Where to apply, and how to get through college application hell?

July 26, 2011 at 11:45 PM ·

Hello everyone, I am hoping for a lot of help and that some of you out there will feel like sharing your hard won information. I am a rising senior approaching the college application process with a great deal of fear and trepidation. I have been studying violin since I was 6 and want to go to either a conservatory or a really excellent music program within a university. I may be wrong but I think my chances may be higher at a conservatory because, although I not stupid I don't have amazing grades from high school. I think I am a pretty strong player, but I am not the absolute tops - I enter competitions and never quite win, but I have won concertmaster seats in regional and chamber orchestras for example. I know there is fiendish competition out there but I am going to try for Curtis anyway. Here goes nothing..... So here are my questions. Where else should I be looking if I want a really good teacher, lots of chamber music, and I am a serious player aiming for a full time (not solo of course) playing career but I'm not a Juilliard Prep kind of kid? And on another note, does anyone have any advice on how to go about managing the application process? Don't many schools have auditions at about the same times? How do you cope with missing so much school to go to auditions, and how do you manage the simple business of getting to them all? And finally, does anyone have any suggestions on how to help my poor parents pay for all this - any suggestions on successfully applying for scholarships etc. In other words, would someone like to hold my hand through the next few months? : )

Thanks so much, in advance.....

Replies (23)

July 27, 2011 at 12:48 AM ·

I did my college and conservatory applications last year. My advice: START RIGHT NOW. I did most of my applications the week they were due; I did some of them on the day of, with the midnight deadline approaching.

Talk to your teacher about what schools s/he wants you to apply to, and what teachers he or she thinks you might work well with. Do some research on your own, call some teachers up, and take lessons with them to see who you work best with.

As for the schools having their auditions at around the same time, for most of the conservatories you're allowed to request a certain date (out of a select few); go to their websites, see what their audition dates for undergraduate violin are (some of them may be tentative, like at MSM), and then you can try to choose the dates that are best for you so that you won't miss too much school, or you won't have auditions on consecutive days (my NEC, Mannes, and MSM auditions were on three consecutive days, in that order); also, if you contact them ahead of time, you can try and work out conflicts with them. Some admissions offices are easier to work with than others.

As for missing school... why wouldn't you want to miss school? I only missed a few days, but some of my friends missed entire weeks of school when they went off to other parts of the country to take auditions (at say, San Francisco Conservatory, or Rice). Your teachers shouldn't penalize you unless you don't manage to make up missing work and keep updated on the material.

Traveling... you'll either have to invest in many tanks of gas, Amtrak tickets, or plane tickets depending on where you live. It's unfortunate and expensive, but there really is no good substitute for live auditions. Don't do regional auditions, that was a mistake I made; you don't get make as strong an impression that way. Some of the audition panel may take it as you not caring enough to make the effort to get to their school to do an audition.

As for the expenses... good luck. Try to apply for some scholarships if you can, to help out.

July 27, 2011 at 01:09 AM ·

I also just went through it all last year. The thing that was drilled into my head the most was

"check out the teachers at lots of schools, try to arrange lessons with them, and find out who you work with best"

I was lucky enough to get into the Jacobs school but I met the teacher at UNC chapel hill at a seemingly pointless audition, only to find that I learned better with him than I have with anyone else, so UNC it is.

      Also, sign up for auditions early! And always take on-campus auditions if possible.

As far as missing school goes, many of my teachers were really cool about it when i told them I had to skip to go to auditions for college.


Hope this helps!

July 27, 2011 at 09:56 PM ·

I'm only in grade 10, but one piece of advice is never send in the cd. If your serious about a school,  the institution isnt "backup plan", and you can afford it go in live. An audition pannel will always consider charm, magnetism and a good performance. If things go bad early this is ok because you can reapply/apply elsewhere.

