How to Get Into America’s Best Art Schools

By Ward Allebach, ArtSchools.com

for Students Seeking a Bachelor’s or Master’s in the Visual Arts

Yes, getting into to the Best Art Schools in America takes a lot of artistic talent.

But in a series of exclusive interviews with ArtSchools.com, leaders from 14 of the top art schools in America unanimously agree that there is much more to it.

Successful candidates must be “motivated,” “articulate” and “passionate”; they must follow the rules and get good grades; and (of course) they need a well-crafted, killer portfolio.

“(We) seek students who have a strong interest in pushing themselves and the boundaries of their work,” said Kendra E. Dane, Executive Director of Admissions and Marketing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Or, as Tom Lightfoot, Chairman of the School of Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology, put it: “Involvement in art must be more than casual.”

We asked our sources (10 admissions leaders, 4 academic leaders) a series of questions to give our readers an advantage when applying to the best. Key points of the leaders’ responses to our queries are discussed below. If you want to read the unedited version of a specific school leader’s response, links to the complete text of each interview are located at the bottom of this page in the section titled “Full Responses.”

Before we move on to the questions, though, let us be clear that this article is NOT an attempt to say what the best art schools in America are, and it is not a ranking of schools – rather, it is about how to get into America’s Best Art Schools through the eyes of the people who evaluate prospective students every day (admissions leaders) or who help set the standards for admissions (academic leaders) at the most highly-regarded institutions.

Indeed, there are many great American art schools that are not included in this article (some were not able to respond to our inquiries this time around). Furthermore, there will always be great debate as to what makes a great art school or even if there is any rating or ranking system of schools without serious flaws. Nevertheless we feel that at the very least our sources represent what many respected authorities believe to be among “America’s Best Art Schools” that offer bachelors and masters degrees in art:

  • All of the officials interviewed for this article represent schools that are ranked in the top 35 Fine Arts Schools in the country, according to US News & World Report’s 1997 Arts Rankings – and seven of our sources were ranked in the top 10.
  • All of the schools used as sources for this article were consistently mentioned as being among the best institutions of higher art education in America by The Gourman Report, 10th Edition (Princeton Review, 1999), or they were mentioned as being among the best in America from informal surveys with art academics and professionals, conducted by ArtSchools.com.

Again, our focus here is only schools that offer both bachelors and masters degrees in the visual arts. However, for many students, the best choice may be one of the top “career art schools” that offer one or two year art programs (often leading to an associate degree) with a fast track to a specific field of art such as graphic design or photography. A discussion of how to get into these schools is not part of this article except to say that most career art schools accept a high percentage of their applicants.

So, with these caveats in mind, read on – because, if you’re really serious about pursuing admission to one of the best art schools in America, this article can provide you with a road map along that path!

1. When selecting students for admission into your program, what factors are considered by your admissions staff?

Every school has its own set of criteria for evaluating prospective students – but most of them look at the same things. So, the difference isn’t really what they consider, but how important they consider each factor. All of the leaders interviewed mentioned at least one of the following (and in some cases all four) as major considerations that successful candidates must not miss:

  • Portfolio
  • Academics, Grades or Class Rank
  • Admissions Essay or Personal Statement
  • Letters of Recommendation

The California College of the Arts, looks at all of these factors. According to Sheri McKenzie, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Services: “Applications are reviewed on the basis of a balanced picture that includes academic achievement (grades), creative ability (portfolio), and artistic and professional career goals (essay and interview). Specifically we require official high school transcripts… two letters of recommendation, portfolio, personal essay, and an interview.”

However, to illustrate the difference among the top art schools, consider the approach of California Institute of the Arts, where only one of the aforementioned criteria appears to be applied. Kenneth Young, Director of Admissions, said that “admission is based totally on talent. We need to see a portfolio of recent work. Test scores, GPA and class rank are not considered.”

Ed Schoenberg, Vice President for Enrollment Management at the Otis College of Art and Design in California probably has the most memorable approach: “We look at the four P’s; Passion, Preparation, Portfolio, and Potential before making an admissions decision.” You can read more in this article, which Mr. Schoenberg contributed to ArtSchools.com.

The Big Lesson: One size does not fit all. Find out early what’s important to the art school to which you apply. Then, make what’s important to them, important to you.

2. What do you look for in a prospective student’s portfolio?

“Your portfolio represents you to a college as a potential student and young artist,” wrote Kavin Buck, UCLA, Director of Recruitment & Outreach, School of the Arts and Architecture in an article which he contributed to ArtSchools.com. “Preparing your portfolio should be an exciting and thoughtful process that you engage in both in art classes in school and on your own at home.”

