Applying to College: The Vocabulary

Applying to College: The Vocabulary

This is the first of a three-part series about the college application process written by Associate Dean of Admissions at the Juilliard School, Kathleen Tesar. Read Part 2 about the difference in school types.

Let’s start with a comparison: When you go to buy a pair of shoes, you go to a shoe store or a shoe department. You don’t go looking for shoes at a tire store or a grocery store. And you usually have a type of shoe in mind. You know if you are going to buy running shoes or summer sandals or house slippers.

Without thinking about it, there is a vocabulary that you are using for shoe shopping. You understand that there are different types of stores and different types of shoes.

The search for a college also has a vocabulary. Knowing the vocabulary means your search is easier. So let’s define some terms that will help you in your search.


There are three types of schools, speaking in broad terms. A university is a large institution that encompasses multiple schools. If you enroll in a university, you will be surrounded by a vast number of people with many different interests. Typically, you and all the other undergraduates will take courses from a common core curriculum. You might find yourself sitting in class next to a biology major or a history major, and attending sports events as well as concerts and plays.

We often use the terms “college” and “university” interchangeably, but for purposes of your search, think of college as an institution smaller than a university and focused on the liberal arts. (Liberal arts subjects include history, literature, philosophy, etc.) Similar to a university, you will be surrounded by people with diverse interests, and you will take core classes with students from many different majors. However, liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller than universities, and have departments rather multiple schools.

The third general type of school is a conservatory. This is the smallest type of school, with the narrowest focus. If you attend a music conservatory, you will not be taking classes with biology majors or going to football games. What you will be doing is immersing yourself deeply in your art form, within a small institution that is independent of a larger structure.

These descriptions are very general, and are meant to help you understand what you will encounter at different institutions. It is possible to enroll in a large university and spend four years in the very intense school of music, focusing on your art form. So don’t dismiss a school because it is too large or too small, or is called a college instead of a university. Use this information to think about where you will thrive and gain the experiences and skills you need for the career to which you aspire.


A degree is the credential you earn when you successfully complete your program. During your college search, you will find degrees with different names. The names mean something, but not everything. Here are the four most common undergraduate degrees:
• Bachelor of Arts (BA)
• Bachelor of Science (BS)
• Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
• Bachelor of Music (BM)

Let’s define majors, and then circle back to these degrees.


Your major is your area of focus within your degree program. In some schools, you begin your studies with the core curriculum, and then “declare a major” after a year or two. The idea is that you will have had time to discover what knowledge and skills you want to pursue.

In the performing arts, you already know what you want to do, and are looking for a school where you can develop your artistry. The major drives your application and audition requirements, as well as the school’s decision process.

To tie this back to degrees, one could assume that to be a voice or musical theatre major, one has to enroll in a Bachelor of Music program. This is only partially true. The real question is, How much of the curriculum in a particular degree program is devoted to the major you are interested in?

The BM degree generally focuses about one-fourth of the curriculum on liberal arts studies. The rest of your time is spent in classes related to your major. The BA degree, which is by definition a liberal arts degree, typically inverts that ratio—you will spend two-thirds of your time in liberal arts classes and one-third in classes related to your major.

The BFA degree is similar to the BM degree in its balance between liberal arts classes and classes related to your major. However, majors in drama and dance are more common in the BFA degree, rather than music majors.

The BS degree does focus on science, but that could be fine if you wish to major in recording engineering or stage tech.

The bottom line for your school search is that you should not disregard a school because it offers a BA and not a BM, or a BS instead of a BFA. Instead, dig into the school’s website to find out how much of your class time will be focused on your art form. Will the degree and major give you the skills and experiences you are seeking? There are BA programs that have music majors—Would one of those be a fit for you? There are BFA programs that are for music majors—Is the difference simply the title of the degree?

The ideal outcome of your college search is to find a school where you can learn what you need to learn for the life that you want to live. A bit of vocabulary can help you reach that goal.

Kathleen Tesar

Kathleen Tesar, BM, MM, EdD, is the Associate Dean for Enrollment Management at The Juilliard School. A former professional violinist, she was previously the Associate Dean at the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, and Director of Admissions at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester. She presents frequently on topics related to performing arts admission, and is co-author of College Prep for Musicians (Bosler, Greene, Tesar).