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Applying to Fine Arts and Design Majors

Julia Jones

Written by Julia Joneson February 15th, 2022

I have been working in education with students for more than 20 years. I spent many years working in the admissions office at Brandeis University, where I was involved in virtually all aspects of the admissions process. As a senior member of the admissions committee, I was a key decision maker on applications, and I met and recruited students around the country and from major cities including Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Nashville. I also served as director of a one-thousand member national network of alumni recruiters and interviewers. Prior to joining College Coach, I continued my work with high school students and their families as director of admissions at a private day and boarding school in Massachusetts.
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Attention, budding artists: looking to continue your artistic pursuits in college? Need some advice navigating the application process for art programs? You’ve come to the right place! Full disclaimer: I’m not an artist (nor do I play one on TV) but, over the years, I’ve worked with many young artists who have applied to and attended undergraduate art and design programs. Here are some of the most important factors to consider as you plan your college art path. Find the right fit The first step in the process is understanding and exploring the different types of programs and schools for artists, and determining which will be the best fit for your goals. There are typically two different approaches. First, art-specific schools, that specialize exclusively in art and design majors. Some examples of these schools include Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Parsons School of Design, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Maryland Institute College of the Arts (MICA), and Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). These types of institutions can be a great choice for a student who is very focused and sure of their choice to pursue art and design and wants a very intensive, concentrated experience in the field. The second approach is to pursue a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Fine Arts in art and design at a more traditional four-year college or university, one that offers a wide range of majors. Students often consider this option if they want to study other subjects in addition to art, as these schools provide more opportunity for cross-disciplinary study. There are also multiple pathways that fall under the category of art and design. Students applying to art schools or programs can pursue majors in studio art, fine art, architecture, fashion design, interior design, industrial and product design, illustration, graphic design, and even game design. There are lots of career pathways and opportunities within this very broad field. Get organized and create your portfolio The heart of an art student’s application is the portfolio; it is a reflection and representation of who you are as an artist. As we often say when discussing the application process, organization is crucial. My biggest piece of advice to students, as they start to think about the portfolio process, is to START EARLY. This is not something you can crank out in a few weeks before the application deadline. The goal is to create a robust collection of your best work as an artist, pieces that reflects your style, vision, and growth as an artist. Your portfolio should reflect your work as an individual artist—not just pieces from in-class assignments, but a more well-rounded view of your aesthetic. Colleges aren’t expecting students who are applying to college to be fully formed, established, and professional artists at this point. They just want to know more about you as an artist right now, including who has influenced you, and how you approach your art. As for how many pieces and what your portfolio should entail, well, it depends. Portfolio requirements can vary, but usually schools want to see 12-15 pieces that show your range as an artist and reflect the different media you have worked with and the diversity of your style. Some programs even require applicants to submit a piece that students have to create specifically for that program. For example, RISD asks students to create a piece inspired by particular words or phrases, while Parsons prompts students to focus an original work on a specific theme. Custom requirements like these, in addition to a more general portfolio, definitely take time to develop and execute. It should also be noted that most art programs require not just portfolios, but additional essays that ask about a student’s artistic vision. Ask for help If you’re unsure how to go about putting the portfolio together, get advice from artists in your world who have helped you thus far: art teachers and mentors you’ve connected with, or anyone who knows you well as an artist. In addition to getting help and advice from those around you, you can also get feedback on your portfolio directly from colleges. National Portfolio Day is offered by a consortium of over 100 colleges, and allows students to meet with admissions representatives during in-person and virtual events around the country to get valuable feedback on portfolios. Additionally, the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD) provides online portfolio review for students from member institutions, along with a lot of other great advice and information about the application process, on their website. Some art colleges, including FIT and RISD, hold their own portfolio review days for prospective applicants. It’s always a good strategy to research this option or even ask each school if they provide this kind of support for applicants.

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