Ready to take the extra step towards your musical dreams and earn a college degree in your passion? Not so fast. Entry into Music College can be a difficult step and you will have to devote many hours to the process. I decided to keep this article catered towards United States institutions since I am more familiar with U.S. admissions. If you are international and reading this, you should take the general advice and then see how the process is different in your native country. If you are international and are planning to attend a univerasity in America, be sure to check their foreign policies and submit any extra information such as visa number and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores.
If you have already graduated or a high school senior, you need to finish reading this article, then grab your pen and admissions packets. If you are in junior standing or below, then it is good you are planning ahead! Be sure to keep up to date on deadlines that may be approaching for applications, auditions, scholarships, test dates, etc.
Here are a few terms that may be confusing throughout this article:
Conservatory: A term used more back in the old days for a college of music. Usually refers to a college that is very classical oriented.
I will use these terms interchangeably throughout the article, just be clear on what each one means.
I: Start Your Research Now
Are you sure you want to be a Music Major?
Majoring in Music can be very risky. It is often said that Music is one of the most difficult majors at universities because of the fact that you frequently have to practice AND study. Other majors can sometimes hang out and wait until they graduate to get a real job working in their field, but Music majors also have to work on their skills and people may begin to hate their instrument. Another downside is job security.
Music Education majors have it relatively easier considering public schools are usually hiring new teachers. Classical players in a professional orchestra are often required to have a degree in performance on their instrument. However, some music fields often do not require a college degree (some don't even require a high school diploma) and are looking for work experience over education.
Music departments at universities are usually classical or jazz based unless you go to a contemporary music school such as Berklee or Musician's Institute, and you may still have to take some classical courses. Depending on the size of the school, some traditional music schools may also have a specific department or degree track, which deals with commercial/contemporary music.
If you are sure you want to major in Music, are going to a classical/jazz-based school, and have never read any type of sheet music; then I strongly recommend getting a good private instructor as soon as possible. You may not master everything before the audition, but at least you will be more prepared. If you have not had any type of formal music theory instruction, this will be another thing working against you. Introductory Music Theory courses will cover basic scale development, key signatures, etc, however you will find yourself falling extremely behind if you do not have some experience.
You will probably not have to declare your major until your third semester at college, however you should start brainstorming ideas on which program you believe is best for you and what kind of learning environment interest you.
It is in a Minor Key
Having a different major and completing a Music Minor is a possible alternative you can consider. Many other majors provide better job security and allow you to gain another skill besides music. If you want a job at a record label or other music business type job, I highly recommend getting a degree in Business Management, Accounting, or Marketing. I have also noticed music companies looking for people with degree in English, Communications, and Advertising. Some musical instrument manufacturing companies look for musicians with backgrounds in Electronic Engineering or Computer Science.
Look at the school's minor checklist. It will provide which music courses are required of a Music Minor. You will probably see a lot less theory courses and mostly elective type options. Talking with the chair of department about your goals to see if it is right for you is a smart idea. Get a third opinion as well considering if the music department at the school is small, the chair will try to talk you into majoring instead.
I often hear people ask, What is the best music school? Although there are many books and websites, which have official rankings listing different schools, the truth is the best music school is the one that helps you reach your goals and potential to its fullest. For a general search on some top music schools, I have provided links to 20 music schools that are often seen in top lists and by word of mouth. I listed them alphabetically to eliminate any bias. You should use this list as a starting point and do more research of your own. If you have to attend college in your home state, search all universities in that state that have a music program and ask your high school band director if they have any recommendations.
I strongly recommend checking to see if the college of your choice is accredited. Accreditation requires universities to have certain academic standards, a good library, fair class schedule, etc. If a college is not accredited, then they can follow other rules that are not typical for college atmosphere. This is the reason some unaccredited universities are referred to as degree mills. They will have a bachelor degree program that only lasts 15 months or push out graduates at odd times of the year. Accreditation can be completed by a national organization or regional (usually a few states.) Regional accreditation is more standard. Another reason why you should not go to an unaccredited college is your courses will probably not transfer if you decide to attend another university. That means you will have to take those courses all over again, wasting time and money. Some employers will also not hire graduates from an unaccredited school.
Get rid of the Gen Eds
It may be beneficial to you to get some of your general education credits (e.g. English, Math, Science, and other courses) from somewhere besides your primary school. General Education credits are often 35-45 credits out of a 120-credit degree, compensating about a third of your college education.
Many students have the opportunity to participate in AP courses in high school that will count for college credit. Talk with your high school guidance counselor for more information about these programs. You can also use your summer breaks to take a few summer courses at the local community college or state university. Check with your primary Registrar office to make sure the courses will actually transfer and count towards your degree. Getting your Gen Eds out of the way at another college may not only save you money, but will allow you to focus on your major track and/or allow you to take more elective courses.