July 27, 2011 at 10:04 PM ·

 My Advice:

Music Schools are extremely competitive, but also extremely political.  Aiming high is dangerous, but also necessary.  As far as live auditions go (assuming you pass pre-screenings) I wouldn't apply to more than 5 or 6 or you'll go crazy.  Pick 2 reaches, 2 comfortable ones, and 2 shoe-ins.  But, you'll come to realize there are no "shoe-ins" if you are coming in as a nobody and don't know any/havent had any lessons with any of the faculty.  Good Luck, it's brutal - and remember that being denied from and accepted at certain schools is not necessarily a real indicator of your playing ability-It's a game with a lot of luck and politics involved.

July 27, 2011 at 10:45 PM ·

Oh, and for your prescreening recordings, go to a GOOD professional studio that routinely works with "classical" musicians; these places can charge $80+ an hour, but trust me, it's worth it. Make sure you have enough time, I'd recommend at least a couple hours (I only had one hour, which gave me time for two takes of my concerto, and straight takes of my Bach movements and my Paganini caprice; I had to leave in all my mistakes and everything because I simply didn't have enough time) and book WAY in advance, or you'll never get a time slot.

July 28, 2011 at 02:32 AM ·

I noticed you are from Connecticut.  The University of Connecticut has a wonderful violin teacher named Theodore Arm.  I think you might find you can win a scholarship and there is an added advantage of state tuition fees.  Curtis is free but  unless you are a prodigy you won't have a chance to get in and would be wasting time and money applying.  I don't think it is worth hocking your future for a music education since there are so few opportunities for employment after you graduate.  Private conservatories like NEC or Julliard won't give you much in scholarships unless you are absolutely amazing.  Those kind of schools are also very costly and will put you in great debt.  There are opportunities for scholarships at state schools such IU, Michigan, and Maryland.  I would check out lesser known public schools with good teachers, schools that have realistic scholarship opportunities.  Remember the teacher is more important than anything else.  After you graduate no one cares about where you went to school.  The only thing that matters is how you play. 

July 28, 2011 at 04:36 AM ·

The viola world I've noticed isn't a backup anymore.. I've had friends that say that violinists have all felt that running to the viola is a easy backup based on competition level. However my friends say the viola competition has risen and that people are more and more switching to viola. I've witnessed this competition go up before my eyes. I personally have switched violin to viola based on historical reasons and have found competition to be just as hard. :)

but yes I've really benefited from reading these posts! Thank you all as well!

July 28, 2011 at 03:38 PM ·

Eastman gives lots of merit scholarship, that's why I'm going there!

July 28, 2011 at 04:02 PM ·

Hi Ros - To complement the excellent advice already offered, I've posted audition tips in this post on V.com: http://www.violinist.com/blog/Klickstein/20115/12360/

Best of luck!

August 1, 2011 at 03:19 PM ·

 Lots of good advice here. To it I would add:

Check out the Music Majors discussion board at College Confidential. You will find a lot of concrete and supportive advice from students, parents, and the occasional college rep there. The vibe is very different from violinist.com because the posting is required to be anonymous (whereas violinist.com requires transparency.) Both are valid formats; however because (as someone said above) conservatory admissions can be quite political, there is some sense in anonymity. The discussion is completely civil and supportive.

As for whether to book a professional studio for recordings-- this is a somewhat debatable topic. I know students who spent thousands on professional studio recordings. I know a LOT of students who had their audio recording spliced and edited digitally by professionals. This can be done without detection, which is why so many programs now require DVD recordings. I know students whose families spent further thousands on professional DVD recordings.

My daughter's recordings were made in a hall with great acoustics, but we made them on our home-quailty video camera. We used her school's professional quality mikes and cd recorder for the audio recordings (the video was made simultaneously, but I did not have the expertise to put them together, nor to do any digital editing.) I wasn't even sure how to set up the mikes correctly.... but it all worked out and she made all of her pre-screenings. The total cost to us (except for the accompanist) was about ten dollars-- the cost of the mini dv tape and the cds and dvds we duplicated in our home computer.) She did one audition by DVD, for which we used the prescreening DVD plus Paganini and another Bach movement, recorded in our house.

