Helping Students Choose the Right College, Conservatory, or University

Earlier this month, I attended Unified College Auditions in both New York City and Chicago, and also visited several college campuses.  I’ve been a college audition coach for several years and was happy to be able to observe the process first-hand, this time as the parent of a high school senior who is auditioning for 15 schools.

Unified Auditions include opportunities to audition and interview for B.A.’s, B.F.A.’s, and sometimes M.F.A.’s in musical theatre, acting, directing, technical theatre, and design.  They are held each February in New York City, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, and are attended by many colleges, conservatories, and universities.  Not all schools send representatives to Unified Auditions, and those schools usually offer 3-4 audition dates on their own campus.

The competition for acceptance to college theatre programs, especially musical theatre, is intense.  Many of the top schools audition 800-900 students for six to thirty places.  Even the smallest programs will typically audition 300-400 for a few spots.

The best advice you can offer students is: START EARLY!  Spring of junior year is the time to search out programs that may be a good fit.  My students typically apply for 10-15 programs because of the competition factor — that’s a lot of applications and an early start will help alleviate some of the stress of senior year.

No two college websites are the same; some are excellent and some are not, so be sure to read carefully and make detailed lists of requirements for each school.

In deciding which schools may be a good fit, encourage students to think about where they want to spend four (sometimes five) years.  I’ve heard many times, “I don’t care where I go as long as the program is good.”  That’s a great attitude, but the same students have, on occasion, transferred at the end of the first year because they couldn’t stay healthy in the winters of upstate New York or disliked being in a rural area or busy city.

What constitutes a good fit?  Some colleges focus on singers who act and dance; others will make offers to triple threats who are equally strong in all areas.  It’s worthy of note that I’ve never seen a dancer or actor who didn’t sing well, be accepted by any college musical theatre program.  There are many dance and acting programs that require a vocal audition, and will accept students who aren’t yet great singers, if they show potential.  Students should consider whether their GPA, SAT and ACT scores are within the range that the school will typically accept. If not, think about whether the cost and time involved in visiting the campus for an audition is worth the effort.  If the school auditions at Unifieds, that makes the decision easier, if the student is already going to be there.

Also encourage students to think about what they want from their college experience.  If they don’t want to take academic classes, a conservatory is likely to be a good fit.  If they enjoy academics and want to augment performing arts study with classes in literature, philosophy, history, languages, math or sciences, a liberal arts school with a strong performance program may be a better choice.  If the university has a graduate program in theatre, determine who actually teaches first and second year students — faculty or graduate students?  Are the voice teachers “classical” and, if so, do they understand Mix and the demands musical theatre puts on voices?

Some B.F.A. programs have a mandatory cut that usually occurs at the end of the second year.  Typically, a percentage of the B.F.A. students, sometimes as high as 50%, will be moved to a B.A program in general theatre studies.  Applicants should consider whether they would want to remain at the school if they are cut from the B.F.A. program.

There are many, many good college theatre programs and not all of them are at the “top” schools.  Encourage students to look at smaller schools where they will get personal attention.  Remind them that, in the audition room for professional shows, no one cares where they went to school.  The only thing that matters is what they bring to that audition.

It’s best to take the ACT and/or SAT spring of junior year.  Those tests can be taken multiple times, so there are opportunities to repeat the tests in the fall if the initial scores aren’t where they need to be.  Some schools require only the SAT; others will accept the ACT or both.

Due dates for college applications vary.  Most colleges do not offer Early Decision or Early Acceptance for theatre majors, so the November 15 Early Application deadline does not apply.  Keep in mind, however, that most schools will not schedule an audition until they have received an application.  It’s best to apply by November 15 and to follow up within a few days to schedule auditions.  As early as December 1, some schools will have filled their audition appointments.  Others still have availability in early January, but it’s wise to schedule before that time.  A case in point: one of my students waited until January to call, and couldn’t get an audition slot for his first-choice school.

Audition scheduling is challenging.  Some colleges make it easy by allowing students to request specific audition dates on the original academic application.  Other schools need an email requesting an audition date.  Still others prefer phone calls.  Most high school advisors agree that students should make their own phone calls to colleges, and that parents should make those calls only if phone tag drags on for a week or more.

Keep in mind the emotional and physical stamina that is required for auditions.  Some college auditions are 15 minutes long; others last five or six hours.  Students who attempt to fit ten auditions into two days are typically exhausted and therefore not doing their best work.

Many parents wonder how involved they should be.  Most high school seniors want to take ownership of their college applications and do as much of the scheduling as possible.  Honestly, if they aren’t organized enough for this level of detail, they aren’t likely to be successful in a competitive theatre program.  Parents should, however, scan each application before it is submitted, to be sure there aren’t typos or other information errors.  The traveling that is required for auditions is a different matter.  Very few high school seniors are ready to make this kind of trip on their own.  Our recent trip covered five states in ten days.  My job was logistics, food, and laundry!

After all the applications and auditions are complete, there is usually a wait of two to six weeks before colleges begin sending “offer” or “rejection” letters.  Typically, most schools notify in early March.  During the waiting period, encourage students to focus on their next project.  If they are auditioning to sing for high school graduation, work on that.  Review audition books and look for new songs to fill in any gaps.  Suggest they work on all the songs they’ve always wanted to sing, and never had time for.

Remind seniors that they will receive acceptance letters, and they will receive rejection letters.  It’s all part of the process.

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