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When I first started the audition process for theatre and musical theatre college programs, I noticed that the online resources were incredibly vague. Every article seemed to be an over-generalized list including broad statements like "Do Your Research" and "Stay Positive". While that advice makes sense, it's not all that helpful and I think it's about time someone actually made a more detailed guide about real experience. So here it is! A huge summary of what I learned about the college audition process.
Researching and Visiting Schools
This process should start during your Junior year in high school. That way you have enough time to visit some of the schools that interest you before you're scrambling to fit all your auditions in. There were certain schools I was able to rule out immediately as soon as I set foot on campus. (Unfortunately, some of these were schools I was there to audition for and I had already paid the application fees. So, don't make the same mistakes I did and try your best to visit first).
Anyway, a visit is the best way to find out about the program and the workspaces. Some schools have halls filled with dance studios with floor to ceiling mirrors, while others lack rehearsal rooms but have huge performance spaces. Some schools even share a theater with the city and students have the opportunity to collaborate with professionals on certain shows (i.e. Syracuse University).
The other factor to be aware of is the type of program. These days every school is defining terms like "Conservatory" and "Liberal Arts" differently, so it's important to find out exactly what they mean. That being said, here's a brief guide about what the terms generally imply.
Conservatory- If a school is labeled as a conservatory it is solely for the arts. These programs typically focus on B.F.A (Bachelor of Fine Arts) degrees. B.F.A.s fit in as many major-specific credits as possible and you rarely ever have time to minor. Some universities have conservatories within a larger school (i.e. The Cincinnati Conservatory of Music is within the University of Cincinnati).
Conservatory STYLE- This is a term more programs are using to emphasize that their major coursework is vigorous, but they don't throw regular education completely out the window. It's best to ask each specific school what their credit break down is so you can find the best ratio for you.
Liberal Arts- These vary a lot as far as their focus on performing arts programs. They typically offer some combination of B.A and B.F.A majors. As a general rule, if a school has a B.F.A it means they are more serious about that specific program, however, these schools usually hold general education about equal to your major.
What to Prepare
Each school and degree has different requirements for every audition. It is so important to follow these! Some panels will immediately rule you out because your headshot was the wrong size or you didn't follow the dance call dress code. If they are taking the time to email you or put up requirements on the website, THEY ARE NOT OPTIONAL. In addition, when something is labeled "Optional" it really is REQUIRED. Even if it is an acting audition, you should sing the "optional" song. It shows you are prepared and it gives you more time in the room (which is always good).
Acting- Two Classical Monologues, two contemporary. Make sure your pieces are contrasting, meaning have a comedic and a dramatic. Prepare a song just in case they ask.
Musical Theater- Four songs, two modern (post-1960) two Classical (pre-1960). Make them contrast in mood and range. Know the whole song but a typical cut is between 16-32 bars. At least two contrasting monologues, both typically contemporary. Bring dance clothes and be ready to learn multiple combinations.
Both- Be prepared to improvise, there are typically acting exercises and interviews. Have questions ready in order to keep a conversation going.
Bring extra resumes, headshots, and three letters of recommendation (two for arts, one academic). Even if the school asked you to turn them in online ahead of time, you can never be too prepared.
As performing arts programs become more competitive, the audition process becomes more tedious. These days many prestigious programs like Pace and Elon require a video audition. This is usually the same material listed above, just on film. This is in order for colleges to determine if they want to see you in a live audition.
Most people perform much better in person than on film when it comes to the material they want you to prepare. Because of this and the high price to pay for a college to even view your prescreen, it's important to also apply to schools that don't require one.
The website most schools use to upload prescreens is https://getacceptd.com
Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse
Use every opportunity you have to perform your material, whether it be at school cabarets and open mic nights or even just in class. I used to go to theatre during study hall to workshop my pieces with my directors, and during lunch the stage was empty so I had a chance to rehearse choreography.
Try filming yourself. It sucks, but it lets you see what your teachers have been pointing out. It's also rewarding to see how your work progresses over time.
Finally, make sure you're memorized. The pieces you use should not be found two weeks before the audition. You need time to make them your own.
