Navigating College Applications for Music Majors

March 11, 2022, 4:37 PM · As a music professor myself, I thought I would know most of the ins and outs of applying to music school. But as my own high school senior moved through the application and audition process this year, I got a real-life education about what it was like to be on the other side. Our goal as a family is to avoid significant college debt, so we applied to a mix of schools - state schools, conservatories, and private universities. We are still in the process, but I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned about the music application process in case it’s helpful to those considering music in the future.

music major college applications

About the Process:

The Covid experience has changed the audition process somewhat, although the basic scaffold remains the same. At Universities, you apply both to the University and apply/audition for the music school/department. The nitty gritty of applying has become a lot more layered and complex in recent years. The music departments use a variety of portals to manage their applications - or are some of the more common ones. Almost all of them have a small additional fee, and each platform is different and involves a learning curve. The language in the portals can be confusing - schools are still learning best practices, so don’t be afraid to email the admissions director for clarifications. Supplementary materials (like resume, recommendations) are uploaded into the portals, and they vary by school. Don’t wait until the day before the actual deadline, just in case you need to ask for clarifications or make smaller files.

You will find a combination audition options: live in person, virtual live, video recorded, or audio-only options. If auditioning virtually, invest in a microphone (any mic is better than none), unless you have an iPad Pro, which really has pretty good audio. Get used to recording yourself way before you have to. Here’s a post on how to make recording part of your regular practice: Dare to Record Your Violin Practice: Tips for Empowered Recording. The more selective programs request pre-screening video auditions, which are due in late fall. Regular auditions, whether live or virtual, usually happen in January and February.

The ways that you can "get to know" schools are plentiful. You can attend virtual parent/student information sessions, check out social media snippets and youtube channels, and attend virtual open houses. Campus tours have come back. Lessons with prospective teachers are easier than ever, thanks to Zoom!

Here are my tips for preparing for the "I want to be a music major" journey ahead of time:

In your junior year or the summer before your senior year, contact prospective teachers and sign up for a live or virtual lesson. This will help narrow (or widen) your list. It also lets teachers know you are really interested, or "hungry" as we like to say. Don’t worry, it’s not an audition. Expect to pay if you are auditioning for a conservatory, at state colleges or smaller programs, lessons are usually free. If a teacher does not have time for you as a prospective student, take this as a warning sign for a mismatch. Most music schools must recruit and should be working hard to get the best crop of students, for two reasons: First, according to NPR, colleges have recently seen a six-percent dip in enrollment - this means about one million fewer students are in college this year compared to pre-covid times. Secondly, declining birth rates are putting pressure on universities: Millennials are a 72.26 million population, Gen Z is only 67.06 million strong.

Getting organized:

I suggest using the summer to prepare for the application "bits" you will need in the fall:

Money Matters:

Final Words of Advice:

Don’t stress too much about which degree (performance, education, Bachelor of Arts etc.) you apply for - you can change within music once you are on the ground. Never hesitate to reach out to colleges and teachers with questions. There are no silly questions. What classes/programs do you offer? Will all my lessons be taught by professors or some by grad assistants? Visit schools either before or after you have been accepted. It’s ok to visit more than once! I’ve taught prospective students once over zoom and then again live when they came to visit. Get to know some students at the school you are considering.

The audition process can be daunting and stressful. That’s normal! Embrace it, because the payoff is huge - both for your maturity and your playing. Know that you will be stretched, and that you will grow immeasurably from it. Believe in yourself - there is a place for you - and enjoy the wild ride!


March 12, 2022 at 02:23 PM · A characteristically thorough and scholarly account from Prof. Klein. Well done!

One statement stood out to me:

"Make a list of possible recommenders - academic non-musicians and of course music teachers - who can advocate for you passionately."

What I see in many college students is that sometimes even good students don't have a list of three people who can recommend them for grad school, medical school, etc. As Susanna said, these letters need to be passionate, and they need to address multiple aspects such as work ethic, integrity, agreeable personality, etc. A letter can't just say, "So-and-so got an A in my course." (Note that FERPA prevents me from writing that a student got an A in my course unless the student has given me written consent to include information from their private student records. Contact me by email if you want to know how I've dealt with that.) How to make sure you've got three good references? You groom them in advance. If you do well in a certain course, and the teacher is also the advisor to one of your clubs, talk to them once in a while. Find an excuse to tell them about your latest accomplishments.