II: The Admissions Packet/Auditioning
Some colleges now offer applicants the chance to apply online, although some may prefer the old fashioned method of mailing. If you have to mail your application, make sure you use a dark pen and write legibly. Make sure you fill the entire application out and do not skip any sections or leave anything blank unless it is necessary.
The cost to submit a college application will usually range from $25 for a community college to $150 or more for a private university. Most state university applications are usually $40-$75. If you are applying to a lot of schools, this can become very expensive, very quickly. There are some schools that charge you to apply to both the university and music school, which I believe is just a way for them to try and get more money. I recommend applying to five or six schools. Consider applying to one dream school that may be a reach, three good schools that have a great program that you will probably get in to, and two safety schools that you are positive you can attend. Always have a backup plan. You may be accepted to your dream school, but then something happens that forces you to decline the offer, what would happen if that was the only school you applied to and all the other deadlines had passed?
Almost all accredited schools require students to take the SAT (formally Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (American College Testing Program.) You do not have to take both the SAT and ACT. The SAT is more popular, but the ACT is a perfectly acceptable alternative. The ACT is in some cases more popular than the SAT in mid-western states. Check the provided web links to determine which is right for you.
Controversy has surrounded standardized tests within recent years. Some public universities are doing the controversial method of allowing students with high GPAs to not take the SATs. Generally, your test scores are still a major part of the admissions process and should be taken seriously. Some private music colleges may also state that the SAT & ACT is optional because they are more concerned about musical ability.
If the school you are applying to does not require an essay as part of the application, then they probably do not view academic standards too highly. The essay is an important part of the admissions process because it gives the college a chance to view you as a person and your writing skills.
These essays usually have no length requirement, although it is safe to keep it at least one page and no more than three. Colleges will often provide a list of topics you can choose from or give you an idea of what they are looking for. This usually includes writing about a musical experience or something else to evaluate you. If you are completely on your own, you can choose to write about why you want to go to the school and most important, what you can do for the school or what you hope to gain from pursuing a degree there. Do not give them a standard biography of yourself.
If your high school has a writing center, take the essay there twice to be proofread and gain additional advice. You can also take the essay to your English teacher who can probably help you out. The essay should be free of grammatical errors and look like you are prepared to enter college. With some schools, the essay is a MAJOR part of the admissions process. If you absolutely cannot find someone to proofread your paper and give you adequate advice; e-mail it to me and I will look over it.
Letters of Recommendation
A letter of recommendation (LOR) provides colleges with an in depth look into what kind of student you are. Music colleges are very different from typical colleges considering they may not be concerned with academics as much as musical performance/experience. This all depends on the university and you should check the application guidelines first. One to three LORs are often required. You can use the same ones for all the colleges you are applying to as long as proper forms are filled out and the college receives what it asks for. The only exception to this would be if one of your recommenders is sending a target letter, which goes to a specific school. Use this technique if you REALLY want to get accepted to a particular school, although general letters are acceptable as well.
LORs should be written by academic sources such as teachers, counselors, tutors, etc. If the college asks for a specific musical LOR, you can get your band director or private instructor to write one. You want to choose people who really know what kind of a student you are and how well you will succeed in college. You may have the option of sending a personal LOR from someone who knows you outside of the classroom. Ideal people to write these are civic leaders if you belong to a club such as 4-H in town, pastors/youth leaders, coaches, bosses, etc. Do not have any family members or friends write your LOR. Talk with your recommenders about your goals and ask them if there is anything you can give them to make their job easier. This often can include a list of goals, short bio, plans in college, any awards or projects you worked on, etc.
Be sure to thank your recommenders within a few weeks after they submit it in the form of a letter or card. This just shows good manners. Also let your recommenders which college you are attending after you get accepted.
Some music schools may give the option of sending in a demo instead of a live audition or require you to send a demo to even set-up an audition. Some larger universities may do a regional or national tour where they will visit various cities to audition people. Sending a videotape may also be an option for some schools. Look at the audition section of this article for more details on what should be on these mediums.
I have seen some universities, particularly conservative Christian schools, require applicants to provide a picture with the application. If by any chance you do have to submit a photo, make sure it makes you look like a respectable person.
For music school, the audition is in most cases the most important part of the admissions process. The jury (the people auditioning you) will probably consist of two to three people, so make sure you bring enough copies of your audition material with you. You will probably be asked to sight read as well. If the school is jazz based, get a copy of The Real Book and start working through some of the songs, as their sight-reading piece will most likely come from this book. For classical institutions, study certain etudes for your instrument. Knowledge of scales and arpeggios will also be tested.
