How to Find a Great Arts College

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006; 10:18 AM

As an amateur college admissions adviser, imposing my views on friends, relatives and unfortunate strangers in airports, I can speak with great confidence about which schools future doctors, lawyers, teachers, business executives and NFL linebackers should consider.

But when people ask about a nephew who wants to be a poet, or a granddaughter who hankers for an Academy Award, I don't have much to say. My relationship with the arts is tenuous at best. I have to confess I watch a lot of television, and not always the most refined shows. I had a bit part in a college play once, and I was awful. The only remotely artistic thing I do these days is grab my favorite frosting tubes and squeeze out crude cartoons on family birthday cakes.

So I have been trying to educate myself on college arts programs. Particularly helpful in my search has been a new book, "Creative Colleges: A Guide for Student Actors, Artists, Dancers, Musicians and Writers," by Elaina Loveland, a former dance teacher and college admissions expert. I also found "Art Student's College Guide" by Linda Sweetow and Carol Brown, and many of the major college guides provide information on schools with good arts programs. Most of these books encourage high schoolers to research arts programs VERY carefully, since there are nuances to such places that we happy-go-lucky liberal arts majors don't have to worry about. For instance, some arts programs are in conservatories that ONLY do the arts, but most are part of colleges and universities that cover a range of disciplines.

Here are 10 rules, based on what I have been reading, for picking the college that is most likely to nurture your creative instincts.

1. Be sure you REALLY want an arts program, particularly if you are thinking of one of the specialty schools . Loveland asked several experts what students should be thinking about as they apply to study a creative discipline in college. The replies were stunningly consistent. "The greatest consideration is commitment," said Barbara Elliott, director of enrollment management at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Carol Kim, dean of enrollment management at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, said, "Students have to be aware that this is what they really want to do with their lives -- it is something they cannot live without."

2. Get your parents on board . Count me among the dads who would sigh deeply if any of my children told me that acting or music or painting or novel-writing was going to be their life. But Loveland and the experts she cited had some good arguments for an arts education. Thomas Novak, dean of admissions and financial aid at the New England Conservatory in Boston, said, "The discipline that is required to study the arts carries over to almost everything else." And there is money to be made in movies and television and music and graphics. Fortune Magazine asked in 2004: "Is the MFA [Master of Fine Arts] the new MBA?"

3. Find out if the people teaching a college's arts courses are active professionals . Take journalism schools. Journalism is no art, but the principle is the same. I warn reporter wannabees to make sure the journalism schools they apply to are staffed by former journalists, and not just theoretical types with doctorates in communications. The same advice goes for people who want to become actors, musicians, painters and novelists.

4. Decide if you want more than just the arts . This is a variation of point one, but point one is so important it bears repeating. You can major in the arts without filling every waking minute with creative activities. There are plenty of liberal arts colleges with strong drama or music or writing programs. You just have to decide if you want to mix your passion for an art with other things, like sports or science or history that some arts schools don't offer. If you choose this more balanced approach, you will have to worry about your high school grades and SAT or ACT scores. The liberal arts colleges insist on evidence of academic accomplishment. The specialty arts schools don't care so much, as long as you ace the audition or have a portfolio that reminds them of Jackson Pollock.

5. Check out the two-year art schools if you are impatient to get started . The American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy are among the professional theater conservatory programs that grant two-year certificates "designed to launch you into the real world of professional acting," Loveland said. But if you change your mind and look for a job outside of acting, "a credential from one of these schools does not have nearly the same weight as a degree from a traditional college or university," she said.

6. If you dream of Broadway, make sure the school does your favorite kind of productions. Just because a college says it has a strong drama department does not means it shares your tastes. If you need a regular dose of musical comedy, make sure that is a standard part of the department's repertoire.

7. Find out if you like the WAY they teach your specialty . If you see yourself as a method actor, you might check to make sure Stanislavsky is an acceptable model at the drama program of your choice.

8. Talking to students at the colleges that interest you is crucial. With so much depending on the tastes and methods of the people who teach the arts at the college you want to attend, conversations with arts majors who are already there seem essential. Ask what it is like to work with the professional whose work has drawn you to that faculty. Find out if the other students, and the faculty, are as serious about this as you are.

9. Check out the alumni. The most entertaining part of Loveland's book is her lists of the actors who have graduated from the various schools she describes. Are you a Christine Baranski-Kevin Kline-Kevin Spacey-Laura Linney kind of person? Then Juilliard is for you. Fans of Don Cheadle, Ed Harris and Pee-Wee Herman might prefer their alma mater, the California Institute of Arts. We devotees of Ann-Margret, Charlton Heston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Schwimmer will be heading for Northwestern. (Aspiring actors are likely to take a much more sophisticated approach. I told you I was a lowbrow.)

10. If all else fails, do it yourself. Undergraduates are starting new theater groups, dance troupes, singing choruses, rock banks and improvisational comedy ensembles all the time. Truly creative people don't always need a college to do their work for them.

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