Navigating College Applications for Music Majors
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.
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 - getacceptd.com or slideroom.com 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. https://www.violinist.com/blog/susannaviolin/202110/28969/ 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.
I suggest using the summer to prepare for the application "bits" you will need in the fall:
- Create a College List document with links to audition pages that you can visit easily. Make a master audition list that you bring to your teacher, encompassing everything you will need to have in your fingers by the audition dates.
- Create a draft of all your musical activities (orchestras, years of lessons etc) and all your extracurricular activities, including volunteering, employment. This is what you will draw from to create a resumé, which some colleges require, or list your extracurriculars which many application portals ask for. Enter dates for everything, don’t worry too much about formatting yet.
- Create a checklist for each school or a spreadsheet for all where you can mark off each time you have done a required element.
Consider setting up a separate gmail account for all of your applications. Check it every day once you are in the application to enrollment cycle. You will be bombarded with email, literally dozens of emails a week. If you sign up for college board recruitment emails, you will get hundreds.
Make a list of possible recommenders - academic non-musicians and of course music teachers - who can advocate for you passionately.
- I strongly suggest communicating directly with schools and teachers, not having your parents do it for you. Practice getting college ready (it’s a process!) by taking charge This is also a way to show prospective teachers your maturity.
- Some colleges waive the application fee if you have done a campus tour :)
- FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) opens Oct 1. If your income is very limited, fill out FAFSA as soon as you can but certainly between applying and auditioning, as some federal and state grants are first come, first served. Priority deadline is usually February, but you have all the information you need to do it sooner, so go ahead and do so. Be forewarned and make peace with the fact that most financial aid for middle class families comes in the form of loans.
- Parents, get your financial documents in order over the summer: know where your taxes are and be ready to scan if necessary. The tax return you need is from the last completed return (for example, we used our 2020 return to apply for Fall of 22 financial aid).
- Parents: Know what will be counted as family assets. Retirement funds and small business assets are not counted as family assets in FAFSA. What this means is that if you have been running a small business without setting it up as a separate entity (just putting it on schedule C) - consider changing to an LLC or similar structure at least two years ahead of time. 529 college accounts are counted as family assets - it is the equivalent of having cash on hand.
- For most private colleges and conservatories, a CSS application (College Scholarship Service) is required. CSS is another (sigh) financial aid application. You’ll be filling it out in addition to the FAFSA, not instead of. There is a fee (you can apply for a waiver), and many colleges/conservatories insist you upload tax returns to verify what you have declared, so be ready.
- If you are a high academic achiever, consider applying at state colleges by the scholarship deadline in late fall. Large scholarships from state schools rely on academics more than the audition score. Many schools have gone test optional, but if you have reason to believe you can score well (with repeated attempts scores inevitably go up), you should absolutely take the SAT and submit scores (be prepared to pay fees yet again for each score you send).
- Private colleges and conservatories often have more discretionary funding for talent scholarships than state colleges do. Of course sometimes the competition for that funding is higher also. That is certainly true for conservatories.
- Doublers: make sure to mention many places in the application or interview that you also play viola, as viola is usually an "instrument of need" for departments!
- If you are going the state college route, investigate CLEP testing - most state colleges accept them as a fulfillment of a course. CLEP stands for College Level Examination Program. CLEP testing can potentially save money, and it will for sure save you precious time during your undergrad years. My kid Clep-tested for bio and math during high school, and now these are Gen Eds he won’t have to take if he goes the state route. He will have more time to practice. Check which CLEPs are accepted on college websites.
- Some schools (like VCU where I teach), charge tuition by the credit instead of lump sum, by the semester. This model is rare, but it can end up saving significant money for the right kind of student. AP credits, Clep tests and dual enrollment can lop off big tuition charges from your final college bill.
- Consider living at home or with a relative. Living expenses for college have exploded. Even the cheapest dorms are not cheap. My humble opinion: living at home is always better than going into debt as a music major. Musicians are not lawyers and doctors, we are performers and teachers with lower income, and limiting debt is going to be crucial.
- My son is applying to at least one German conservatory (Hochschule). This is a great route if you want to go to school virtually for free (tuition is in the hundreds, not thousands) and you know a European language well enough to do so. I was surprised, however, to find out that his 529 college plan cannot be used for his living expenses. Only schools that are on the FAFSA list are 529 plan eligible - and almost no European conservatory is. You can still use your 529 funds, but you’ll have to pay the back taxes on your market gains, and pay a 10% penalty.
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!
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