Last Updated: Jan 30, 2019
“Do you mind if we do this in seven?” the young Israeli pianist asked the faculty evaluating his audition for the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City.
After playing two jazz standards with a rhythm section of New School students, the pianist wanted to change the time signature of his final piece from standard 4/4 to the unconventional 7/8. This isn’t out of the ordinary for a gigging jazz combo. But for an audition that could determine your academic and artistic future?
The drummer and bassist had never played the piece in seven, but agreed to go for it. Something clicked. Years later, the performance still sticks in the mind of New School Jazz Director of Admission Peter Layton.
“They just went off,” Layton says. “It required a spirit of collaboration and expression—just taking a risk and seeing where it goes. It wasn’t a pristine and perfect performance, but it was a perfect example of a student saying, ‘This is my time to tell a story.’”
Whether you’re compiling a visual arts portfolio or performing a monologue from Shakespeare, applying to undergraduate arts programs means showing you’re more than the sum of your talent, transcript, and test scores. This is your time to tell a story.
Visual arts and architecture
Jennifer Kim attended high school in the shadows of Manhattan skyscrapers, but it was shared spaces like the Upper West Side’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts that inspired her to pursue a career in architecture.
“That area of museums and theaters really interested me—that you could create a place where people could interact,” says Kim, now a fourth-year student in the five-year program at the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, also in New York City.
Architecture application requirements vary by school and degree. Five-year Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) programs tend to require a portfolio of past work, while four-year B.A. or B.S. programs usually do not. Cooper Union is unique in requiring first-year applicants to complete a home test, a series of questions students respond to visually, in lieu of a portfolio.
Kim worked on her home test responses every night for two or three weeks and pulled an all-nighter to finish before the application deadline. The home test allowed her to draw on her environment and past experience.
“I was just being myself,” Kim says. “It was like any other artwork—you can’t copy or get advice from other people,” she says.
Other architecture programs and nearly all visual arts programs evaluate applicants’ portfolios of past work. Requirements again vary widely here: the number of works requested, the media and materials used, and the method of submitting portfolios (CDs, photographs, slides, original artwork, etc.). Cooper Union requires a portfolio of original artwork and a sketchbook from applicants to its School of Art.
Assistant Dean of Admission Susan Davidson says there’s no substitute for seeing and touching the actual work of a student.“We encourage a portfolio that shows the use of different media, whether it’s 3-dimensional or 2-dimensional,” she says. “I tell students not to hold back, to take their ideas and concepts and bring them to life.” Past applicants have employed materials ranging from fabrics to figurines to picture frames, Davidson says, although some restrictions do apply: “Nothing flammable.”
Some schools ask students to respond to a specific assignment—The Rhode Island School of Design traditionally asks applicants to draw a bicycle—but most portfolios will draw from projects completed over your high school career. Kavin Buck, Director of Enrollment Management and Outreach at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Art and Architecture, recommends students supplement school assignments by attending summer arts programs on college campuses or enrolling in core arts courses at local community colleges.
The best portfolio is a well-edited portfolio, and the more work you have to choose from, the easier it will be to select pieces that present the most accurate portrait of your artistic abilities and philosophies. That process of narrowing down years of work to just a handful of pieces can be stressful, so ask for input from your art teachers and others.
“The bottom line is the student needs to pick what best represents what they are as an artist at that moment in time,” says Don Put, Director of College Counseling at Idyllwild Arts Academy, an arts-focused private school in southern California. “The nature of artists is to be very insecure about their work. I encourage them to get input from as many people as they can. Teachers can only take you so far.”
Put recommends students attend a National Portfolio Day, held at locations around the country from September through January. Representatives from mostly private arts colleges are available to review your artwork, discuss their programs, and answer questions about careers in art. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) also conducts Performing & Visual Arts College Fairs where students can meet faculty and admission officers face-to-face.
Most art schools also welcome students to meet with admission counselors on campus for a portfolio pre-review that doesn’t affect their application status. But ultimately it’s up to the student to decide what story each portfolio is going to tell—not your teachers or advisors—and that’s a good thing.
