Behind the Curtain at Oz : An Inside View of the College Admission Process

Behind the Curtain at Oz : An Inside View of the College Admission Process

College application and audition season can be both exhilarating and incredibly frustrating. When you hit the Send button to submit your application, your heart, hopes, dreams, and money go flying into cyberspace along with the document. Then begins the wait to determine if you will be granted a live audition. Practicing your repertoire, perfecting your languages, and refining your performance skills in preparation for the big event can alleviate the anxiety of this wait time.

When the invitation has been issued, campus visit arranged, consultation lesson and audition completed, you wait yet again—this time for news of acceptance. At long last comes the letter (or e-mail) informing you of your admission, your placement on a wait list, or your decline in acceptance. This process is repeated numerous times depending upon the number of institutions you have applied to. No wonder students and parents are often left physically exhausted and emotionally and (sometimes) financially drained!

College application and audition season is actually good training for anyone considering a life in the performing arts. Such a life cycles in times of preparation, application, audition, and outcome.

Decisions for acceptance into a college, university, or conservatory, however, are far more complicated and nuanced than decisions made for a single opera role or participation in a summer music program. There are no callbacks for college auditions, and you would probably not be asked to sight-read in an audition for a role. The talent you demonstrate in your college audition along with other factors totally beyond your control influence the final decision. And individuals other than those who sit on the audition committee may have a strong voice in the admission decision.

Here’s a partial list of determining factors, many of which you may not have considered:
-Number of openings in voice faculty studios
-Enrollment targets (the institution’s overall number of continuing and entering students for a given academic year)
-Institutional matriculation targets (desired number of newly entering students for the upcoming academic year)
-Your GPA, class rank, and ACT and SAT scores
-Casting needs for the institution’s upcoming operatic productions and choral ensemble projects
-Possible institutional ratio of male to female singers

Evaluation of Your Audition
The National Association of Teachers of Singing created a rubric last year as a guide to the adjudicators of NATS student competitions. This detailed document can be extremely useful in assisting you (and your teacher) in preparation for your audition. Log on to Under “Additional Resources” at the bottom of the page, click the Student Auditions Guidelines (August 2015) link.

Sample Admissions and Audition Process
The procedure for admissions and audition will vary according to the institution and its administrative structure. Conservatories and schools of music that are independent units have much more autonomy in admission decisions than schools or departments of music that are housed in other academic units. These independent units have a dean instead of a director or department chair.

At the University of Minnesota where I work, students must be accepted by both the university’s College of Liberal Arts (which governs the school of music) and the school of music itself. Therefore, students must make two applications, one to each unit.

The voice faculty at our school requests prescreening videos for undergrad applicants. We also request that students include their grade point average during the introductory section of the video. If a candidate’s GPA is too low to be accepted by the University College of Liberal Arts, there is a very slim chance that the individual, regardless of their talent, can be admitted to the school of music. Musicians unfortunately do not have the same advantages as many athletes.

The voice faculty view and rank these videos. At this point, we share with the director of admissions in the school of music the list of singers we wish to hear in live audition. She contacts those candidates and schedules their audition date and time.

In the live audition we require applicants to sing two contrasting pieces of classical repertoire or one piece of classical repertoire and one legit musical theatre selection. We also ask candidates to sight-sing a melody, play a simple melodic line on the piano, and sight-read rhythmic patterns. Remember that the audition committee wants you to do your very best, so don’t be disturbed by their continuous writing or any questions they may ask during your audition.

The voice faculty rank each audition on a scale of 5 to 1, with 5 being the highest score. Those singers receiving a 4.5 or above for a vocal performance degree and 4.0 or above for music education and music therapy degrees are eligible for admission and possible scholarship support provided the GPA requirements are met. Music education and music therapy candidates must also complete a written interview profile and live interview with music education/therapy faculty. A rank list of applicants is then sent to the school of music’s director of admissions.

Our school of music has matriculation targets that determine how many students can be admitted to any degree program. If the target enrollment is 21 and your audition was ranked 22, your name will be placed on a wait list. It is important to note here that you may have sung a very fine audition and any member of the voice faculty would be happy to have you in their studio. But voice faculty must operate under the restrictions imposed by the school’s matriculation target.

Another restriction may be the number of voice studio openings available for any given academic year. If there are only 18 voice studio openings and the matriculation target is 21, you may be placed on a wait list even though your audition was an impressive one.

If you sing a strong audition but your GPA or class rank barely meets or is below institutional requirements, you may also be placed on a wait list. If your audition was an exceptionally strong one, the admissions committee in the school of music may request approval from the university admissions office for your acceptance. The institution may or may not grant this request. If your GPA is significantly lower than the university standard, you will be denied admission. This is one of the reasons for prescreening—elimination of those candidates who do not meet the institution’s academic standards.

As the list of top-ranking students accept or decline offers of admission, those students on the wait list will receive notice of acceptance in the order in which they were ranked.

This is only one of many possible admission procedures in a school, department, or conservatory of music. Each institution has its own admission process that may involve many steps and levels of approval. Use this information to assist you with your own applications, auditions, and research, and then hopefully you can take the mystery out of the final result.

College Audition Dos and Don’ts

As you prepare for your college audition, consider this list of what you should and should
not do before, during, and after.

Do . . .
. . . Know the grade point average required for admission for each institution.
. . . Perform only requested repertoire. (Repertoire requirements will vary according to the institution.)
. . . Sing repertoire appropriate to your voice at the present time. A simple song beautifully sung shows a candidate’s ability in a more positive light than a difficult selection that is beyond the individual’s present ability. Making such an error in repertoire selection may be detrimental to your chances of acceptance by the institution. (Remember those matriculation targets and number of voice studio openings listed earlier.)
. . . Arrange a consultation or consultation lesson with one or two voice faculty members prior to your audition. Some faculty members have a fee for such consultations; others consider it a part of their employment with the institution and the lesson is free of charge.
. . . Inquire if the desired faculty members have any openings in their studio for the upcoming academic year. If you are interested in a particular instructor, request to be placed on their roster. Make your first and second choices of instructor known to the admissions director and the desired voice faculty members. Do remember to be polite with your requests both in person and in writing, addressing the instructor as “Professor,” not by first name.
. . . Pay close attention to application forms. Many schools require separate applications, one for the institution and another for the school or department of music. There will be a separate admissions office for each application.
. . . Request feedback. If you receive a rejection notice from the institution, you may request feedback on your audition from the school’s director of admissions or vocal division chair. Some institutions may be willing to share faculty audition comments and some may not. Audition comment information can be valuable as you prepare for your next audition or performance. Be prepared, however, for the honesty of the adjudicators’ comments. They may not be what you want or expect to hear. Audition comments may, however, give you detailed guidance for improvements.

Do Not . . .
. . . Audition when you are ill because it is impossible for a faculty audition panel to accurately assess your vocal performance if you sing when you are sick or are experiencing vocal problems. I have heard students audition with respiratory infections, strep throat, vocal nodules, tonsillitis, and sinusitis. None were able to sing a passing audition.
Voice faculty are experienced in detecting unhealthy voices. We don’t need to ask if you are ill—we can hear it. If you are ill, how can you possibly compete successfully with others who may be equally prepared, talented, and vocally healthy? College entrance auditions are highly competitive, and only a limited number of students are chosen for acceptance. Singing when you are ill demonstrates poor judgment and can cause potential damage to your voice. In case of respiratory infections, it also exposes others to your illness. Far better to call the admissions office to ask if your audition could be rescheduled due to illness or inquire if you could audition by video recording.
. . . Contact the admissions director or voice faculty member to dispute the decision of the admission committee, request an immediate re-audition, or ask for an additional review of your file. Legal and equality issues make such requests impossible. Once an admission for any given academic year is made, that decision is final. You may, depending on the institution, have the opportunity to audition for the next academic year. —Jean Del Santo

Jean del Santo

Lyric soprano Jean del Santo has distinguished herself nationally on both the concert and operatic stage. Her concert work includes performances with numerous national and regional orchestras. Operatic credits include performances in San Francisco Opera’s Das Ring des Nebelungen (Wellgunde and Ortlinde), a four-month tour with Western Opera Theater in the title role of Madama Butterfly, and an apprenticeship with the San Diego Opera Center. In addition to her present position as associate professor of voice and vocal division chair at the University of Minnesota School of Music, Ms. del Santo has served on the faculties of Michigan State University and the University of Missouri Conservatory of Music in Kansas City. She adjudicates frequently at regional and national vocal competitions and conducts master classes throughout the country on vocal technique and performance effectiveness. She can be contacted at