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Help your student apply to an arts program

By Lucy Ewing

When my daughter Anna was applying to college fine arts programs, I envied the parents of students who “only” had to meet general admissions requirements.

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High School Parent | College Parent

While the college admissions journey is strenuous for all, students applying to programs in the arts have a longer and more arduous path that requires early awareness and preparation.

Anna’s wakeup call came when she was a high school sophomore. The two of us were standing in line at a local art college for National Portfolio Day, where representatives from accredited art, design and film schools look at student portfolios and consult with prospective students.

All around us were students carrying large, black portfolios. As they reached the front of the line, they lifted out sheet after sheet of 18 X 24 still life renderings, charcoal studies and color slides of paintings. Anna had a few pieces, created in middle and early high school, with a telling amount of construction paper. After 30 minutes of waiting and watching, she stepped out of line and we fled.

Anna was lucky to suffer that embarrassment as a sophomore because it gave her insight into what’s expected for a college portfolio. Her high school didn’t offer portfolio preparation or AP-level art classes, so she took a summer class at the local art college as well as classical drawing lessons at an adult academy her junior year. When she visited National Portfolio Day the second time, early in senior year, she was accepted on the spot to a top-ranked college.

Portfolios, resumes, interviews, auditions, and special written assignments are all part of the process for students seeking acceptance into college programs in visual arts, theatrical arts, filmmaking, dance or music — especially if a fine arts degree is desired. Let’s get started!

Step 1: Fine tune a list of schools and programs

Requirements vary, so an important first step for a student is to narrow down the area of interest. For example, a theater student will have to decide whether to pursue musical theater or a “straight” theater program, as the latter will involve an entirely different list of colleges. A veteran high school theater teacher also advises students to consider “the experience you want. If you are thinking about a highly competitive program, you may not get as much on-stage experience as going to a different program. There are pros and cons of both. Consider also the region in which you want to base your career, as early connections are important!”

There are hundreds of fields in the visual arts, and different institutions focus on some more than others. Even in the area of textiles, which was my daughter’s focus, there are schools that specialize in fibers for gallery art as opposed to surface design for apparel and interiors.

Step 2: Research specific requirements for each institution and prepare accordingly

Students applying to a traditional liberal arts college, where they will earn a Bachelor’s degree, may not need special preparation, though in some cases an arts supplement to the application is permitted. At some traditional colleges, certain departments are competitive and acceptance to the college does not mean acceptance to a particular department.

Students applying for fine arts degrees most often must prepare special applications that reveal voice and demonstrate foundation skills. No matter how narrow the eventual major, first year college art and performance courses will focus more on these fundamentals. For art majors, this means that strong drawing skills are expected of all applicants, whether submitted by a future video game designer or a landscape architect.

Check out these typical requirements and tips for preparing. And then double-check the actual requirements for selected institutions!

Visual Arts | Theater Arts | Music Performance | Dance Performance | Film and Television | Jump to Step 3

Visual Arts

Portfolio requirement

Portfolios containing from 12 – 20 finished pieces (in any media) are the norm for many art schools. Most want to see observational drawings in a traditional method using a still life, figure model, or actual landscape (not from a photograph). They will accept work assigned for school or done independently by the student and may welcome pages from a journal or sketchbook.


Artwork for portfolios is perfect material for submission to local and national art competitions. High school art teachers can be expected to submit student work in competitions such as the Scholastic Awards (now presented by the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists and Writers) which has, since 1923, awarded more than 9 million high school artists and writers more than $25 million in scholarships.

Colleges generally do not want to see “craft” kinds of art products. Some schools also require a home assignment. For example, RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) asks all applicants to submit a drawing of a bicycle and one of an invented drawing instrument. Artwork needs to be carefully photographed and produced onto slides or uploaded to sites like Slideroom.


It can take many months to assemble an art portfolio, and some art schools accept applications as early as August of senior year. Savvy and passionate high school art teachers keep up with admissions counselors to make sure they are preparing their students well. Students who attend high schools with AP and portfolio art classes are at an advantage. For example, a Colorado high school well known for its arts program puts all interested visual and performing arts students on a four-year arts pathway with counseling and community mentors. The school also offers a special portfolio workshop for students aiming for art scholarships.

Another avenue for portfolio preparation is to attend one of the multi-week pre-college programs offered by art colleges. The end result of any of these endeavors is that students have highly developed skills as well as a body of requisite work.

Students can show their portfolios in advance at National Portfolio Day reviews scheduled across the country. Here students make personal connections with admissions counselors and get to talk through their body of work and practice discussing their artist statement. Once your student narrows down the top picks for college, it is recommended that she visit campuses to meet with admissions counselors, get another critique of her portfolio, and see art classes in progress. Jump to Step 3

Theater Arts

Audition requirement

Auditions are a core part of the process for theater programs, and they are conducted on campuses and at regional audition locations where multiple schools are represented. Many colleges require that students first apply for standard admission, and then the school will set audition appointments either on campus or instruct applicants to register for a regional audition. Some colleges also accept on-line auditions.

Students are typically asked to prepare two contemporary, contrasting monologues from published play scripts totaling two minutes. The monologue should be age appropriate and memorized.

At the audition, students should be prepared with a resume of their theater experience, a recent photo (it’s worth investing in a professional headshot), and music for the accompanist if musical theater is involved. Even though my son auditioned for a non-musical theater program, he was asked to sing.

