Michelle L. Barraclough
You think your kid is talented (what parent doesn’t, right?). Maybe talented enough to make a career out of this music or theater thing. But those careers are pretty unstable, aren’t they? There must be a million actors waiting tables hoping for their big break and musicians working ‘day’ jobs so they can play with their band at night. But maybe, just maybe--your kid could be the one to make it. So you agree (maybe reluctantly) to look at college music and theater programs.
I’m a flutist and college music professor with over 30 years of teaching and playing experience. In 2017, my older daughter decided to take auditions for collegiate musical theater programs. While I am very familiar with how auditions work for music programs, adding theater to the mix brought new challenges. I started reading as much information as I could. I had several panicky moments--what if she had never taken tap dance lessons? What about acting camp? Should she ignore her school theater program for other opportunities in the community?
I found a lot of information that seemed to apply to folks who had been dancing since the age of 2 who also had acting coaching and singing lessons since age 5 and did regional theater, and modeled or appeared in a baby food commercial. There was not much information for ‘regular’ people like us: small town middle class family with a talented kid. I continued to read every article and ‘best colleges’ list I could find. Some were helpful. Some were downright discouraging. I keep reading and learning. One of the few topics of conversation with me during that time was about the college audition process. I’d like to thank my family, friends, and colleagues for putting up with that!
I’ll tell you about the process my daughter and I experienced. Yours will be unique to you, but we hope that sharing our journey will give you tools to manage yours well. I’ll tell you about the research, audition preparations, applications, the actual audition days, the rejection letters, our decision-making process, and the final results of the process. Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure this has a happy ending!
So take a deep breath, and get ready for the roller coaster of emotions that come with having a kid audition for theater schools.
Part 1: Starting the College Search & Gathering Information
First, your student should ask themselves some questions, which are really some of the same questions anyone doing a college search should be asking.
● Do I want to attend a large university or a small college?
● How far away from home am I willing to go?
● How large (or small) is the theater department? Small shouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent here, because students will get more individual attention in a smaller setting. However, small can also be seen as ‘exclusive’, with all of its connotations.
● What does the program offer? How many shows/concerts are produced each year? How many are student-led vs. faculty-directed? What courses are required in the major? Are there any experiential learning opportunities (internships, study abroad)?
● What setting do I prefer--metropolitan area or a suburban campus? For more suburban campuses, are there larger cities nearby?
● What are the academic requirements for admission to the school?
● What are the costs--tuition, housing, food, transportation, etc.?
● What are the audition requirements?
● Are there opportunities to network with professionals in the field?
● What percentage of students are accepted into the program each year?
● What are the alumni of the program doing now?
The Internet can be a great source of information in your school search, but it can be a very subjective field. Many schools claim they have a strong program with distinguished alumni and excellent connections to the professionals. That’s all important, but in the end, you need to do what feels right for you and your student. High school guidance offices can offer sources for general college sources, but may not have specifics about performing arts programs. When I explained what the college audition process was going to entail to a high school guidance counselor, a blank look was the response. They didn’t really have a solid idea of what was going to be necessary to make this process a successful one. I don’t blame them really--they have a large job to do and it’s very difficult to be an expert in every college discipline offered. You may find yourself educating not only yourself, but your family, friends, school administrators, and community members.
Searches should be a collaboration between your student and you. Theater students tend to be busy people, so some parent involvement is probably going to be normal. If the parent is doing all of the work; however, it might be time to step back and think about things. Who is the one who is motivated to do this, really? If it’s only the parent, that should be a clue that this may not be the college major for your student.
Try just using your favorite search engine. Be a bit specific: “Best theater schools in (name of state)” or “College theater programs in the South” will generate better results than a general ask for “collegiate theater programs.” A caveat: you will start to see a lot of lists that list the “best” schools. While there are several very notable programs, like Carnegie Mellon and New York University, remember that these are extremely competitive programs for acceptance. Keep the goal in mind--acceptance at a theater school-- and don’t overload your list with all top-tier schools, unless you really like taking enormous risks. Another article I read gave good advice here: your list should have a balance of extreme reach schools (accept 5% or less of applicants), reach schools (accept >15% of applicants), “good fit” schools (accept over 15% of applicants), and safety schools (no audition required). Within that list, the largest portion should be “good fit” schools. A list of all reach or extreme reach schools may result in a lot of rejections, and no one gets in at every school they apply to. You’re going to come up with more information that you realized, and it’s going to feel very daunting. Do your best to look at each source with a critical and objective eye.
