College Connection: Auditioning for College – What I Wish I’d Known


Many singers wish they’d known more before their auditions. Read on to learn what college audition panels are looking for.


It was a warm spring day when I walked onto the campus of Capital University (Columbus, OH) for my one and only collegiate vocal program audition. I had seen the school’s Chapel Choir on television and, being the choral fanatic that I was, I knew that I was destined to go there. Because my application had just made the cut-off, I had missed the regular audition days and was going to be singing solely for the head of the voice department in his studio. For my audition, I needed two contrasting pieces, one of them being in a foreign language. I had never performed in Italian, but had listened to Pavarotti sing “Vittoria, Vittoria” and had done my best to imitate his vowels, tempo, and agility. My other piece was a standard for me that I had performed numerous times, Hall Johnson’s arrangement of “Ride On, King Jesus.”

I was blissfully naive and didn’t really think about the amount of preparation I needed for this audition. Was I fully memorized? Was my music clear and well organized? Were my nerves going to get the best of me?

Since I hadn’t really worked with a voice teacher, vocal coach, language specialist, or dramatic coach, I didn’t know what to expect from the audition process outside of knowing that I needed to stand there and make some decent sounds. As I tried to regulate my breath so that I could make it through the melismas of the Italian piece, I had an out-of-body experience where I realized that I was not quite as ready as I had thought. Ah, the cockiness of youth. 

By the time I got to the second piece, I was certain I had “failed” and had nothing to lose, so I sang the Hall Johnson with all the gusto, honesty, and flavor I could muster. Luckily, my raw vocal talent was enough to get me into the program and obtain a partial scholarship. 

As I recounted that story to a colleague, I recognized that being a student from a public school whose music program was more Show Choir than Schubert, I wasn’t aware of the tools needed to prepare for that audition. And if that was the case for me, were there current young, budding vocalists with hopes of singing opera, musical theatre, or both, who had limited resources searching for a way to stand out in a sea of competition?

Many colleges require academic records, letters of recommendation, an application, and often a prescreening audio or video as a first step before receiving an audition. Multiply this by three, five, or even 10 times, and young singers soon discover that the application process can be somewhat overwhelming.

“Make a spreadsheet of each school you want to apply to for college. Know the application deadlines, audition dates, the prescreen requirements, and if the live audition has different requirements,” says Dr. Keyona Willis, assistant professor-educator of musical theatre voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and senior lecturer of voice at Otterbein University. “Having all of this written out in the beginning will help you navigate what type and how much material you need to put together.”

Dr. Thomas Cannon, assistant professor of voice at the Hartt School (University of Hartford) agrees. “Do some research and really find what will work for you. Arrive informed and well prepared. Have a clear idea of what you want to do.”

High school seniors preparing for auditions must navigate the application process while simultaneously completing their senior year. Finding time to prepare for collegiate auditions while maintaining good academic standing in high school can be daunting but not impossible. Dr. Jenny Cresswell, voice teacher at the Cresswell Voice Studio and Interlochen Arts Academy remarks that “In my private studio, I’ve had 15 to 20 students major in voice in college. Since the senior year of high school is already quite a lot, I have all my students prepare their prescreen repertoire before they begin their senior year. It takes a great deal of pressure off their shoulders, and they can focus on being full-time students.”

While the prescreen preparation can be done in the summer before school, Willis notes that “It’s important not to record each piece to fatigue. Try to break it up on different days.” She also says that for some students, “Recording later in the year might be of benefit especially when vocal growth is happening. It’s better to send in a prescreen that is well prepared and has created healthy muscle memory.”

Once an audition is granted, students must think about how best to present themselves.

Many young singers come into the audition space hoping to dazzle the panel, but sometimes don’t consider the repertoire they are offering and if it’s a good fit for their current vocal resources. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned throughout my career is that one must “sing to express, not to impress.” 