“Sometimes portfolios are more interesting because they’re less faculty-directed,” Buck says. “There are times you can even tell where an applicant went to school because you notice the faculty’s influence.”
Dance, drama, and music
For the performing artist, the equivalent of a visual artist’s portfolio is the audition. Whether it’s an audio or video recording or a live audition in front of faculty, these 10–15 minutes will play a large part in determining whether your dream college considers you a dreamy student. So it’s almost impossible not to be nervous, right?
“It’s not almost impossible,” says Lee Cioppa, Associate Dean of Admission at The Juilliard School. “Lots of people are going to talk to you about practicing the performance. Don’t forget to practice the audition.”
Cioppa says students can learn to be more comfortable in an audition setting by performing as much as possible, whether it’s for mom in the kitchen, at a local church or senior center, or in front of friends. And just like visual artists, performing artists should augment their high school training by taking private lessons, community college courses, and summer programs, some of which draw from a national pool of applicants, allowing students to meet their peers who will be competing for spots in competitive college programs.
“Your high school is too small of a pond. The artistic world is the ocean,” Cioppa says. “You need to at least get into a large lake.”
Training in a variety of styles will help dance applicants show their versatility in the audition process, says Christina Harris, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Many live auditions are conducted as a mock class, with bar warm-ups, floor exercises, and one or two combinations. Schools will also likely ask you to perform a solo piece.
“Definitely prepare and choreograph a great piece for this,” Harris says. “For many schools, you do not have to choreograph the piece yourself, so if this is not your strength, ask for help.”
Most performing arts programs ask for a recorded performance to help evaluate applicants (the arts supplement to the Common Application requests a 10-minute CD or DVD). But students shouldn’t be intimidated by the recording process. Cioppa noted that student musicians already know the qualities that make a good recording: it doesn’t sound like it was recorded in a bathroom, you can hear the performer clearly, and you’re moved by the recording, creating an emotional connection.
Make sure to check each school’s audition requirements. At New School Jazz, applicants for the highest-volume instruments follow specific guidelines for pre-screening recordings, but they’re given much more freedom in follow-up live auditions.
In any live audition, remember that you’re not being evaluated solely on your performance; schools are also conscious of how you carry yourself and interact with faculty, according to Mary Anna Dennard, a college audition coach and author of I GOT IN! The Ultimate College Audition Guide For Acting and Musical Theatre.
“Walk in and just be joyous. Be brave, be yourself,” Dennard says. “You need to remember why you’re there—because you love this.”
Dennard cautions that any performing arts audition is a subjective process, and even the best applicant might not match what a school is looking for at that time. She advises her students to apply to a range of schools, including some that don’t require an audition.
“If you’re a swimmer and you touch the wall first, you win. It’s not like that in auditions,” Dennard says. “Meryl Streep would probably be rejected by more schools than accepted.”
Beyond portfolios and auditions
Don’t forget that the portfolio or audition is just one facet of an application to arts schools. The extent to which an applicant’s academic transcript, extracurricular activities, and test scores factor into admission decisions will vary based on the type of school.
NYU’s Harris says academics can carry more weight for small liberal arts colleges, while conservatory programs consider the audition or portfolio first and foremost. And for most colleges and universities with conservatory-style programs, artistic merit and academics may be weighted equally, she says.
“An exceptionally strong portfolio may give a weaker student the extra boost that they may need, or vice versa,” Harris says.
Don Put, the college counselor, says many scholarships are awarded based on grades and test scores. And UCLA’s Buck says the application essay can make or break an application, especially for visual artists who don’t have a face-to-face audition with faculty.
“A very small percentage of applicants get in based on their portfolio,” Buck says. “A lot of others won’t get in because it’s not the right fit. So what do we do for the maybe 60% where the artwork is essentially the same? We look at the academics and the essay.”
And as far as dispelling pre-audition jitters, remember that you have a unique opportunity to tell your story while doing something you love. Or you can imagine the judges in their underwear. Whatever works best for you.