The audition at a particular university may vary depending on your principal instrument, interest degree track, etc. The repertoire for the audition will usually consist of three to seven performance pieces of various styles or periods. Colleges will often list which pieces or composers are acceptable for the audition. Other universities may ask you to perform a piece that best represents your proficiency and style. If you have to go this route, I would recommend doing a piece that you can find the sheet music for so your jury can follow along. Do not bring in an Epic Viking Melodic Advanced Algebra Death Metal piece that is off-the-wall and inappropriate for academic purposes. If you need help deciding on the piece to perform or any other help with the audition, get together with a private instructor, preferably one who went to college and/or has a music degree. You can also do a few mock auditions with the instructor before the real one.
Depending on how conservative the university is, you need to dress smart when you go to the audition. If you are auditioning for an elite conservatory, a three-piece suit may not be inappropriate. For less conservative schools, business casual dress is fine. Get yourself some nice shoes, a pair of khakis or black pants, and a nice shirt. A tie is probably not needed for most auditions. Do NOT wear jeans. Remember, you are auditioning for a university, not a garage band.
Do not feel like you have to be the best player going into these auditions. There will be a lot of people better than you and a lot of people worse than you. The important to thing to remember is you never know who is auditioning and how well you will do unless you try. During one of my college auditions I became very nervous, bombed a sight-reading piece, and then said, I'm Sorry to one of the jury members. His response was Why are you apologizing? You came here to learn. That was a very valid point. You are not going to music school because you are the best at your game, sure you may be one of the better musicians at your high schools, but there is another world out there.
III: Visiting the School
You should visit schools that interest you before you attend, or sometimes even before you apply. Visiting the school not only gives you a first hand look at what life is like at the university, but also gives you the chance to get a feel for the surrounding area and culture of the students.
Most college tours will begin with a short lecture giving you a gist of the school and maybe some in-depth talks about things such as financial aid. You will then be broken up into groups and given a tour guide who will most likely show you everything at the college if it is small or the most important sections if it is a large university. A typical college tour from the time of the lecture to the end is usually around three hours. I have heard of some that last as long as six hours. So, if you are looking at different colleges within the same city and want to do two tours in one day, plan accordingly.
Many music universities offer sessions during the summer for people ages 13-17. These programs are usually a few days or weeks in length and will give you an idea of how the university works and their curriculum. Some professors at the college may also teach the summer session courses. Certain concentrations of these summer sessions could include performance, songwriting, music production, etc. Check with your admissions counselor to see if they offer something similar. The application for the summer programs is separate from the actual college application, but if you attend one of these summer sessions, it will look good for your final college application.
What to Ask When on Tour
Tour guides are paid by the university to do one thing only; make the university seem as attractive as possible to prospective students. Tour guides will lie to you if it means making their college look better. How else do you think they are supposed to earn their $6.50/hr? No college is perfect but I have overheard some tour guides tell visitors absolute rubbish. Most of your questions will probably be answered truthfully. Make sure you read the college's website before you go on these tours so you do not repeat the same questions every student has and every admissions representative has to hear. They will probably answer the same questions repeatedly just so everyone is clear. Make a list of potential questions you want to ask them that may not be asked so often, such as:
How much crime is involved on campus? What are the policies on alcohol in the dorms? Where is the nearest Wal-Mart?
Keep in mind that only about 10 percent of your college life is spent in the classroom. The other 90 percent is spent studying, sleeping, hanging out, drinking, etc. Where are you supposed to do these other things? The surrounding area can make or break your college experience depending on your lifestyle. Figure out what works best for you. Would you rather be in an urban setting with lots of nightlife, no grass, tons of traffic, plenty of diversity, gig opportunities; or would you rather be at a college in the mountains where there are a few stores, safe neighborhoods, and small music scene? Some where in between? The level of hate you have for your hometown can give you a start on how to debate this. If you have time, definitely check out the town when you take your tours. How far will you have to travel to buy music supplies? How about groceries/snacks? Where is there to gig/work in town?
If you plan to attend a nearby state university and are commuting from home, where do you plan on hanging out with people you meet? Speaking of this, I strongly recommend that you live on-campus for your first year. This will provide you with the opportunity to meet a lot of people and experience college life to its fullest.
You will spend more time in your college library than you think. Group project meetings often happen here and you need to have plenty of resources at your disposal. Check to see what magazines & publications they have available. How many computers are in the library? Are the scores and music books up-to-date?
