Choosing Your Target Schools

Part II of my conversation with Joe Deer, co-author of Acting in Musical Theatre.

Joe DeerPreviously…

The estimable Joe Deer, co-author of Acting In Musical Theatre: A Comprehensive Course, author of Directing in Musical Theatre, and Distinguished Professor of Musical Theatre at Wright State University, graciously gave me a preview of his upcoming presentation for the Educational Theatre Association’s national conference about helping high school students prepare to study theater in college. In the first part of our conversation, we reviewed the difference between the BFA and BA degrees and other degree options.

Let’s assume, now, that you’re ready to begin a search for the school of your dreams. You’ve thought about your goals and the type of program that would be right for you, but now you’re faced with an overwhelming array of options. Which schools should you apply to? And how many schools should be on your list?

It may be a comfort to know there are consultants ready to assist you with this daunting task. They’ve got considerable expertise, and they work hard to keep their knowledge up-to-date, but their services aren’t cheap. (Of course, neither is college, so some extra dollars spent choosing wisely isn’t hard to justify.) Often, you can pick up a few free pointers in the “blog” area of their websites. You’ll also find books on this topic on Amazon, but make sure you choose one that’s up to date, since this is a dynamic landscape where the schools, the players and the requirements change from year to year.

The pointers that Joe will be offering in his EdTA presentation, however, make it possible for an applicant (perhaps with a little help from a teacher, parent or well-organized friend) to get the job done without a price-y consultant. Let’s get started!

I’ve Got A Little List

When making a list of schools to apply to, your thoughts may go first to “marquee” schools that have well-established reputations, the ones you’ll find on lists like this. Because of their reputations and notable alumni, these schools have thousands of applicants every year competing for a dozen or so slots in the freshman class, so the odds of getting in are pretty slight. There’s no reason not to apply to one of these schools, even if it’s a long shot; however, it’s a good idea to get a teacher or trusted advisor to help you assess your likelihood of getting in and make sure you have other viable options.

Apart from the super-famous schools, where do you look? Teachers, guidance counselors, graduates from your high school and friends will have suggestions, and maybe even some opinions or anecdotes to share. Word of mouth is sure to bring you some good leads, but take the time to research the schools they recommend to you. Visit college fairs and regional theater events (like the International Thespian Association’s regional conferences) to see who’s represented there. Many schools offer a summer pre-college program, which is an ideal opportunity to “test drive” a particular school (and gather information on its competitors from your classmates).

You’ll quickly discover there’s a wide range of schools in every part of the US (and many other nations) that have well-established, highly-regarded training programs for serious singing actors. A resource Joe suggests that you may not have thought of is the membership list of the Musical Theater Educators Alliance, an organization that he and I helped create. While MTEA’s site does not offer comparative details on the programs of its member schools, you can feel confident that any school that belongs to MTEA is serious about providing a quality education to its students. As a plus, their site provide links to those schools’ main web pages, which makes it a useful shortcut in your search.

The Peterson’s Guide is another popular resource that allows you to search colleges of all sorts; a search on “Musical Theater Colleges and Universities” turned up nearly 250 hits. Other specialized guides have been compiled by industry publications like American Theater magazine (in their annual Education issue), Backstage, Show Business, PlaybillEdu.com, BroadwayWorld.com and CollegeExpress.com. The diligent searcher will find more than enough information online.

One online resource that Joe suggests you use cautiously is the forum at College Confidential. This site relies on the efforts of parents and students who are eager and well-intentioned but seldom experts in the field. Over the years, the forum members have compiled a sizable body of useful information, including lists of schools that offer a degree in musical theater, but there are no moderators, and you’d be well advised to treat whatever information you get from such sources with a dose of skepticism.

Compare Apples to Apples

If you’ve done your homework and cross-referenced all your sources, you probably have a substantial list of possibilities to consider and compare. When comparing schools, don’t let yourself be seduced by glossy brochures, college-fair trinkets or a starry roster of alumni. Dig into the website, ask faculty and students at prospective schools, and take a close look at these four key factors, advises Joe, so you know that you’re comparing “apples to apples”:

1. Curriculum.

What courses are offered, requirements and electives? How many hours per week and how many students in a section? Any musical theater curriculum will offer a mix of voice, acting and dance, but how much of each is offered, and what kind? Is the singing instruction compatible with the specific demands of the musical theater repertoire? Does the acting instruction embrace the notion of singing-acting, or does it condescend to the musical stage? Does the dance instruction include ballet, jazz, tap, musical theater styles, and contemporary vernacular dance? Are there opportunities to “put it all together” in integrative studio experiences? Are there opportunities for project-based learning? What about electives? How do the academic courses offered serve to enhance your development as an artist and a human being?

