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Performing Arts Pathways: Choosing College or Conservatory

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

Do you love acting, dancing, and singing? If you want to be a future theater professional, you have a lot of options in front of you. However, there are a lot of things to consider as you navigate college research, applications, and auditions.

Here are answers to some of the most confusing questions around college planning for students who want to pursue a theater degree.

Should I get a B.A. or B.F.A.?

A B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts) pathway is intensive, career-focused training in the performing arts, while a B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) pathway is more concerned with a foundation of knowledge in the arts and sciences.

A B.F.A. may well be the best option for students who truly want to make their career in theater, dance, or other performing arts disciplines. Often, a B.F.A. will be awarded at a conservatory like The Juilliard School, or at the conservatory-style programs at institutions like the University of Southern California (USC) or Carnegie Mellon University. With few or no general education requirements, these programs are basically all performance all the time, except for some theory courses, such as dramatic literature, dramatic theory, and history of theatre. B.F.A. programs are great for their immersive experience -- expect nine-hour days of training -- and many students will be happy to be done with English and math coursework, but students who aren’t 100% sure of their career pathway may miss the breadth of coursework and the more traditional college experience offered elsewhere.

A B.A. offers students the chance to explore, connect, and challenge ideas, both in the theater and across other fields. These degrees are offered by both research universities and liberal arts colleges, and the programs emphasize a broad learning experience in the arts and sciences. Students themselves are in charge of striking a balance between the academics and arts, choosing how to allocate their coursework within their semester schedules. With a B.A., students eyeing a career in theater or dance may miss out on the intensity of a conservatory. However, they will still have many opportunities to perform: There will be less competition for spots in productions, and students will be empowered to collaborate with others to plan and execute their own projects.

Some B.F.A. programs offer a balance between performance and academics. For example, drama students at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts have a weekly schedule consisting of two days of academics and three days of conservatory. Other programs like this can be found at Emerson College and Boston University.

How important is a name-brand school?

Big, name-brand schools like Juilliard and NYU (and all your other favorites) have benefits, such as name recognition within the niche performing arts industries and high-powered alumni networks, which are especially relevant for the career-focused conservatories.

However, smaller schools can usually offer smaller classes, more opportunities, and more individualized attention. These schools can still have exceptional programs, such as the one at Trinity College, and may allow students to earn semester certificates in the US or abroad at prestigious programs like the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theater Institute or the Semester Programme in Classical Acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), both of which offer extensive alumni networks to students.

Know that lesser-known colleges can still take you to a successful theater career! If you can audition well, the name on the diploma is irrelevant.

Whichever you go with, remember that your college research is paramount. Explore deeply, ask the right questions, and talk to others to find the best institutions for the individual student.

After you find your programs, check out College Torch’s other performing arts blogs about preparing for applications and how they’ll be evaluated.

You have a lot of work to do to find the perfect B.A. or B.F.A. program! Download my completely free College Research Guide to get my ultimate list of resources for the college search so you know exactly where to start.

Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Parents, join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.

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