As high school seniors are getting their applications underway (or at least thinking about getting started!) a question often comes up: how many schools should I apply to? What is the right number for your “short list”? The answer to this question is as individual as each student, but I would like to offer some guidance here that may be useful.
The standard advice that you will hear from many sources (such as here) is that seniors should be applying to between 6 and 8 schools. These applications, seniors are counseled, should fall into three categories:
- Two or three “reach” schools, which the applicant would like to attend, but where admission is not a sure thing due to higher selectivity
- Two or three “match” or “probable” schools, which are schools where it seems likely that the student will be admitted
- Two “safety” schools where the student is nearly certain of being admitted
You’ve probably heard this advice before. However, it can be a bit bewildering for music students who can’t necessarily use a grade point averages and test scores to gauge their chances of admission to any particular school. Grades and tests may be a factor, but the quality of your audition is likely to have a bigger impact on your chances of being admitted.
So, music students are left wondering “what are my chances?” and “what’s a safety, and what’s a reach?” At Eastman we frequently hear questions about how many openings will be available for a particular instrument in a given year. Unfortunately these questions don’t help the student much. Even if you know that your first-choice school is looking to enroll X number of kazoo players (insert your instrument here) this year, that still doesn’t tell you whether that means your chances are good. These numbers could even mislead you about your chances, and discourage you from applying to a school that could be a great fit for you. Top music schools receive applications from all over the world, and students don’t really have an effective way to judge how they compare on a national or international level – ultimately, that’s what the audition process is for!
Here are a few ideas that can help alleviate this problem:
- Visit at least some of the colleges/conservatories that you are thinking of applying to. If you can take a lesson with a professor during your visit, set that up well in advance. During the lesson, ask if the professor thinks you are on the right track, or if there are specific things you should be working to improve as you prepare to audition. While on campus, try to listen in on a rehearsal or attend a concert so that you can hear the level of music-making going on at the school. (Keep in mind that you may be hearing upperclassmen or graduate students, so don’t get spooked if that is the case!) Talk to current students during your visit to get a feel for the campus culture. You can also ask about their admission experiences and why they decided to attend. (Also see our advice here on campus visits.)
- Be as involved as possible in the top musical groups in your area. For many students this means performing in youth orchestras, All-County, All-State, and the like. These types of activities are common among successful applicants to music schools, but keep in mind that getting into All-State ensembles does not automatically translate to acceptance at your preferred music school. Keep looking for opportunities that will stretch you including competitions, recitals and professional gigs.
- Talk to your current music instructor(s) about the schools you are thinking of. They will likely be able to guide you and help to tailor your list.
Don’t be too focused on the question of “where will I get in?” Instead, focus on creating a targeted list of schools which will offer the kinds of experiences that are most important to you – in other words, schools that will be a great “fit” for you. That might mean regular access to full-time resident faculty, small class sizes, lots of ensemble opportunities, a high quality curriculum, a close-knit community of students, or any other number of factors that will shape your next four years.
So, this leads us back to the original question of how many schools to apply to. For many music students, submitting between five and ten applications is a good number, even if the schools on your list can’t be easily categorized as “reaches,” “matches,” or “safeties.” Applying to a much larger number of schools may seem like a tempting strategy to hedge your bets, but it can backfire if it leads you to spread yourself too thinly with applications and auditions. Here are some steps to help you arrive at the right number for you:
- Develop a list of schools that you like, and would be happy to attend. Think in terms of which schools are a good fit for you. (This means you should not be applying to any school “just to see if I can get in.”) For each school you are considering, make yourself a list of things you have already learned about the school, and what aspects you want to learn more about.
- Consider the time and money you will need to invest in applications and pre-screen recordings (if required for your intended major/instrument). This is a labor-intensive process, and application fees can add up quickly. Each school will also have its own set of unique requirements that you will need to keep track of.
- Factor in the expense and time it will take to prepare for and perform your auditions, especially if you will be traveling to audition. It is not realistic to think that you could audition at 20 schools during the 2-3 months of audition season. However, an on-campus audition is a good investment of both time and money for a school in which you have a serious interest.
- If you play an instrument which you know is typically more competitive (such as piano, flute or voice) you may want to have a slightly longer “short list” than if you play a more rare instrument.
- Brace yourself for some surprises. You may find that you are waitlisted at a school that you thought was a sure thing. Or you might be admitted somewhere you didn’t really expect. The admissions process is subjective and often a bit unpredictable.
Ultimately the right number for you depends on how well you have done your research on each school, and your unique situation. However, I hope these suggestions provide some helpful guidance as you finalize your list. Best of luck!