Angela L. Owens, on voice faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Parkside and a new faculty member of the Musical Theatre Department at Manhattan School of Music, notes, “Often during auditions, I hear students sing repertoire that isn’t necessarily well suited for their voices but is, instead, music that they really like or music they think we expect to hear. If a student is singing a piece beyond their technical abilities, the audition experience can be disappointing—even traumatic. I tell my students, ‘The repertoire you present should feel like your favorite jeans. You may have had them for a while, but they always fit.’”

With the collegiate vocal audition landscape being a highly competitive one, a singer may be tempted to spend more time considering what they believe the audition panel is seeking. A super-competitive program may want artists who have a certain level of training, while a different program might be drawn to an artist’s storytelling ability. Considering that a singer usually gets just a few precious moments to make an impact, bringing a sense of realness and comfort usually best serves the singer in front of the panel.

“What I want to hear in an audition is someone who loves the music they are singing and loves the experience of singing,” states Cannon. “I want to see a singer with confidence, who is well prepared and displays an innate musicality. I do not seek perfection. While polish is appreciated, many students do not have the privilege of private training until they begin their undergraduate degree. Personally, I am strongly drawn to and excited by a young singer’s potential.”

“We must remember that this is an education program and not casting an opera,” says Cresswell. “We are looking for potential, for hard workers, and people who have a desire to grow and learn.”

Owens says, “It’s always thrilling to hear a young singer with excellent intonation, unabashed enthusiasm, and innate musicality. However, sometimes a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ hinges on a student’s ability to adapt in the moment.”

Understanding one’s expectations for a collegiate vocal program should also be high on the list. “Have a clear vision about collegiate goals and expectations,” suggests Owens. “Are you primarily interested in working with a specific teacher? Create a ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ list built around your desired outcomes.”

Cannon agrees, “Think about what you want the result of your four years of study to be. Secondly, when you audition, check out the environment of the school. If there are performances or rehearsals, ask if you can attend. Many teachers, me included, are willing to give sample lessons or allow for sit-in lessons.”

No matter where you’re applying, every school has a different set of aesthetics based on the academic and performance backgrounds of the faculty. The criteria that each program is looking for can seem a mystery. “I have watched extremely talented individuals who have different things to offer,” says Cresswell. “And I’ve seen what schools they are accepted into and what schools they’re not accepted into—and sometimes it completely baffles me, and then other times I completely understand why that student and that school are a good fit.”

Willis advises, “Remember, the people watching your audition want you to do well. They are rooting for you. Show up and trust yourself. Don’t worry about what we think, trust the work you’ve put into your material. This gives us the opportunity to see you.”

Being a singer can often feel like a lonely endeavor. Add to that the pressure of completing the high school experience while delving into auditioning for collegiate vocal programs, and it’s no wonder that young singers might find the process daunting. I only wish that I had known more when I was a high school singer.

Each voice faculty member who contributed here noted that in most cases the right school will see your potential and that it’s important to show up for every audition fully prepared and exuding confidence—and recognizing that no matter the outcome, every singer can enter the space with the intention of sharing who they are and what they do. 

“You wake up each day with a gift that is within you,” says Willis. “Keep training, learning, and growing.”


Eric McKeever is a New York-based opera singer whose 2022–23 season includes performances with Opera Columbus, On Site Opera, Opera Delaware, the Penn Square Music Festival, and the Casals Festival of Puerto Rico. He is also a passionate arts educator having worked as a teaching artist for the Met Opera Guild and served as the manager of education programs for Kentucky Opera. He holds a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance from The Ohio State University and obtained his bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance from Capital University. 

Eric McKeever

Eric McKeever is a New York-based opera singer whose 2022–23 season includes performances with Opera Columbus, On Site Opera, Opera Delaware, the Penn Square Music Festival, and the Casals Festival de Puerto Rico. He is also a passionate arts educator having worked as a teaching artist for the Met Opera Guild and served as the manager of education programs for Kentucky Opera. McKeever holds a master of music degree in vocal performance from The Ohio State University and obtained his bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from Capital University. For more info and to connect, visit