2. Faculty.

What is the mix of professional and academic experience in the faculty? How many full-time faculty are there, and what fraction of your education is being delivered by part-time “adjuncts?” Do the faculty have the particular qualifications you seek? For instance, are the singing teachers expert at teaching the vocal techniques required for the musical theater? What connections to “the business” do the faculty have?

3. Opportunities on campus.

What range of opportunities will there be for you to practice your craft? How many plays and musicals are produced, on what scale, and how are they cast? Will there be a chance for you to direct, choreograph, get original work produced? What about student films? Are you allowed to pursue off-campus opportunities? Are there student organizations where you can get experience with collaboration and leadership? And, equally important, are there opportunities to see first-rate professional work that will excite you and give you an awareness of the “state of the art?”

4. After graduation.

What is the success of alums and how does the university help them get there? Does the school help you make connections to the industry – guest artists, casting directors, guest directors? Can you begin building a professional orientation and a professional network there? Is there a showcase, either in New York, Los Angeles, or in places where there’s a professional “critical mass?” Many BFA program are likely to say they do a showcase, but is it effective? Are there measurable results? What has happened for recent grads?

Sticker Shock

As you gather information, you will also be looking at the tuition cost of each school. While every school publishes an official figure for tuition price, nearly every school offers discounts to that price in the form of grants and scholarships. This is especially true if you’re talented or represent a part of the student demographic that’s in demand. Making an objective assessment of the relative cost and value of your school choices will be hard, and you’re right to worry about the prospect of excessive loans to be repaid in the future. Still, there’s no avoiding this important step in your college selection process.

It’s a big job, and it requires a fair amount of organization and determination to complete it successfully, but diligence and patience will pay off. According to Joe, you’ll want to use your findings, along with information on geography and price, to narrow your search down to a list of 6-10 schools to apply to. Your list may well include one or two “marquee” schools but will also include a healthy mix of lesser-known schools offering BFA and BA experiences.

What next?

Once you’ve chosen your target schools, it’s time to prepare your auditions, and that’s be the subject of Part III of my “Joe Deer Sessions.” Please jump in with a comment if you’ve been through the experience of the college search yourself, or if you have questions I haven’t answered to your satisfaction!

Join the Conversation

6 Comments

  1. Really great advise. Glad to share with my students. One of the things I point out to my students is that many smaller programs, excellent programs without the marquee names are looking for students like you. They may have scholarship programs. I told my own daughter, who was accepted by several marquee programs and chose a lesser known program to great success that a yes without a “package” is often really a no. You don’t want to spend 4 years and thousands of dollars to be third girl from the left (not occasionally, but all the time) is not a good use of your time or money. Also, really look at diversity. A tall leggy black girl and a tall leggy blond, and a tall leggy brunette girl next door and a tall leggy sexpot and a tall leggy hispanic girl do not make diversity (especially if you are a juvenile or a character actress, or…..

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, it’s true, smaller schools are often ready to offer discounts (grants, scholarships) to attract students that might be ignored by more prestigious, competitive schools. And your point about diversity is crucial – students learn and grow from being around people who are different! Different races, different physical types, different personalities, different economic and social classes.

  2. Great interview, great advice. My son will start his freshman year in a BFA program in a few weeks. As a person who has very recently been through this process I can say high school teachers and guidance counselors know very little about BFA programs and specifically BFAs in MT. I don’t believe this is limited to my area in PA. My son auditioned at 5 schools and I met people from all over the country who had exact the same experience with their high schools. Fortunately most of the students applying have voice, dance or acting coaches they can depend on but it would be so helpful if guidance counselors were more in tuned with the programs out there. I’m not sure what can be done about this. I met a lot of students as well on this journey and I was amazed at how many were only applying to “marquee” schools. I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to them as I knew how slight the odds were but they seemed oblivious to it. This is very useful and I will pass it along to students applying this year and in the future. I also agree 100% with Lorian – students need to ask themselves “Is there room for me here”.

    1. I’m glad you found this information useful! Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, some high school students don’t even have the benefit of coaches, let alone guidance counselors, who understand the landscape. Hopefully this series, and Joe’s upcoming workshop, will help a little in those cases.

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