Indeed, the portfolio was the most-often mentioned criteria for admission to the top art schools, listed as an important consideration in all interviews. So, exactly what are they looking for when they examine your portfolio? The most-often cited factors that make a great portfolio were:

  • Strong technical skills
  • Creativity
  • Drawing from direct observation
  • A variety of media

Our interview responses varied from the simple and practical… Mr. Buck (UCLA) said he looks for “a combination of strong technical skills combined with work that goes beyond classroom assignments.”

…to the specific: Carmina Cianciulli, Assistant Dean for Admissions at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art said “We look for 15-20 pieces of original work executed within the last year, which must include strong examples of drawing from direct observation. We look for a variety of media and scale, sketchbooks, and good technical skills.”

Again, there was some overlap in the responses, but each school has its own idea of what’s important to see in a prospective student’s portfolio. As Mr. Young (CIA) said: “Most art schools are VERY specific regarding what they want to see, and each school is different. If you are in doubt, call and ask.”

It is advisable to read very carefully Mr. Buck’s article, titled on “How to Prepare your Portfolio for College Admissions”. Also, Ms. McKenzie’s response to this question about CCAC’s portfolio review was quite detailed and informative, so it is definitely worth a good, long look at her full interview transcript (click here).

3. What are you looking for in an interview with a prospective student?

Some of the top schools we interviewed do not conduct interviews – two of our interviewees said they don’t; and at another two they aren’t required (although they’re recommended). The ones that do, though, want their students to be passionate about their art. Some of the most-often mentioned qualities that they’re looking for:

  • Motivation / Passion
  • Commitment to your art
  • Openness to new ideas and critiques
  • Ablility to articulate your work

Ms. Cianciulli (Tyler) said that in an interview: “We are looking for students who are motivated to make art, and articulate about the art-making process.”

Carole Schaffer, Associate Dean at Parsons School of Design in New York said that she looks for “discipline, drive and seriousness about the hard-work involved in becoming a designer.”

Katharine E. Willman, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid / Registrar at the Cranbrook Academy of Art said: “The student should demonstrate powerful commitment to development as an artist; openness to new ideas and the intense critique environment of the Cranbrook program.”

Mr. Lightfoot (RIT) appeared to agree that serious candidates for his program must be willing to explore new ideas: “Art often takes us in unpredictable directions; therefore having an open mind is also critical.”

Clearly, the best art schools are looking for the very best students, and when you interview with them, you can’t hold back – you need to tell them with confidence that you’re the one they want, and show them in every way possible that you’re serious, committed and passionate about making your art into your career.

4. What three things can most likely DECREASE a student’s chances of getting accepted?

In most cases, the answer was simply the opposite of the good qualities we’ve already discussed. However, it’s worth reiterating, and a few new factors were brought to light. Here are some of the things that are most certain to hurt your chances of admission:

  • Weak portfolio
  • Bad grades
  • Lack of commitment, enthusiasm
  • Work copied from photographs
  • Underdeveloped ideas and work

Ms. McKenzie (CCAC) said that “students who are looking for a trade, not an education” should probably look elsewhere; and, similarly, Ms. Dane (SAIC) said that students who show “an interest in ONLY commercial or technical approaches to art making” may have a decreased possibility of acceptance.

Mr. Young (CIA) said that a student whose work “tells us nothing about the personality of the artist” may not be a good fit for their program, either.

Craig Vogel, Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University said that the following are the worst things that an applying student can do: “Just send slides of your work. Not fully research the school before you apply. Bring too much work for a portfolio review. Fail to know enough about the field to tell someone in an interview why you feel this is the career for you.”

5. How selective are art schools in general?

The real answer to this question was almost unanimous: It varies too greatly from one school to the next to answer, even among the best art schools in America.

“There is no ‘in general,'” said Ms. Dignan (Michigan). “Schools vary greatly and look for different types of students.”

Ms. Willman said (Cranbrook): “All reputable schools wish to be highly selective in order to have the very best students enroll. The reality, however, lies in the applicant pool in relation to the possible openings, and enrollment/recruitment policy of an institution. Where there is great administrative pressure for full enrollment, the ‘selectivity’ criteria can become soft.

“In my opinion,” she concluded, “art schools are indeed fairly selective, and most wish they could be more so.”

Lydia Thompson, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, School of the Arts added this:”On a scale from 1 to 10, we are about a 7, in terms of being above average regarding selectivity. However, what’s interesting is how a student with an average profile (SATS, GPA and skill level) can be highly successful if placed in a supportive and vibrant environment.”

But, more often than not, it seems, with the number of applicants rising, and the number of positions available remaining relatively constant, selectivity is a necessity. Said Judith Aaron, Vice-President for Enrollment, Office of Admissions and Financial Aid at Pratt Institute in New York: “With an increase of 300 applications each year, acceptance rates have dropped each year for the last nine years.”