Computer labs are another important feature of colleges. Even though you probably have your own computer, you may need to use a certain software program that is only available on campus. What if you are on campus for 4 hours straight and have a 45-minute break and want to check your thread replies on www.ultimate-guitar.com? There should be computer labs in each building for a university with several colleges. On your tour during the day, check to see if there are a lot of students waiting around to get on a computer or if there are more than enough seats available. Another important thing to look out for is if the computers are actually up-to-date. Last year, I reviewed the equipment in the music studio of the state university I was at. The computers were Gateway and running Windows 98. Now what modern music software can you run with that? You better believe they finally updated them to modern computers after I said something.
How important is it for you that your university has a professional recording studio? Of course, if you are looking to pursue Music Engineering, a professional studio is necessary; however many state universities may just have a small one with limited functions. Be sure to take an in-depth tour if you can with just the music department. E-mail the Admissions department a few weeks before your visit and they will try to help you out. If not, you can talk to your tour guide and they will probably set you up with someone else from the department later that day.
Some colleges allow prospective students to sit in on a class so they can get a feel for the teaching method or course material within the department. E-mail the secretary of the department for more details about this. If you have the opportunity to do something like this, you can also meet some students and ask them what they really think of the college and the music degree tracks. The good thing about general students is they will not lie to you, and if they are lying, you can usually spot it easily.
Get ready for the most important part of this article. Read it three times, so you remember it. When you are visiting the university, make sure you eat at their cafeteria. I read this in a book a few years ago and did the same when I visited the college I attended for my first two years. Everyone I talked to hated this cafeteria, but it was my dream school, so I figured, Hey, I'll deal. Guess again, this cafeteria was so horrendous; I ended up only eating once a day, lost about 20 lbs in a few months, and developed an eating disorder. Other students kept complaining about this cafeteria because of its lack of options, food quality, and mouse problem. Of course, this was a cafeteria at a very well known music school, so the cafeteria may not be the deciding factor for these students. However, if that were the quality of a cafeteria at a state university, students would decide to go elsewhere. Make sure the cafeteria can fit your dietary needs, especially if you are a vegetarian or have certain limitations.
IV: I don't have the money!or do you?
How are you supposed to pay for school? Unless you are a trust fund baby or have well to do parents that are willing to pay for college, you may have to seek extra assistance. You can begin by filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which will give colleges an idea of how much assistance you need. You will have to fill out various information about you and your parent's taxes for that year. Colleges may offer you a need-based scholarship or information about grants that you are eligible for. You will receive a SAR (Student Aid Report) that tells you your estimated family contribution.
Scholarships are another option although I am going to tell you right now that you should not depend on them. I once made a scholarship office advisor mad when I asked them, Am I going to be eligible for anything considering I'm a straight, white male? When they gave me the list of scholarships available at the college, everything was pretty much for a minority, so go figure. I was a first generation college student, had NO money, and came from an extremely small town and still received no assistance for a university that costs $30k plus a year. This is when you getstudent loans.
Student loans have to be repaid, but usually not until 6 months after graduation. Check with companies that have the best percentage rates and packages that appeal to you. You may need a co-signer for some of the loans depending on the amount and your present income status. The one thing to remember is, you are borrowing money from the government, not the Mafia. College can be a wise investment that could potentially result in a lot more income than a high school diploma would. Spending $50,000 on college in order to make $1 million more during your lifetime does not seem like a bad investment.
Also, remember that your college costs will not just include tuition. You also need to worry about room & board, food expenses, basic living expenses (supplies, entertainment, emergencies), books, transportation, etc. Do a rough estimate before you make final decisions. The last thing you want is to end up like some students (such as me at times) and walk around with $9 in your bank account debating whether to have dinner at Wendy's or Starbucks in the morning. I have actually seen people put bottles of water on their credit card because they had no cash. College is a good time to learn about financial management.
College textbooks are very overpriced and their sellback value is usually about 20%. Which is why I recommend that you not buy college textbooks, seriously. I figured this out after my third semester. I was taking some general education classes and then realized that 90% of the material on the quizzes and exams came from the professor's lecture notes. I started to not buy textbooks for general education classes and my grades did not suffer. If something was not covered in lecture notes, then you can always use Wikipedia or the textbook that is on reserve in the library. English and Music Theory courses will require you to buy the textbook; there is no way around that. Play it by ear for the few semesters.
The average costs for books a semester is usually between $400 and $600. At music schools with less rigorous tracks and schedules, you may only spend $200 to $300. Just be safe in case you have to buy a certain book. Check www.amazon.com and other online retailers first because the university bookstore is the LAST place you want to shop for textbooks. You will see why when you get there.
I included general advice about college admissions because a college education can change people for the better. College is not for everyone, but it is supposed to change the way you think. If you think that a certain program will help you gain the skills you need to succeed in your dreams, but will not provide excellent job security; than that is a decision you need to make. The important thing to remember is you should never stop your education. If you only have time to take one music theory course at the local community college, than do it if that means you will be learning something new.