Making the Leap : College Search, Applications, and Auditions

Choosing a School

Choosing where to attend college is the most significant decision most students have made up to this point in their life. While this may seem daunting, through advanced planning and openness to discovery you can find the best fit for your collegiate home.

The end goal of a successful college search is to find the right fit for you as an individual. With that in mind, this article will take students through some important considerations during the process. The sophomore and junior year is an ideal time to conduct research and develop a short list of schools. A great way to dive in is to attend in person and virtual college fairs.

College websites can also provide information to assist in your college search. In particular, look for information pertaining to the application and audition process, degrees offered, and what makes a school unique.

From there, campus visits are a crucial step to allow students and families to see campus in action. Tour the campus and meet with admission counselors, alumni, faculty, and current students. Attend a sample class and request a sample lesson. And perhaps most importantly, eat lunch in the dining hall. During your search, contemplate the school size and geographic setting you are looking for and be sure to keep an open mind. It may be that you are looking for a large school in an urban setting, but you fall in love with a small school in a college town. Part of your college decision will be based upon factual evidence, whereas other criteria will rely on your instinct. The campus visit will help you in both regards.

For many students, the private studio teacher is of critical importance when comparing schools. This individual is often a key mentor during the college years and beyond. With that in mind, check to see if an in person or virtual sample lesson can be available as a part of a visit. Another item to consider is the ensemble and stage performance opportunities. What offerings are available, what makes them unique, and what time constraints do they entail? As a first-year student, will you have access to these opportunities? How will these experiences facilitate your goals and development as a musician?

The next item to consider is curriculum and areas of study. Are you looking for an intensive conservatory-style focus to your education? Or perhaps a broad-based education with an emphasis in music? Keep in mind that college is a time for discovery. As a result, your plans may evolve as you are exposed to new experiences. As this occurs, will you be able to change your major or add a minor? Next, consider the class setting and how this fits with your learning style. How large is the average class? Are classes taught by faculty or graduate students? Are there co-curricular offerings such as study abroad, internships, community outreach, guest workshops, masterclasses, and touring? What cultural institutions are nearby? If you plan to reside on campus, what type of learning community will you live with? A lot of learning occurs outside of the classroom so be sure to envision your learning experience on the campus holistically. 

The College Application

Once your senior year is underway, it is time to submit your college applications. Each school has their own process, deadlines, and criteria to evaluate prospective students. Some schools will send the admission decision after the audition has been completed. Others will send separate admission decisions to the university and to your program of interest. GPA and the strength of your academic curriculum is among the most heavily weighted criteria for admission. Therefore, if your school offers advanced, AP, or IB courses, you may want to consider adding them to your schedule. That being said, it is important to not stretch yourself too thin and negatively impact your academic performance.

You are more than a number, and the college application is an opportunity to provide a complete view of yourself as an individual. Music and non-music extracurricular activities that demonstrate experience, leadership, and service are an asset to your application. Choose your references wisely and provide advanced notice if you are asking them to write a letter on your behalf. The best references do more than endorse your academic and musical aptitude; they describe your personal growth, work ethic, and illustrate your personality.

Be comprehensive and forthright, complete the application thoroughly, and meet its deadlines. Know the programs you are applying for and be able to articulate why you are a good fit for the school and how it will help you to achieve your goals. Demonstrate an affinity for the schools you are applying for and maintain communication with their faculty and admissions counselors. This may improve your chances for admission. Proofread your essay and all of the written responses. Then, put it down for a day and proofread it again. Allow yourself plenty of time. If you wait until the last minute, chances are higher that you will make avoidable mistakes. Admittedly, a long list of requirements and deadlines can be a lot to keep track of. One way to do so is to maintain a spreadsheet with critical deadlines at all of the schools you are considering.

Finally, application requirements, fees, your schedule, and travel considerations will impact the number of schools where you choose to apply. While many students apply to five or more schools, be sure to exercise diligence and get to know the schools you are considering. It is important to develop relationships with their faculty, staff, students and alumni in order to make an informed decision.

The College Audition

Oftentimes, students are planning their auditions as they submit the application. Be sure to research important audition deadlines at each school that you are considering. Some may require a prescreen audition on or around December 1, others have firm deadlines to complete the audition or to be considered for music scholarships. Take note of the audition requirements listed on each program’s website. In addition to the prepared repertoire, you may be asked to perform scales or sight-read as a part of your audition. These elements of performance should be practiced along with your repertoire as you prepare for your senior year. Often times degree programs such as the Bachelor in Music Performance (B.M.) will stipulate repertoire requirements that are more prescriptive compared to other degree programs.

While your performance ability will have a high impact on your audition, it is not the only factor that will be taken into consideration. When you audition, programs are assessing your current ability and projecting your growth under their tutelage. As a result, it is important to demonstrate responsiveness to the private studio teacher’s recommendations during the sample lesson. Additionally, it is important to exhibit self-motivation and an interest in utilizing the resources available from the university. 

To prepare for an audition, it is critically important to study privately on your instrument. This will develop both your artistic ability and technical proficiency on your instrument. Additionally, students should seek opportunities in training programs and ensembles both inside and outside of their high school. If your school offers academic music courses such as Music Theory and Class Piano, it is high recommended to enroll in these courses. Finally, students should develop a curiosity about their artistic medium. Listen to music, attend concerts, and strive to constantly learn something new about your art form.

Financial Aid

Many universities offer Academic and Music Merit Awards to offset a portion of tuition costs. Students should also plan to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as soon as it is available in the fall. Those who qualify may receive need based grants from universities or from the Federal and your State Government such as the Pell Grant. Additionally, community based and civic organizations may offer outside scholarships as well. Finally, Federal Loans, Private Loans, and Parent Loans are often used to finance a college education.

It is important for students, families, and schools to have honest conversations about the cost of attendance throughout the college search. Before making your final decision, be sure to have a plan in place to finance your college expenses. For many families, a portion of these costs are funded through student loans. While the data related to student loan debt is profound, it is worth a deep dive to better understand how student loan debt will impact you as an individual. Be aware that a significant percentage of student loan debt in the United States is from graduate and professional programs such as medical or law school. Use online tools to project your monthly loan payments along with income levels for the career you are pursuing. From there, you can estimate the cost of attendance that you can afford.

Once you have received your award summaries or financial aid notifications, it is important to compare the cost of attendance at the schools you are considering before student loans and work study is applied. Then, consider if your awards are renewable. From there, families can have an “apples to apples” comparison of their options. Finally, it is important to note that unemployment rates are lower and income is higher for those who have earned a Bachelor’s degree compared to those who have not. While the cost of an undergraduate degree is a significant commitment, it should be viewed as an investment for your future. 


The college search a two to three-year process with a lot of steps along the way. While this can be complicated and stressful, it is important to use the resources that are available to you. College admissions counselors, university faculty, your music teachers, guidance counselors, and family are all here to support you. When it comes time to perform your audition, it is important to know that everyone on the other side of the table has been where you stand. You have worked very hard to get here and now is the time to believe in yourself. Take a deep breath, relax, and have fun.

George Palton

George Palton is from Cleveland, OH and completed his undergraduate studies at Bowling Green State University where he earned degrees in Music Education and Music Performance. Throughout his college search he sought personal interaction with faculty and staff – values that he brings to his role as Associate Director of Admissions for the School of Music at DePauw University.