Sorting Out College Confusion for the Arts Student

Six smart suggestions to help clarify the arts school admissions process


Applying for college is a high-stress time in any student’s life; but for arts-inclined kids, the decision can be even more confusing. Should they focus on their talent—be it painting, dance, or music—for the next four years at an arts school, or is it best to consider a broader liberal arts education, where they can still pursue their art but with less intensity?

The answer isn’t always clear, so we asked college counselors what steps students can take to help ensure that they’re in good shape by the time acceptance letters are mailed out in the spring. Discuss these tips for finding the right college—or conservatory—with your child:

1. Set yourself up for success. It’s a misconception that arts students get into college based on their talent. Both liberal arts colleges and art schools will be looking at standardized test scores and high school transcripts, so remind your child to keep up with his academics and take a variety of courses (not just music electives), no matter how focused he is on pursuing a career as a professional guitarist.

2. Art schools aren’t the only answer. Some students get it into their minds that a conservatory or arts school is the sole path to being a professional artist, but college counselors are adamant that’s not the case. Many colleges and universities have strong, competitive arts programs, and some even have a relationship with a conservatory such as Columbia and Julliard, where students can earn a double degree.

When you discuss potential schools with your child, be sure to encourage her to look into both routes and remind her that the goal is to have as many options as possible when it comes time to make her decision. Even students who are set on a conservatory education are advised to apply to a couple liberal arts colleges.

3. Talk to your teacher. Many students forget to include their teacher in the admissions discussions, but that’s a mistake, says Doug Long, an academic and college counselor at Interlochen Arts Academy High School in Michigan. “These are the people who know what a student’s strengths and weaknesses are and where they rank in terms of the larger talent pool. They’ll be able to advise kids if a college or conservatory’s arts program is a fit or a reach.” 

4. Visit the school—and sit in on a class. During your campus visits, encourage your child to join in on a photography class or reach out to a professor for a private music lesson. A school at the top of a student’s list can quickly fall to the bottom if he realizes that his artistic style doesn’t mesh well with the people who would be instructing him. He should also meet with a representative from the department that he’s considering applying to discuss what general school requirements there are; it’s important that he feels capable of balancing those courses and his arts studies.

This is also a great time to ask what sort of audition or portfolio is needed. Your child’s college counselor or an outside portfolio development course, offered at many arts schools, can help him edit and organize his selection. If he wants even more feedback, check out a National Portfolio Day event near you, where college reps are available to review artwork and answer questions. Go to portfolioday.net to see this year’s schedule.

5. Take advantage of summer opportunities. Many universities and conservatories have workshops or camps, which are great for both networking and for gaining more exposure to the institution as well as the instructors. Another good resource is the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s visual arts college fairs, where kids can learn more about their potential school choices. Visit their site at nacacnet.org to find a fair near you.

6. You can always transfer. Finally, remind your child that it’s okay to change her mind and transfer schools or majors. It’s normal for kids to realize that their interests in college differ from what their passions were in high school. Your liberal arts, school-bound, dance-devotee may decide that her required courses are taking away precious practice time and make a switch to a conservatory; or her journalism elective could capture her attention and inspire her to change her career direction completely.

Of course, to your high schooler, the college admissions process probably seems like the most weighty decision of her life. Be supportive throughout the ordeal of essays, applications, auditions, and SATs, and remember that when in doubt, the school’s college counselor is only a call away.



Rachel Morris

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor



Doug Long
Academic and college counselor at Interlochen Arts Academy High School in Michigan

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