6. What advice can you provide to students who are trying to get accepted into America’s best art schools?

Here’s where everyone reading this article should perk up and pay attention: This kind of advice, coming from these kinds of people should mean something! There were three important responses that came up again and again:

  • Work, work, work
  • Visit the schools before you make your decision
  • Pay close attention to the school’s admissions criteria
  • Don’t neglect your grades

Certainly the most common response was the first – it’s not trite to say because all of the experts said it in one way or another: To become a successful art student at one of the best art schools in America, you must constantly work at your art. Then, when you’re tired, you must get up and work at it some more!

Ms. McKenzie (CCAC) suggested that serious candidates should “take as many high school art classes as possible, supplement these classes with summer art programs, community art programs, etc.”

The practical advice, which might escape the excitement of being considered by a top art school, was offered by Mr. Buck (UCLA): “Each school is unique. Visit the campuses and ask a lot of questions.” Ms. Cianciulli (Tyler) went as far as to suggest that students should “arrange to sit in on a freshman class. Take the school for a ‘test drive.'”

Beverly Johnson, Coordinator of Student Services at Alfred University in New York, said that prospective students must “pay attention to admission criteria. Each institution may be looking for something just a little bit different.” Ms. Schaffer (Parsons) echoed this response: “Do not rely solely on high school guidance counselors or art teachers for advice. Read all college materials carefully and do research on the various art and design disciplines and the careers they lead to.”

Ms. Aaron (Pratt) suggested that applicants “establish a relationship with an admissions counselor who can fight for you if necessary. Make sure the school knows it is your first choice.” And if you first do not succeed… she added: “Go somewhere else and apply again as a transfer student, but make sure the school accepts transfer students in the major you want first. Many schools have very small transfer classes and some majors are not open to transfers at all.”

7. What percentage of applicants do you accept?

Again, the responses varied greatly, as you’d expect from school to school. The low percentage was 7% or 8%, and the high was 75% – but most responses were qualified as varying greatly from year to year and from discipline to discipline – some were even contingent upon passing a “pre-screening.” Here’s the full run-down:

  • Alfred University: Varies
  • California College of Arts and Crafts: 69%
  • California Institute of the Arts: Fine Arts 23%; Graphic Design 38%; Photography 35%; Character Animation 18%; Experimental Animation 27%; Live Action Film/Video 26%
  • Cranbrook Academy of Art: Ranges by discipline from about 65% to only 12%. The average is 40%.
  • Parsons School of Design 48%
  • Pratt Institute: Overall 38% with majors ranging from 18% to 40% depending the number of spots available. For example, drawing accepted 26%; fashion accepted 28%; art education accepted 29%
  • Rochester Institute of Technology, School of Art: Of those applying with portfolios, we accept about 75%.
  • School of the Art Institute of Chicago: No Response
  • Temple University’s Tyler School of Art: Ranges from 7% to 20%, depending on the major and matriculation status.
  • University of California, Los Angeles, School of the Arts and Architecture: approximately between 10% to 15% in Art and 8% to 12% in Design.
  • University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design: 15%
  • Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts: approximately 74%

8. Explain the differences between being accepted into your graduate vs. undergraduate program.

Ms. Dane (SAIC): “There are more differences than similarities,” said Ms. Dane (SAIC). “…The portfolio requirements for the MFA in Studio are very different. MFA applicants must demonstrate technical skills in the area (department) to which they are applying, and they must also present a cohesive, focused body of work that evidences strong conceptual investigation. (Another) major difference is that the staff members of the Admissions Office are not voting members of the review committee for the graduate programs. Only the full-time faculty teaching in the areas of study make decisions on interviewing or admitting candidates.”

Ms. Aaron (Pratt): “The requirements for admission are similar in terms of the documents submitted; the standards for the fine arts master’s are obviously much higher since it is expected that the student has had four years of undergraduate preparation in art. Some of our graduate programs are open to career changers and look for strong academic ability and evidence of potential rather than outright evidence of skill. These programs (communications design, industrial design, interior design) offer developmental courses for students who are not yet ready for the graduate level program. These programs are ideal for the student who comes to the realization later in life that he/she wants to work in these fields.”

Ms. Schaffer (Parsons): “Graduate programs and Parsons are not replications of the undergraduate subjects. The admissions review process is handled directly by the departments (as opposed to the Admissions office). Applicants to graduate programs should become very familiar with the particular programs and focus their applications on addressing how they fit that program.”

Ms. Johnson (Alfred): “The application process is quite similar in that both levels require a 20 pc. portfolio. Undergraduate applicants undergo a two-part process. Portfolios are reviewed by a committee made up of Art & Design faculty from a variety of mediums. Academic credentials (grades, SAT’s, etc.) are reviewed by the Alfred University Admissions office.”