While I still believe it's in your best interest to audition at the school you are looking to attend, Unifieds are a good way to knock out a lot of auditions in one weekend. Locations include New York, Chicago, and LA. Be careful though, slots fill up fast and many Unified schools still require prescreens (things I learned the hard way). From what I've heard though, some people use their extra time between scheduled auditions to go to more auditions! As for me I made my own "Unifieds" and auditioned for Emerson and Hartford in the same weekend since they were close to each other. In the end, do whatever works for you.
What to Wear
This stressed me out A LOT. So many people have very strong opinions about what is right and what is wrong. The answer is different for everybody, but I can tell you from personal experience that once you find the perfect outfit you will wear it to every audition.
There are some people who swear that looking casual is the only way to go but I will tell you right now that is a terrible myth. Do not even consider wearing jeans or shorts to a college audition. There is a line of professionalism that you cannot cross.
Besides that, wear what's comfortable and makes you feel great. Nothing that takes away from your performance (i.e. flashy sequins and clothing with words). A lot of girls wore trendy floral patterned dresses and many were rocking pantsuits. Guys usually went with dress pants and a button down or polo. I chose a simple skirt and blouse/sweater. This is a simple combo that can show versatility. Not every school can do American Idiot and Next to Normal every year. Most do a mix of classical and contemporary shows, so an outfit that is relatively timeless works well. That being said- if you have your heart set on the pantsuit, wear that pantsuit dammit.
And don't forget your dance clothes if you have a musical theatre audition! Remember to look up what attire and shoes you are expected to have.
The Night Before
It's important to review your schedule and double check the location of the audition so you can arrive early and prepared. Trust me, you do not want to be sprinting across campus with a giant dance bag and a crumbly half eaten granola bar because you got lost and your audition time was switched.
Because I'm paranoid about forgetting things (probably because I've been so forgetful in the past) the night before I lay out everything I need for the next day. That way in the morning all I have to do is go through the checklist and place everything in my bag all at once! It's simple, but it's the best thing I did for myself during the entire process.
The Morning Before
Check the address and the time you need to be there, AGAIN (please). Do your hair, makeup, and any morning rituals you have. Then, pack your bag. Eat breakfast. I don't care how nervous you are, it is important. I once had an audition where I was called at 10AM and wasn't finished until 6PM (Eight hours)! That’s why it’s important to eat. I always eat the same bland thing before an audition. A peanut butter bagel with a banana and herb tea with honey because it is familiar and doesn't contain much dairy or caffeine (foods to stay away from if you're singing). Of course, stick to what you know is good for your body. If you can't nix the morning coffee, don't! Do what feels best for you.
Arrive at the audition early and be sure to check in. At Temple University, I showed up before the other few people in my slot so they asked me to go in their place and I got it out of the way! I also got to spend a lot of time with the program directors and ask questions.
At the audition, I often felt like I'd forget everything as soon as I walked through the door, but the truth is your material becomes a part of you if you rehearse enough. If you mess up, own your mistakes. While you're waiting, befriend other people. I have had a blast at auditions when I come in with and open heart and mind. A room of strangers becomes a family in a little under an hour. Just make sure to stay away from competitive conversations. "I just got accepted at..." or "I'm the lead in..." are statements that can be taken several ways. If you're talking about shows to connect with others, that's good. But if you're listing off all your lead roles to try and earn respect, you've done just the opposite.
Above all, stay focused and be yourself. Promise yourself a reward for after the audition and feel proud regardless of the outcome.
Rejection and Acceptance
The letter comes back and you don't make it in. Don't fret, it happens to everyone. All you can do is move forward. A rejection doesn't mean you aren't talented, it means it just wasn't the program for you.
If you’re accepted, celebrate! Just don’t let it get to your head. I’ve known people who got their letters of recommendation revoked after they had already gotten into their school, so don't start skipping classes and rehearsals.
Finally, just don't be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to teachers, friends, and professionals who have been through this process or who are going through it currently. By keeping an open mind and asking the right questions, everything gets easier.
And please never let anyone get in the way of you and your aspirations. I believe if you work hard enough, you can make it anywhere.