Conversing with Colleges

by Jacob Coakley
in Feature
An NYU Tisch School of the Arts student programs lights for a production.
An NYU Tisch School of the Arts student programs lights for a production.

Beginning a conversation is the best way for students to end up at the best school 

The process of researching and applying to colleges is fraught with anxiety as students (and their parents) wrestle an unfamiliar bureaucracy under high emotional stakes. It’s no wonder that students clamber to find any way to tilt the odds in their favor. This has to led to self-propagating myths about the college admissions process, which don’t serve students or their families. We spoke with a people in charge of admissions to find out what myths applicants can let go of, what bad habits they should avoid when applying to theatre programs, and what sort of mindset will help them find the best college program for them. 

From Where to How

Patricia Decker, director of recruitment for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, always spends time reassuring parents and students throughout the admissions cycle. “The conversation around admissions is so anxiety producing that parents and students do not trust that the process actually works—that the people making these decisions are very student oriented,” says Decker. “Kids should realize that the people who are deciding whether or not they get into a school are looking for the right match.” Rejection from a first choice might be heartbreaking—but it shouldn’t be taken as a referendum on talent or on someone’s future. Programs have different strengths and demands: a straight conservatory or a rigorously academic background; small programs or large institutions; even city versus country. To understand how to be successful in their college search, students need to look past the “what” (studying theatre) and “where” (gotta be at this school) and learn more about each school’s “how.” 

Just like making good acting choices, students need to get specific about why they want to go where they want to go. “When people apply to Tisch and you interview them, they usually say it’s a great school and it’s in NYC. This is not specific. There are other great schools to study theatre at in New York City, and we’re all very different from each other. Get a sense of what specifically is going on at each school. Who studied there? What kind of work do they do? Where are the alums working? Where are they big? New York? The South? The nation? That might be a lot more research than a kid wants to do—because they’re overscheduled already—but I always found it to be so impressive and respectful when a kid had an answer to a question that was not a general answer.” 

“What we’re really seeing, honestly, is students not researching the university,” agrees Sean O’Skea, professor of scenic design at Southern Oregon University, located in Ashland, Ore., which is home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He cites the requisite essay portion of SOU’s application process. “So often students write and say they can’t wait to work for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. OK, that’s great, but why do you want to come to Southern Oregon University first? Tell us why you like us. What we’re looking for, more than anything, is that students have looked at us—they know the professors, they know the programs, they know what we offer.”

For example: Because of SOU’s close relationship with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, they have a very classically influenced program that does include a BFA—but entry to the BFA is not automatic. Students have to audition to join the program after their first year at SOU. “And competition is pretty intense,” says O’Skea. SOU tries in many ways to let students know this throughout the application process—but some still end up surprised at the extra step. 

Still, no matter whether they end up in the BFA or BA program, O’Skea is proud of his students’ work and confident in their abilities. “When they leave to go to URTAs, they have a strong training and a deep portfolio of real work, not just class work, which is on of our strengths.”

It’s also important to get specific about money. “College is a financial commitment, says Decker. “This doesn’t mean don’t apply to expensive schools—because you never know what financial aid you’re going to get. Students should apply to the schools they want to go to—but when they get their financial aid packages, parents and students need to understand what that package will look like four years from now when they graduate, in dollars and cents.” 

Finances will impact not only students, but also their parents, siblings—who might need parents’ help to pay for college in a few years—and even their ability to make the art they trained for. If grads have to immediately take a 9-to-5 job to pay back student debt, they could find themselves not able to make the art they dedicated their lives to. 

Still, it’s not all gloom and doom. “The biggest misconception is about their future employability,” says Michael Kelley, dean of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts School of Design and Production. Kelley joined the school after forging a successful career in technical theatre. His last stint before joining UNCSA was with Walt Disney, where he was a senior producer working on their parks in LA and Shanghai. “I hear a lot of times when I go to the forums that we offer on our tours, parents and students ask, ‘Can I make a living at this?’ Right now the industry has never been busier. You can make a lot of money. I tell parents every day that this is not the theatre of 30 years ago. Graduating students are making money and creating long, successful careers all over the world right now.” 

