Going to art school can be an incredible experience, and it's even better if you know what to expect

Going to Art School: A Complete Guide

Art school is the stuff of movies and dreams. But what is it really like to go to art school? Some get so excited about the idea or so nervous about the competitive application process. That makes it hard to figure out what going to art school will really be like. This guide will share some typical qualities of art schools to help you prepare for the best possible experience.

Going to Art School: A Complete Guide

What Is Art School Like? A Brief History
Art School vs. University
What Are College Art Classes Like?
What Does Art School Teach You?

Mini easel and bowl of fruit for drawing classes, because going to art school and figuring out what art school is like is easier if you hear from someone who knows

What Is Art School Like? A Brief History

Many of the art schools today started as independent spaces for commercial or amateur instruction. College attendance grew following the GI Bill in the 1940s. During this boom, art schools began catering to this new generation of students and created a more structured curriculum for the education of artists.

Until recently, many art schools had large transfer student populations, and many are nontraditional students– students over the age of 25. Transfer students start at other colleges or community colleges then choose to study at a specific school for a specific reason. 

Some art school classes and major tracks still reflect the expectation that most students will be mature, independent, and have a clear picture of their future goals.

Art School vs. University

Most schools offer courses that help students get up to speed and focus on their training as artists. In many ways, going to art school isn’t much different from an average college education, but there are a few notable exceptions.

School and class size

To start, most art colleges are private schools and they have a smaller campus population than the average public college. For example, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) has a student population of just over 3,000 students. Another popular Midwestern college, Northwestern University, has a student population of over 21,000.

Average class sizes for both studio and academic classes are different too. SAIC has an 8:1 student-faculty ratio, but most classes have 12 students. The average class size at UCLA is 26, but some core classes can have 300-400 students. 

Most of your art school classes will feel smaller than your high school classes. You’ll also have few if any large lecture classes like they do at universities. It also means that you have a chance for more individual attention from your instructors and can build more meaningful connections with them.

Private schools don’t always follow traditional class structures either. For example, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is on a 10-week quarter system, and students take classes in the fall, winter, and spring quarters. They take three classes per quarter. Other schools like the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) or Parsons are on the semester system and students take five classes each term.

Scheduling and advising

You might have a dream picture of your art school experience being all art classes and no boring classes like math or science. But that dream can wreck your schedule, especially if you take classes out of sequence or transfer in. 

Scheduling at art school can seem complicated, but each art school creates its own tools to help you make sense of your course requirements for each term and your requirements to graduate. 

You’ll also have an advisor to help you choose and sign off on your class selection and to select your major when you’re ready. Sometimes your adviser will be a member of the faculty, other times it will be a staff member. Sometimes it will be someone you know, other times it’s someone you’ve never met or worked with. 

Residence life

Housing is a big deal for art school students. This is because while most art schools operate a dorm of some sort, most also have open campuses. 

This means that, instead of a large campus solely dedicated to school buildings and housing, the campus spreads out through the town or city in multiple buildings. This can be an incredible way to experience a new city, but it’s also very different from life at home or on a university campus. Many of the students living in art school dorms are in their first year. 

Picture of me and a friend in our college dorm at SCAD

Dorms are where students make strong initial connections. Many campus activities are also centered around life in the dorms. Students are often encouraged to live in the dorms during the first year because it makes it easier to make new friends at school.  

As continuing students move through the program, they spend more time socializing in small groups off-campus. Some students choose to live off-campus from the start, which can slow the community-building process.

Read more

How to Prepare for Art School
How To Build an Art Portfolio for College in 8 Easy Steps

Art school campuses and student activities

There’s usually not a Greek system or a focus on athletics at art schools. So, you might need to be more adventurous when it comes to connecting with new friends. Without built-in group activities like game days and clubs, it can be easy to spend more time in your room than anything else.

If you have any art or counterculture-specific interests, there’s a good chance you’ll find someone or multiple someones at your art school. There are also frequent opportunities to start new school organizations to get involved or connect with new people.

Many college grads say that art school is where they found friends who really understood them. It may take longer to build a friend group, but many of the art college friendships you build will last for life.