Would we take this risk again? I'm not sure. I would like to think you can trust the prescreeners to recognize a good audition made in a non-professional setting. 


August 1, 2011 at 04:12 PM ·

My advice is to play it safe... sending in a recording that's noticeably lower-quality than most of the others will only hurt their impression of you.

August 1, 2011 at 05:36 PM ·


Dr. Bruce Berg, Professor of Violin, Baylor University

  1. Start exploring the possibilities early. You should start looking for your ideal university, college, or conservatory experience beginning in your junior year in high school. Ask your teacher and other musicians for advice about where to apply and who they would recommend as a major teacher. Many high school guidance counselors will not have a clue about where to apply for an excellent musical experience. Don’t set your sights too low when considering schools. Some of the older, more established schools have endowments which can supply lots of “need” scholarship money. At the same time, don’t set your sights too high and be realistic about your possibilities. For instance, the acceptance rate at Juilliard is 3%.
  2. Once you have narrowed your choices to a minimum of 3 or 4 schools, visit them. Many music schools have short summer programs where you can get to know the teachers and the atmosphere of the campus. Insiders tip: If you express interest in applying to the school, often you will be offered a scholarship to the summer program. If you are not offered a scholarship, ask for one. They might say no, but then again they might say yes. IT NEVER HURTS TO ASK.
  3. Ask for a lesson. Some applied instrument teachers will give you a free lesson if you express interest in applying to their school. Make sure that you play something you know really well in this lesson. Don’t play something you just started working on. Remember: This Is Part Of Your Audition and the impression you make in this first encounter is very important. In some cases you can get an indication about your possibilities for acceptance from the teacher.
  1. Take the SAT early. If at all possible take a course about how to take the SAT. These courses can raise your score by as much as 100 points. If you don’t do well the first time, take it again. Also, if you are not a math-friendly person take the ACT test. Artistic types do better on this test.
  2. Keep your grades up! Academic aid at many schools can make the difference of whether you can go to the school or not.
  3. Apply on time. Many colleges have a deadline of Dec. 1 for completed applications. One of the most difficult parts of the application is writing the dreaded essay. Write it early and have your English teacher at school check it for grammar and sentence structure.
  4. Seriously consider the BME or music education degree. Especially in strings and in Texas you are virtually assured of getting a teaching job upon graduation with benefits in the public schools at a competitive salary. Some school systems will pay tuition for you to go on to get a masters degree.
  5. Keep after your parents to do their tax return in January. In many cases the FAFSA will have to be filled out by Feb. 1. The FAFSA is important for getting government grants and awards and also for getting need money from the schools you have applied for.
  6. THE AUDITION. 2 useful websites are: http://music.cua.edu/html/gatwood/college_auditions.html Preparing For College Auditions, for high school string players. http://www2.smumn.edu/Music/Scholarships/audhelp.html Preparing for College Scholarship auditions.
  7. You will probably need a minimum of 3 selections for your audition. Your teacher will help you decide on repertoire. Pick repertoire that you can really play well. Difficult repertoire played poorly makes a bad impression. Make sure, even if it is not required, that you memorize all selections and make sure you know all the music. You never know if they will ask you to skip to the last page. Make sure you arrive in plenty of time for the audition. Dress well: No jeans and t shirt, but formal dress is not necessary. In most auditions you will be asked to choose the first selection. Choose the piece that shows you off best. In your audition don’t go for notes over being expressive. The audition committee will be looking for talent and a good technical setup; they will not be bothered by a few missed notes. If you feel you played poorly and are talented, the audition committee will see beyond this. The audition committee may ask if you have any questions. Be sure to have one or two prepared.
  8. Decision time: Most schools will send out acceptances and scholarship packages by April 1. You will have until May 1 to decide in most cases. If a university you really want to go to offers you too little money to make it possible for you to attend, ask for more (very politely). They may say no, but then again….