March 13, 2022 at 07:43 AM · Thanks for this excellent resource. A few comments:

”In your junior year or the summer before your senior year, contact prospective teachers and sign up for a live or virtual lesson. This will help narrow (or widen) your list. It also lets teachers know you are really interested, or "hungry" as we like to say. Don’t worry, it’s not an audition.”

It may not be an audition but it is a first impression and the student should prepare accordingly.

Also don’t panic if you can’t schedule a trial lesson. My daughter is a flute performance major at one of the top state university music schools, and she was accepted by the top professor without a trial lesson. This isn’t to say trial lessons aren’t a great idea—they absolutely are—just that a great audition can carry a student.

Students should be aware that conservatory auditions aren’t linear. It’s always a good idea to apply to reach, reasonable, and safety schools, but I have known of a student to get into a reach school and be simultaneously waitlisted by a safety school (granted, on a non-string instrument).

There is a meme going around to the effect of “I see you get two toppings on your pizza, you don’t need the FAFSA” and sadly that’s not much of an exaggeration. We don’t even bother with it despite being very middle class. Some universities do require it even for merit scholarships (not our daughter’s though) so double check, and everyone should fill it out for the first year anyway, just to see what might be available.

All three of my children got essentially two to three semesters’ worth of credit hours through AP exams, though this is very much dependent on the particular university. For our daughter, AP credits exempted her from nearly all the distribution requirements. Our oldest son (not a musician) got 19 credit hours from the University of Oklahoma for his “5” on the Spanish AP exam—they gave him the four semester sequence—and since then I have recommended to all of my bilingual students that they consider taking the AP exam in their second language. (We’re not bilingual; he just did exceptionally well in Spanish.)

I could not agree more about the importance of avoiding debt for music students.

March 13, 2022 at 07:23 PM · A general comment: I would recommend that parents never label any option as a "reach, reasonable or safety" school. The so-called "safety" school might well be the very best option in the end (for financial reasons, geographical reasons, personal reasons, academic reasons...), but if you've called it the "safety" school all along, then the psychology of this decision gets pretty complicated. I know this has become the nomenclature for "college advisors," but it's reductive and ill-conceived. Even if the counselor does this, the parent can at least maintain that every option has legitimate merits. (And don't apply to anything you feel is a "bad" option!)

March 13, 2022 at 10:06 PM · Hi Paul, Mary, and Laurie - I agree with everything you've said! Mary, I'm with you on the prospective student lesson - I often tell people to bring something very polished and something they are just starting. This way they get to see you at your best and you get polishing comments and you get to see them at their best (when they are helping start from scratch) The main point of a private lesson ahead of time (or at the end of the cycle before you sign on the dotted line) is to be able to tell if the teacher might be a good fit for you. Having gone into my undergrad without ever taking a lesson and then having a miserable time with my teacher, I always advise everyone to "try out before you buy". I like to think that there are no bad teachers out there (hmmm, I actually think there are), but there are teachers that are more right for a particular student at a particular point in time.

March 14, 2022 at 05:56 PM · Hi Suzanna! A friend of mine sent me this article this morning and I just finished reading it. I am so glad that people are reaching out to high schoolers and their parents and presenting this valuable information. I have a program that specifically helps high school students get ready for their college auditions called, “Get In!” ~ For 6 months my participants train in several online workshops with a Performance Psychology Coach (Noa Kageyama Ph.D from Juilliard) a body language expert (Mark Bowden. He gave an amazing TED Talk at the Royal Academy of Music and has been a guest on the Dr. Phil Show) and an audition strategist (Christopher Still from the L.A.Philharmonic). Every month we work on mock auditions, mock interviews and keep track of their applications and scholarship deadlines. I even sit down with them to help pick out universities. I would love to have you do an online Q&A with my participants this summer. I would love to be able to give my students a parent’s perspective and perhaps invite the parents to listen in as well. Thank you!

March 15, 2022 at 01:22 AM · Hi Susan, that sounds like an amazing program (and what I would have loved as a parent!). Yes - reach out to me at practizma{AT} and we will connect :)

March 15, 2022 at 05:04 PM · Thank you! I am looking forward to meeting you :)

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