Here are some sources you may find useful:
This is the College Board (the people who bring you the SAT) college search site. You build a profile which then generates a list of schools based on your criteria. You can also just choose the College Search option and narrow your options as much or as little as you like. The more criteria you put in, the more your choices will be refined. This was the site I used the most when first creating a list of schools to consider. It came up with many schools that may not have been on my radar screen immediately.
This blog devoted to theater that includes articles about best theater schools. One article I found there listed ‘underrated’ theater programs in different areas of the country. That article was invaluable to us, as it led us to schools that were likely attainable, very high quality, and had many of the features of a top tier school. The original article I saw has since been replaced with an updated version, so check back or follow the site on social media to get the updates.
Theater web pages of individual schools
If you have some schools in mind, take a look at their theater department page. Look at faculty bios, recent productions, available disciplines, and required courses.
It’s idea to visit campuses before you narrow your list, if at all possible. We visited 3-4 campuses during the summer of my daughter’s junior year in high school. That seems early, but it was really useful for her. She didn’t necessarily have a good feel for what a large school or an urban school was until she visited some. It helped clarify in her mind what she wanted in a school. A surprising side benefit was that it made college feel more ‘real’ to her and less overwhelming. She said after a few visits that she could start to picture herself going to college in the future, instead of just having it be this big mysterious thing.
I strongly advise trying to see a collegiate performance at a school your student is interested in if possible. This was suggested at several of our tours and we were able to squeeze in some. It really gave us an idea of the quality of performance and the material that the school was tackling. Some things to consider--a balance of faculty led and student led performances, a mix of standard material with new material, good quality facilities, and professors who are active in their field. Pay attention to the vibe you feel during your visit. It sounds like voodoo, but if it feels right or wrong to you, go with your feeling. We visited one campus that just felt ‘flat’ to us, with no real explanation for why. I didn’t spend time analyzing the feeling--we just moved on to the next visit. Each campus has its own personality and it’s important that your student can imagine fitting into that setting.
It may not be possible to visit every school on your list prior to auditioning. There simply was not enough time or money for us to visit everything beforehand. That’s ok--most campuses offered tours on the audition day and had plenty of faculty and current students on hand to answer questions.
If your student has a friend who attends a school that’s on their consideration list, have them talk to them, even if they are in a different major. They can give you a real perspective on the campus atmosphere and won’t censor themselves. Most campus tours will make the place sound great--that’s their job! Try to find out some of the downsides to campus life there, and decide if they are things you can live with. No school is completely perfect.
Narrow the list
After doing your online research and visiting a few schools, it’s time to narrow your list. See the list of questions above and ask them again. Now how does your list look?
Just how many schools should you apply to? Check out your balance of extreme reach, reach, good fit, and safety schools. Think carefully about your selections and be brutally honest here: while everyone would love to get into (insert name of super reach school here), it’s not going to happen. Find out the school’s ratio of auditionees to acceptances and what their department size is. Some of the schools will audition 500-1000 students in music theater and accept 16-20 students. That is less than 2%! Know the odds, and decide how much you want to gamble.
A frequently referenced article on the Internet that says musical theater students should apply to 15-20 schools. After picking myself up off the floor, I told my daughter I didn’t have 15-20 application fees in our budget. We settled on nine schools that fit within the criteria that were important to her. This was done by July before her senior year, as she needed to prepare audition material in time. One was a safety school which did not require an audition but still had a strong program with many good features. Most felt like big reaches, which made me nervous. I tried to emphasize the importance of keeping the end goal in mind--to get into a school with a great program, and not get too attached to any one place, which was easier said than done.
Remember those deep breaths? Keep taking them, but know that in narrowing your list, you’ve already made some important steps in the process.