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August 1, 2011 at 08:48 PM ·

I don't know if your question really is about the repertoire, problably you already decided about it. But I advice you to take something completely inside your comfort zone. And as said above: play musically, not only technically. To my experience it is more important to show potential than perfection and it also makes it easier if you don't fear to integrate your temperament in the music even though it is a audition. Smile if they interrupt you ;), even if you feel uncomfortable in that moment, try to make a positive impression and feel confident about your performance in every second. Its hard, I know that from experience, and especially when your nerves are tensed. I advice you to practice that. Play alot for friends and tell them to interrupt you, try to find an good ending in that second. I admit it is only a small cosmetic tip, but you cant care enough before auditions.

best of luck to you!

August 1, 2011 at 09:45 PM ·

Oh, and just one more thing (I promise I won't say any more afterwards), but... especially at your Curtis audition... do NOT look at the judges while playing. I took a lesson with one of the teachers there, and at one point while I was playing, he stood up (so I looked over at him, because I thought he was going to stop me), and he did stop me, to yell at me for "breaking focus," after which he told me that if you look at the judges while playing in your audition, or flinch at a noise they make, they either take off points or disqualify you completely. Maybe the other schools aren't as strict as this.. but he claims that's what they're like at Curtis.

August 1, 2011 at 10:37 PM ·

Bruce Berg makes some good points. In item #8, concerning the FAFSA, it should be noted that you can make an estimated FAFSA early and then file a correction when your parents actually do their taxes, more likely in March or April. If your parents are like us, we don't even have our W2s until March or later, so it is impossible to comply with those early deadlines without filing an estimate. 

August 9, 2011 at 01:26 PM ·

Thank you all so much for your interesting answers. It is really helpful to hear all your hints. I am still looking for some sense of how damaging my mediocre high school grades (I'm not sure how much I can change them in the next few months...!) might prove when applying to these schools. I think my playing is pretty good, both technically and musically, but I'm not prodigious and perhaps grades will be the make or break? Would love to hear from people who have been in the same position, because I know there are plenty of amazing players out there who are also straight A students, and I can't compete with them!

August 9, 2011 at 03:58 PM ·

An addition to Bruce's comment:

I have just moved out of Texas after teaching for two years in their school system.  He is correct, the school systems in Texas value music and being a good player with a music education degree can open up the door to having a job with a $40K+ salary and benefits right after graduation.

At least, that's how it was until the economy soured severely... I worked in a charter school system and was not let go, but I have dozens of friends across Houston (one of the biggest music centers in Texas) who were let go from their programs.  Several high schools who were thinking of opening a music program declined to do so after the 5 billion dollars in budget cuts.  Most of those people ended up applying for my position as it was one of the few that would be opening for music teachers across the city/state.  And it's not just music teachers, it's librarians, secretaries, drama teachers, and even some core-subject teachers too.

This should not scare you from a music education degree- my father received his from Eastman and said he wouldn't trade it in for a performance degree (even though he's now a performer).  But only choose this if you are very passionate about education, it does have higher academic requirements, you are required to take a lot of pedagogy and child psychology classes, and it does take away from performance time.  It is no longer just a "backup"- only do it if you truly love it!  If you do, then go for it!

And everyone above is correct- start NOW!  Some schools share a common application (I seem to remember NEC being one) but many do not- I applied to four different schools (CIM, NEC, Oberlin, and Eastman) and all of them had very different applications.  The essays themselves can take a long time and are very important.  Before I leave, I must share a funny (but depressing story) about how every portion of your application is important!!!!

A young boy, quite the virtuoso, applied to a major music school (one of the four listed above, not to be named).  He had all the performance technique you could expect out of a college-level senior as just a high schooler and was a tad over-confident.  In his admissions essay to said school, he ended his essay with something like this...

