unlike the rower who relies solely on a 2,000 meter erg time to impress coaches, the artistic review is much more nuanced. Oh, the drama! Many students work with their art teachers closely, but others have to find the time to work with local studios or companies to gain experience. It should be noted that deeply committed artists will not be disadvantaged in any way in the admissions process. If you are dancing with a company six days a week after school, then naturally your extracurricular engagement at school will be light. There are only so many hours in the day!

Developing and Showcasing an Effective Arts Portfolio 

So how should you showcase your talent to colleges? This will take a different shape depending on your medium. Visual artists will assemble a portfolio, and, just as students approach the application essays, the portfolio should tell the reader something that they would not glean from other parts of the application. Each college will outline instructions on what they expect to see. During my time reading for the dual degree program at Parsons School of Design, the maxim that the admissions office repeated was “we can teach you how to draw, but we can’t teach you how to think.” This informed the expectation for the portfolio. The process is emphasized. Students could submit early sketches of works along with the final product in order to show the reader their creative process. So not everything was polished. Other colleges will look at finished work only. One great way to get substantive feedback is to participate in National Portfolio Days. These speed dating sessions allow you to show your portfolio to dozens of colleges on the same day. Admissions officers will provide feedback and suggestions on how to strengthen the portfolio. As with essay review, students receive conflicting feedback, which brings me back to a central tenet: be authentic!

All in all, the arts review process is not so different from the traditional application review. It is paramount that you assess fit in terms of the school community and academic program you hope to join. Authenticity matters and your audition or portfolio is just another way for decision-makers to get to know you in the same way that a traditional applicant would utilize the essay. You simply have more than just words at your disposal. So be bold because life as an artist demands vision, courage, and audacity.

At IvyWise we work with students through every fact of the college application process, including assistance on creating compelling portfolios and arts applications with counselors who worked in admissions and made decisions in the rooms where it all happens. For more information on our college counseling services, contact us today.

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