So You Think You Can Dance, Act or Draw? Tips for Performing and Visual Arts Applicants

It used to be that when a teenager told their parents they were interested in studying something in the arts arena in college the response was “How will you get a job with THAT degree??” Times have changed with growing exposure to the arts thanks to TV shows like “The Voice”, “So You Think You Can Dance?”, and amazing Broadway shows like “The Book of Mormon”. Students studying fine or performing arts at the university level will gain experience and training, while being afforded unique networking opportunities and exposure to professionals within their desired profession.

Students interested in the arts can pursue a variety of degrees including a Bachelor of Arts (BA), a Bachelor of Music (BM), or a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). When investigating a college students should check the institution’s status in one of the national accrediting organizations: National Association of Schools of Music (NASM)National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD)National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST), or the National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD).

In addition to traditional majors, artistically motivated students can pursue studies in areas such as Art Therapy, Game Design, Landscape Architecture, Arts Education, and Curatorial Studies…in addition to dozens more! In addition, students can choose to pursue studies at the conservatory level, a very focused experience with highly selective admission criteria. Students applying to conservatories should be prepared for intense competition in the application process.

One common misperception is that students interested in the arts need not take courses outside of their major. Behzad Dabu, Senior Admissions Officer at Columbia College Chicago feels it’s important for students in the arts to be well rounded in their studies.

“Many kids think that if they can take pretty pictures, are funny on stage, or can make colorful art they don’t need to understand history, culture, science, or law,” says Dabu. “Smart artists, who are aware and have knowledge to draw from, create work which is rooted in our culture today.”

Chris Andersson, Director of Admissions in the Drama Department at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University agrees, and stresses to his applicants the importance of the academic piece of the puzzle.

“Parents often assume that the academic requirements are lower for drama applicants than they are for other NYU applicants. That is not the case,” says Andersson. “What they are missing is that drama students will have plenty of theater studies and general education classes. History and theory are as much a part of a BFA program as is professional training.”

One key piece of the application process for visual arts students is the portfolio. Unlike the past, students now have the ability to use online sites such as SlideRoom to submit their portfolio pieces. It’s important for students to remember that the unique nature of the portfolio is what helps the admission staff decide a student’s “fit” into a particular program.

“One portfolio will not fit all submissions,” says Ehren Seeland, Coordinator of Student Recruitment at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, BC, Canada. “Every art, design and media institution will have a very different set of criteria…some leaning more towards the conceptual side of things, and some with more of a focus on the technical aspect. You will want to make sure to research the schools that you are applying to, and tailor your submission accordingly.”

For future Picasso’s or Warhol’s, the National Portfolio Day Association hosts free portfolio reviews from September to January each year throughout the U.S. and Canada. This is a wonderful opportunity to have portfolio reviewers from NASAD member schools provide you with feedback on your work.

“Portfolios take time to build, as does the research process into your chosen institutions,” says Seeland. “Prior to your senior year, take advantage of portfolio days, recruitment events, summer programs, and any opportunities that you have to meet with admissions staff to review your work prior to submission.”

Many students know from a young age that they are destined for a career in the arts, while others find their creative side while in high school. Whenever that moment strikes, it’s important to begin honing these skills and researching where their path may take them.

“As soon as the thought occurs to you to apply to a performing arts degree program, you should look for ways to continue your development as an artist,” Andersson stresses to budding actors. “Read plays. See shows. Get involved with theater in your community. The more time you spend inside the world of theater, the more comfortable you will be there and the more confident you will be in your auditions and interviews for your desired degree programs.”

Students choosing career fields in the arts are entering an intense arena of competition. However, a desire to pursue dreams increases their high probability for success. Dabu puts it best when he says “Education is necessary…but passion is what will push you throughout your career!”