"I don't know why I'm doing some lame essay to get into the music school. The end." (not exact quote, just the general idea of it)

He went through the entire process, arriving at the audition, where every single one of the violin teachers was there to listen.  They listened to his entire audition and, at the end, the teacher he had applied for smiled and said, "Wow, that was a great audition, especially for a lame school that requires lame essays."  Needless to say, the boy did not get accepted...  (TRUE STORY!)

Now I'm sure no one on here would ever do it, but starting NOW means that you're less likely to make short-cuts later when the application is due.  They are almost all due on December 1st, so you should decide quickly (but with good reasons) where you should apply and go for it!


August 10, 2011 at 12:10 AM ·

Grades don't help you get into conservatories (though if you're applying to a school of music at a university like BU or Northwestern, your grades need to be good enough for them), although low grades might keep you out, although we're talking seriously low here.

I know Juilliard requires you to have an SAT score of 1600 or above.

August 10, 2011 at 02:00 AM ·

Julliard does not require an SAT.  Check their web site.

August 10, 2011 at 03:04 AM ·

Never mind... I just checked the Juilliard website, and they say they don't require the SAT... Ah well, that was just something I had heard from a couple of my friends who go there.

August 14, 2011 at 09:45 PM ·

 Hi Ros,

It is very smart of you to be putting serious thought to your upcoming college auditions already.  I agree with Brian Lee's initial sentiment - "START RIGHT NOW."  Get the planning and paper work done as soon as you can so you have time to tackle what really matters.  (Plus, it's more fun to sit back and watch the deadlines pass than to stress about them the night before.)  

Your own teacher(s) or mentor(s) can probably guide you more than any of us here can in regards to which schools/teachers to apply for because they know the most about you.  If you haven't already, it's probably a good idea to have a serious conversation with your teacher about your goals and to get their take on what school(s)/teacher(s) they suspect will be a good fit for you.  Of course, that isn't to say that you shouldn't do your own research as well.  I have found that aside from my teacher, my older musician friends were the best resources for honest inside information about different universities and conservatories.  I found it particularly helpful to ask ones for whom the application and audition process was still a vivid and clear memory.

Timeline wise, I urge you get started on the hardest part of the paper trail the earliest - teacher recommendations.  This is one aspect of the application process that you have very little control over, and it probably would not serve you well to start late and rush things.  Many college guides suggest giving teachers a short (one page or less) page of your vital statistics as a convenient way to remind them of the accomplishments that tell the most about you.  Make sure to give these out to teachers early to give them the time to get them done at their own pace.  And don't forget to include a pre-stamped and addressed envelope if one is required!

To set yourself up for success I would dissuade you from attempting to apply and audition at an overwhelming amount of schools.  This is not an exact number, but a sliding scale based on many factors including time, repertoire and finances.  Live auditions are a big part of getting into music schools and I agree that it is probably the closest way to give the panel (and maybe your future teacher) a good idea of who you are, how you play and what you're all about.  Plan carefully for time that your auditions are closely timed enough to maximize your travel but also far enough to allow for the refreshing of different repertoire, if that is indeed a factor in your journey as well.  It is true, many schools include similar repertoire requirements, but it's nearly inevitable that you will end up having to learn an extra piece here or there for different auditions.

To take a paragraph from a post to a student also preparing for college auditions: When it comes to recordings, try to get the best quality you possibly can.  Not all of us can afford a professional studio recording, but either invest in a good recording device and a really good mic, which makes all the difference, or investigate whether you can rent or borrow audio and/or video equipment from friends or family who may have some.  One of my teachers listens to pre-screening at Juilliard, and he said that though the audition panel, of course, takes into consideration that not everyone has access to top recording equipment, bad recordings are frustrating to audition committees.  And the last thing you want to do with such important people is to put them in a bad mood, not because of your playing, but because you didn't put enough effort into making a good recording of yourself.