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Dennard, Mary Anna and, I GOT IN! The Ultimate College Audition Guide for Acting and Musical Theatre 2015 Edition
Diehl, Chelsea, Before the College Audition: A guide for creating your list of acting and musical theatre undergraduate programs
Silver, Fred, Auditioning for the Musical Theatre


As with other arts pursuits, most students have been preparing for years for a major in theater, gaining experience on the high school stage and in community productions. High schools may offer audition camps. Depending on your local resources, private acting lessons may be available. My son took voice lessons and audition prep classes with a husband/wife team of former Broadway actors. There are also many helpful books and websites (see sidebar).

Membership in the local chapter of the National Thespian Society, offered at many high schools, can be helpful, and the society’s magazine is full of useful information. The society also hosts state and national conferences where students can perform in solo or group categories for recognition and scholarships. These conferences are also where students can meet dozens of college representatives. Jump to Step 3

Music Performance

Audition requirement

A live audition and interview will likely be required. Applicants can expect to be asked to perform a 3-5 minute selection that exhibits their strengths and style, and also to demonstrate improvisation (sometimes jamming with professors) as well as sight-reading and ear-training skills. Vocalists can choose a piece from a well-known artist or band in any style, a standard or jazz tune with improvisation, or a composition from an aria or a musical theater selection. Certain instruments may require memorized major scales and chromatic scales. Percussionists will be asked to play from many grooves and techniques, from funk to the Bossa Nova on drums and congas and bongas by hand.

The interview is a key part of the audition meeting. The college wants to know the goals and aspirations of young musicians, what drives them to apply to an arts program, and why their program is a fit.


Music majors are expected to have a high degree of technical skill. Individual colleges will refer to the grades of IV or higher, based on state association handbooks. Participation in high school bands, orchestras, and jazz ensembles are the best way to acquire extensive experience and to develop the discipline required of the majors. Many serious music students also take private lessons and/or play in their own bands and ensembles. Area colleges often sponsor music camps for high school students with audition skills in mind.

Participation in high school groups also allows students to audition for and perform in all-state choirs, bands and orchestras. They can perform in state band competitions and at music festivals across the country, both of which are excellent resume material. A drummer at our local high school entered an internet contest sponsored by a major drum maker and ended up a featured winner for his rapid sticks. Jump to Step 3


“Planning ahead is important for time-intensive portfolios and projects. Prepare for the inevitable snag with uploading large files of images and video footage. If you are hiring a professional photographer to photograph artwork or provide headshots, schedule well in advance. Build in extra time on audition day, too — colleges recommend that students arrive 30 minutes early. Singing? Remember the accompanying music and resumes — maybe even a pianist if one is not provided!”

Dance Performance

Audition requirement

Dance auditions are often a two-part audition. One part involves dancing as part of an actual class at the college or conservatory, consisting of ballet and jazz/modern combinations. Applicants will then be asked to perform a two-minute solo dance choreographed by the applicant or someone else, either immediately after or in an afternoon callback. Music, if any, should be provided on compact disc or iPod. Dancers will be asked to bring a dance resume and a dance photo (a full body shot in leotard and tights for females, white shirt and black tights for males).


Unless the dancer attends a school for the performing arts with a dance program, most preparation in this field is through private studio classes and performances. Students will have acquired the requisite skills through many years of dance, which may include participation in competitions and summer intensives with professional ballet companies. Jump to Step 3

Film and Television 

Portfolio requirement

Multi-part creative portfolios are common for film and television applicants. One core part of the NYU application is a creative submission that shows visual storytelling and imaginative thought. Depending on the major, this can be accomplished with: a maximum ten-minute piece of live action, documentary or animation film or video; a portfolio of photographs or drawings (for fields such as set design); a sequence of images or drawings in a storyboard format or montage; or maximum six pages of creative writing that tells a complete short story, film script, or stage play. Each of these has specific formatting and submission requirements.


Many budding filmmakers have been experimenting with films and videos for years, starting with stop-gap animation camps in elementary school and advancing to homegrown movies with friends. (My son entered a “claymation” piece into an on-line competition sponsored by a children’s digital camera company and won a first prize Dell Computer and an interview with local media when he was 12!) Thanks to modern technology, these can be posted on sites like YouTube and gain a following.

Participation in high school art classes, especially photography, is an important part of the transcript. There may be video and film clubs at your student’s high school (if not, she can start one!). Pre-college programs at area art schools offer experiences for video and film students as well.

Step 3: Back to the basics

Remember that portfolios, auditions, arts resumes and photographs, are supplemental to the Common Application (accepted by most colleges), required essays, transcripts and standardized test scores. Admissions counselors will be reading essays with an eye for creative thinkers. Your student’s application should highlight creative accomplishments, awards, activities and relevant work experiences. The academic transcript should document coursework relevant to the creative field as well as academic rigor and good grades. 

While some may think that left and right brains are separate entities, colleges are looking for critical thinkers who have developed a work ethic to be creative on demand and in rigorous settings. “The top scholarships are always for students who have great art and great grades,” observes an experienced high school art teacher. “Art is an intellectual endeavor. You need to be a hard worker, talented, persevering and a risk taker. Art knows no cowards. Being able to create, articulate, write, explore, learn and demonstrate are paramount.”

When that last file is uploaded, the last audition door closed, high school seniors can be very proud of the extraordinary efforts their applications required. Applause for everyone! And let’s hope for many encores!

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