 A UNCSA student researches and sketches costumes designs. High school students need to apply the same rigor to studying their prospective college choices.
A UNCSA student researches and sketches costumes designs. High school students need to apply the same rigor to studying their prospective college choices.

Positive Actions

Once they know where they’re looking, there are plenty of specific things students can do to nail the application process, interview and audition—and most of them go hand in hand with the research they’ve already done. Once students have researched a school, learning about its techniques, its strengths and its professors, they should open up a dialogue with those various parts. Talk to people in the admissions department to answer questions—and don’t be afraid to reach out to faculty you have met on tour, or through outreach programs. 

“Our faculty like for prospective students to be in touch with them,” says Sheeler Lawson, director of admissions at UNCSA. “They like to see the preliminary work that applicants are doing. The faculty can suggest something they can improve on, things that they can be doing. They can offer suggestions like ‘We’d like to see you take more drawing classes, incorporate photography into your work, change your monologues—maybe you need a more contemporary piece.’ The faculty are more than happy to meet them.” 

Interacting with faculty is so important, says Lawson, because “We operate very much like a master teacher and apprentice. Students will be studying closely with teachers so beginning that relationship and learning the terminology that will be used in the classroom helps us learn how that person is going to communicate, and what direction can be given. All of that is important.” 

Decker agrees, and expands upon this notion of a conversation. Rather than merely developing a list of tasks to be completed to apply to a school, students should pay attention to who they’re talking to and what they’re hearing each step of the way. “They will find the right match for themselves the more open they are to hearing and listening as much as they’re telling and talking.”

The biggest place for conversation, of course, happens in your interview and audition, so naturally everyone had a lot of advice for ways to succeed in the room. 

“Having a relationship with and understanding of instructors makes the interviews much less tense for students,” says Lawson. “Students can be scared or afraid if they don’t know who instructors are. But if students have already been in relationship with them, instructors know the students when they come in door. They can remember their face and work, and that sets an easier pace than coming into a situation where they’re not familiar with anyone and they don’t know what to expect.”

And they should expect, yes, a conversation. “We will ask them to look at their portfolio and tell us their favorite piece. Why is it their favorite piece? Why does it touch them?” says Kelley. “I can hear the passion in how they describe a piece, and know what their DNA is constructed of. What do you read when not working in the theatre? What excites you as an artist? It’s that depth of the artistic soul that we’re looking for.” Don’t be afraid to be honest. And while it’s necessary to rehearse and prepare for these interviews, don’t fall back on memorized, canned answers. “It’s a dialogue,” continues Kelley. “Come in and be yourself. You don’t have to have a perfectly polished portfolio, because that’s our job in the next four years.”

Being able to think on your feet and deliver a monologue in a conversational way is important too. This doesn’t mean students should stare into the eyes of the person they’re auditioning for, but it does mean being able to make choices about the monologue in reference to the performance space—and the performance itself. 

“It won’t be unusual for an auditioner to want to work with students, and ask them to do something differently,” says Decker. If they can, it reflects positively on their preparation and attitude towards direction. “It’s heartbreaking when a kid comes in and it’s clear they’re pretty talented—but they can’t answer a basic question like ‘How old is this character?’ or ‘Why did you do this?’ You could tell they got the monologue, they memorized it, and broke it into beats—but didn’t do the other work around it that makes the work interesting.”

She remembers one potential student who came into an audition room years ago, realized her blocking was going wrong—and immediately changed it. “Halfway through ‘Adelaide’s Lament’ she realized that miming a book for the entire song was not a great idea. She mimed throwing the book over her shoulder—and that gave her complete freedom. She knew Adelaide, she knew the music back and forth, so she was able to trust herself.” 

This type of exploration—finding the right monologues for each of the schools, and really working them out—takes time, but is worth it. “These are the things that set students apart.” 

Finally, if there’s one thing to take away from any conversation with a college, it’s the understanding that all of them are absolutely rooting for each and every student they meet. “We’re all here because we love teaching and we love students,” says Kelley. “We love helping them reach their dreams and goals.”