No matter what your family situation, going to college is expensive and now is a good time to be thinking about scholarships to help pay for it.  It goes without saying that playing your best tends to help motivate schools and/or individuals to send extra money your way, but aside from that, I would recommend applying for as many scholarships as you can stand.  This means reading lots of books and websites to find ones that apply to you and probably also means writing extra essays and/or playing in competitions to earn extra cash.  But think about it this way - going this route will probably give you a higher yield than, say, working at your local coffee shop for minimum wage.  Plus, doing research, writing essays and performing are all skills that will help you find success for the rest of your life, so it couldn't hurt to get into the swing of it now.

Once you get these and other logistics out of the way, it all really boils down to a mind game.  Keep a healthy rhythm: study, practice, sleep, eat and play some every day.  Set challenging yet realistic goals for yourself and work a little every day toward them.  Reward yourself for your hard work as you go along.  Keep a good attitude and perform often.  Remember that friends are one of the most valuable resources.  

Ros, I wish you all the best in your audition journey and hope you find a teacher, school and student community that fits you well so that you can grow and thrive for the next few years of your life.  If you would like to learn some of my experience tested audition preparation techniques and "mind-hacks" to beat the psychological game of the audition experience, I encourage you to check out my blog on the From the Top Green Room blog.


Happy violin-ing! :)

August 15, 2011 at 04:31 AM ·

Great post, a lot of good things have been said. Just to stress this point, I'll say it again, start applying as soon as you can! 

To respond to your post about grades, they are very important, especially at universities with strong academic backgrounds, such as BU, Northwestern, UofM, USC, etc. I have a friend that was accepted into Northwestern's music school, but ultimately rejected from the university itself due to their high school academics. It is important to remember that more and more, schools are looking for players with the complete package. Your grades are a reflection of your learning and your dedication to education, and the panels could weigh that heavily into their decision, which varies among schools. 

Be sure to know which teaching styles suit you best as well. Teachers have reputations, some are more abrasive than others. Personally, I don't learn well in that type of studio, so when it came to choosing schools and studios, it weighed heavily into my decision. Obviously, you can't have lessons with every teacher at every school, so most of the time, you'll have to rely on other's opinions about various teachers. Ask friends that you may have at various schools, musicians in local orchestras, or your own teacher. You've already done well to post on this website, and if you need specific answers questions, don't be afraid to ask.

As far as schools, I'll just tell you the ones that I applied to: Eastman, Indiana, MSM, CIM, Northwestern, and UMSL.

Hope this helps! Best of luck to you in this process!


August 15, 2011 at 02:31 PM ·

 Lots of great information here. I have a few things to add:

Teacher recommendations:

1. Make it as easy on your recommenders as possible by giving each of them a personalized chart (you can do this with a simple spreadsheet) detailing each letter they must write. Some will be paper, some electronic. Some will be direct questions, rather than simple, repurpose-able letters. Give them a simple visual aid, and do it once-- don't make the mistake of rushing back every week with another recommendation request. In addition to annoying your very busy recommender (never a good idea), that behavior increases the chance of confusion and error.

2. Be sure to give them all of their materials properly collated, with stamped envelopes when necessary. If it is easier, have them put everything in one large envelope (which you supply) and return it all to you, so you can take care of mailing the stuff. You don't want your application held back because your teacher's generous recommendation is at the bottom of her briefcase instead of in the mail.

3. Some teachers can't deal with electronic recommendations because they aren't part of the computer age. You will need to find a way to deal with this-- maybe even getting a different person to do your non-paper recs. 


It's probably a little late in the game to tell some rising seniors that they need great academics to get into a conservatory. It's true that certain schools, such as Northwestern, have very high standards for academics. Most conservatories are far more interested in your audition, so don't panic. Some schools (for example IU Jacobs) will reward students with great academics by giving them extra merit aid, separate from talent aid from their audition. 

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