9. Do you have ANY other helpful comments, advice and/or statistics that prospective art students can use?

Here are a few closing words of wisdom:

Ms. Cianciulli (Tyler): “In the year 2001, there will be more than a quarter of a million jobs available for visual artists. It’s important to remember that everything that is made by hand or manufactured by machine has to be touched at some point by the hand or the mind of an artist. Do what you love, and the money will follow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a very interesting website that confirms this.”

Mr. Young (CIA): “Many of the applicants we turn down contact us to find out why. For some of them we are the wrong school and they need to look somewhere else. But many of them find out why they got denied and what to do about it. Usually more life drawing. For these applicants, who reapply the following year after working on making a stronger portfolio, 90% get accepted.”

Ms. Willman (Cranbrook): “At least half of the students in our MFA program aspire to teach at the college level. This is a highly competitive field, and your diversity will become important. Look ahead to various directions your art career may take. If you think you may be teaching, be sure to have a solid background in art history, color theory, and humanities. Keep aware of the explosion in technical media and be open to using such tools if they interest you. If it is possible to extend your practice to gallery or museum environments, or in industry, take classes that will help you be more marketable there. For example, curatorial studies, marketing, art criticism, critical writing, and education courses may be helpful. Be sure you can handle public speaking. Make time to make work – be prolific. Always remember the old adage that the well-formed question is more important than the well-formed answer.”

Ms. Dane (SAIC): “Use the application process as a way to better understand who you are as an artist and to locate the school that best suits your educational needs. This process allows you to better discover your artistic interests, inspirations and educational and career expectations. It also allows you to locate areas that you might need to work on prior to admission to that particular school. Be open to criticism during this time period.”

Ms. Thompson (Virginia): “Research your high school art curriculum to build your skills. Participate in summer art programs. If your school does not teach figure drawing, enroll in art class at your local community college. Attend National Portfolio Days to get feedback regarding the quality of your portfolio.

Ms. Johnson (Alfred): “Ask how selective the school is in accepting applicants. What percentage of students are placed in jobs, graduate schools following graduation? Is there assistance with such placement? What are the credentials/reputations of faculty teaching studio courses?”

Ms. Aaron (Pratt): “The most important advice is to visit the schools in which you are interested and try to find the one that feels right to you. Sit in on classes; talk to students; talk to the admissions counselor; visit the website and talk to students.”

Wrap-up

As you can see, there’s a lot of work to be done if you’re aiming to be admitted to one of America’s top art schools. Hopefully, this article will help you gain the confidence to take the necessary steps to make it into one of these schools, or any of the other top art schools.

Remember the biggest lesson, though: Every school is different. Mr. Young’s comment backs this up: “A school can be great for one student and terrible for another. If you can’t visit before you apply, you must visit before making a decision to attend. The personality of the school is very, VERY important. Talk with the students. Ask them if they are happy or if they wished they had gone somewhere else.”

Although this article may provide a good framework for doing the right things, you have to do most of the leg-work yourself. Call the schools you want to get into; ask them some of these same important questions, and pay close attention to the answers.

Then, work hard and believe in yourself. You can do it!

Full Responses from Interviews with Top Art School Leaders

For this article, we interviewed admissions leaders and academic leaders from what many consider to be some of the top art schools in America. For a full transcript of their responses to our questions, click on the individuals below:

  • Judith Aaron, Vice-President for Enrollment, Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, Pratt Institute (NY)
  • Kavin Buck, Director of Recruitment & Outreach, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), School of the Arts and Architecture
  • Carmina Cianciulli, Assistant Dean for Admissions, Temple University’s Tyler School of Art (PA)
  • Kendra E. Dane, Executive Director of Admissions & Marketing, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (IL)
  • Beverly Johnson, Coordinator of Student Services, Alfred University (NY)
  • Tom Lightfoot, Chairman of the School of Art, Rochester Institute of Technology (NY)
  • Sheri McKenzie, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Services, California College of Arts and Crafts
  • Carole Schaffer, Associate Dean, Parsons School of Design (NY)
  • Lydia Thompson, Assistant Dean, Undergraduate Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University, School of the Arts
  • Katharine E. Willman, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid / Registrar, Cranbrook Academy of Art (MI)
  • Kenneth Young, Director of Admissions, California Institute of the Arts

Other Sources

For this article, we also used this information from the ArtSchools.com archive of resources:

  • ArtSchools.com Article contributed by Kavin Buck, Director of Recruitment & Outreach, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), School of the Arts and Architecture: “How to Prepare Your Portfolio for College Admissions”
  • ArtSchools.com Article contributed by Ed Schoenberg, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Otis College of Art & Design (CA): “How to Get Into Schools of Art and Design”
  • ArtSchools.com Interview with Craig Vogel, Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Carnegie Mellon University (PA): “Professional & Academic Perspectives of Industrial Design”

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