So Your Child Wants to Major in the Arts?

I’m going to be in New York next week giving a couple of presentations open to the general public on behalf of Halley Shefler, the founder of The Arts Edge, a college consulting firm that works with students who want to major in music, theater, arts and dance.
I first talked with Halley, who is the former dean of admissions at both the Boston Conservatory and the School of Music at Boston University, when I was working on an article for US News & World Report on the special challenges that face students who want to major in the arts.

6 Admissions Tips for Art Students

Today I want to pass along six tips from Shefler for  artistic students—and their parents— on how they 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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  1. My daughter has just been accepted to Berklee college of Music. It is where she wants to go. I have put 3 older children through regular state schools it was not cheap but doable. The yearly tuition for Berklee is more than my annual salary. How do we pay for this? We have filled out FAFSA and well we all know that award is minimal. I am stressing so much. I feel like it is the school where she should be. It is her perfect fit. Any ideas? Or where do I look? What kinds of loans? What other types of grants or scholarships are out there? How do I find out about them?

  2. I second Meg’s comment. As assistant director of admission for a conservatory, I have the privilege of seeing passionate artist develop and grow daily. Many of those continue their art after graduation, but a significant number of them gain jobs in the corporate and non-profit sectors. With the qualities they learned studying their art (rock-solid critical thinking skills, efficient time management and outstanding presentation ability), they become excellent candidates in whatever position they choose to pursue.
    Lynn, I’ll be at the college fair tomorrow-looking forward to meeting you there!

  3. I majored in Fine Arts (with a concentration in Film) and was accepted into NYU’s Cinema Studies Masters program, but decided to go to medical school instead. I now sit on the Admissions committee for the medical school where I’m on the faculty. Never underestimate the power of an arts degree.

    1. Hi Meg,
      Thanks so much for sharing your experience with a fine arts degree. I love your story!
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy