College Admissions: What Difference Does the TYPE of School Make?

This is part two of a three-part series about the college application process written by Associate Dean of Admissions at Juilliard, Kathleen Tesar. Part 1 of this series focused on the vocabulary of the admissions process. In Part 2, we dig a bit deeper into the application and decision processes, how they affect what you have to do, and how they can affect your strategy prior to applying.

Applying

Here is the college application sequence in its most basic form:

  • You apply.
  • People at the school review your application materials.
  • The school decides whether you should be admitted, placed on the waitlist, or denied admission for the current cycle.

But depending on the type of school to which you apply, and also whether you plan to major in music, minor in it, or just engage in music for fun outside the curriculum, the application and decision processes will differ.

A university generally has a central undergraduate admissions office, and that office typically has a profile of the student that best fits the university and its particular mission and philosophy. This profile may include a certain ACT or SAT test score average (if the school is not test-optional), an average GPA, perhaps even an expectation for high school honors or AP courses on your transcript, etc. Even if the music faculty enthusiastically support your admission, you still have to meet the standards of the undergraduate admissions office.

If you plan to apply to a university, you will need to make sure your academic record from high school shows the qualities that they are seeking—whether it’s your GPA, the honors or AP courses you took, or your extracurricular activities. Your strategy is to make sure you are competitive academically as well as musically. 

A liberal arts college will have an admissions process that resembles the process at a university. The audition may be part of the application process, but it also may occur after you have been admitted academically. Again, your strategy should acknowledge the emphasis on academic preparation, as well as on musical preparation. 

If you apply to a conservatory, the emphasis is upended—the audition is (almost!) all. Before your academic materials are examined, you must demonstrate your musical skills and artistry to the auditioners. If your audition is not at the level expected by the school, you will not be offered admission, regardless of your academic record. 

Therefore, in this situation, your strategy is to pour your energy into preparing your audition while maintaining decent grades. A conservatory is unlikely to want to see a lot of honors or AP classes, but the school will expect your academic record show that you are capable of moving on to college-level work. (Remember that college is not just about “getting in,” but also about “getting out”—bachelor’s degree in hand!)

Outcomes

As you can see, the type of school to which you apply can affect your preparation strategy. Here are a few thoughts about outcomes.

You are offered admission. Obviously, this is the outcome you desire. Your responsibility here is to make your decision, commit to one school, and notify the other schools that you are declining their offers. CAUTION: Your enrollment commitment is a binding agreement between you and the school. Make sure you understand the terms of enrollment, including any offer of merit- or need-based financial aid and the resulting cost, before making your commitment. 

You are placed on the waitlist. Waitlists help schools manage their enrollment numbers. At some schools, the waitlist could number 1,000 or more. Your odds of being offered admission are relatively slim with such a large waitlist. However, contacting the admissions office and letting them know that you are very interested in enrolling will bring you to the attention of the staff and increase your chances of being considered, should an opening occur.

In conservatories, waitlists tend to be extremely small. At Juilliard, our undergraduate voice waitlist may be less than 10 applicants. So if you are interested in being offered a place, stay on the waitlist. Even if you have to commit to another school to meet the response deadline, you can still remain on the waitlist at other schools. And again, letting the admissions office know of your interest does increase your chances of being considered.

You are denied admission. Although this result is obvious, it is worth mentioning here to point out one very important idea: The denial of admission is based on an assessment of your application within the context of that year’s applicant pool. In a different year, with a different applicant pool, the outcome could be different. What is important to note is that being denied admission is NOT a judgement on your worth as a human being. With our art being so much of our identities, it can sometimes feel as if the decision is personal. The best attitude is to consider what you have learned from the experience, and use that learning to keep improving.

As performing artists, we are constantly putting ourselves on the line, taking risks, hoping to succeed. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t; that is the reality of the life we have chosen. The key is to keep striving.

Kathleen Tesar

Kathleen Tesar oversees the Offices of Admissions and Financial Aid in her role as Associate Dean for Enrollment Management at The Juilliard School. 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. Kathleen holds degrees in violin performance from the Eastman School of Music and the Catholic University of America, and a doctorate in Organizational Change and Leadership from the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. She presents frequently on topics related to performing arts admission, and is co-author of College Prep for Musicians (Bosler, Greene, Tesar).