What Are College Art Classes Like?

In addition to smaller class sizes, art colleges often have a unique class structure. This means that some of the things your teachers or counselors told you about your college schedule won’t apply. Let’s talk about some of the major differences.

Studio and academic classes 

Art college schedules combine studio and academic courses. Generally, you’ll have two to three studio classes and one to two academic courses each term. At the beginning of each term, professors will usually present a syllabus. This is an overview of what the class will cover during the term, and it usually includes a supply list. This way you’ll know exactly what materials you’ll need to complete your assignments during this first year. 

Academic courses tend to be more humanities-focused– English, History, Critical Theory. You’ll also find some inventive paths of study, like World Cinema or the Ecology of Water, and teachers who are sharing original research.

Art History is awesome 

You’ll also take a lot of art history courses. Art history is often described as boring, but it depends on how it’s taught. I’ve had teachers who make art history feel like a chore. Others use art history as a tool for understanding how incredibly mysterious, confusing, and exciting humans are. If you really think about it, most art is just a reflection of who we are as people. 

Image of me with my graduate art installation, to highlight my experience when I talk about art school vs university

You’ll make more interesting work if you know what artists came before you. It’s also easy to think that you’re being original until you take your first art history class. These courses will help you realize when you’re copying so that you can make more interesting copies and references.

Studio classes will vary too, but they tend to fall into a few different buckets. Technical studio classes usually include demonstrations, followed by some in-class practice. Other courses are more group-minded and involve collaborative presentations or projects. Most art studio classes are a combination of lectures and assignments, followed by a group critique.

Some assignments may sound like a repeat of skills you’ve already learned, especially if you’ve completed one or more AP portfolios. But your art school assignments will mostly be unique chances to hone your skills and ideas. 

Another thing to keep in mind about studios– each studio class comes with a lot of homework. For every hour you spend in a studio class, you’ll usually spend two to three hours outside of class working on homework and projects. 

This means that although you might want to take all your studio classes at once because they’re the classes you’re in school for 


Take all your academic classes at once to get them out of the way

This decision will make completing your assignments at a high level nearly impossible. 

Foundation classes

Foundation classes are common at most art schools. These classes usually fill your first year of school, and ensure that you have a strong foundation of formal skills before you begin classes in your major. These classes might include:

  • Color theory
  • 2D design
  • 3D design
  • Drawing I and II
  • Life drawing

Foundation classes help students whose last school might not have had a strong program get up to speed. They can also help you understand the school’s teaching philosophy and priorities. At many schools, the foundation year will also include English, Art History, and other academic requirements. Art history courses are usually offered sequentially, so AH1 is a prerequisite for AH2. This is good to know if you’re thinking about starting a semester late or transferring because it can throw off your schedule so it will take longer for you to graduate.

If you completed an AP portfolio in high school or a community college class you might want to get credit for foundation classes so that you can skip ahead. This is a great idea for most students but think twice about it if you want to teach at the college level in the future. If you’ve never taken a college Drawing I class, it might be difficult to write a syllabus for it when you start teaching.


If you’ve never done a college-level critique before, get ready for a deluge. Whether your assignments seem like something you can do on your own or not, there is no replacement for a good critique. 

Critiques may not feel super helpful at first. In fact, many critique experiences during the first year of art school are painfully uncomfortable. Picture a horde of new students fumbling for words as they offer feedback on a pencil drawing of crap someone clearly grabbed in the dining hall the night before. 

That said, any difficult skill takes practice, and these early fumbling sessions give way over time to useful conversations that help you understand your strengths and weaknesses as a creator. Critiques also help you identify your blind spots, to analyze your intentions and motivations. It’s also a chance to anticipate the connections viewers may make so that you can better use or challenge those ideas.

What Does Art School Teach You?

Mini camera to show what does art school teach you and what are college art classes like

Art school critics put a lot of weight behind the argument that you can learn art school lessons on your own. But a college environment is especially useful for young artists because the arts are relatively open-ended. There is no right answer for the problems your teachers and peers are assigning you day in day out. Without a community that understands what you’re trying to do and why it can be easy to fall back on copying what’s already out there or accepting that what’s popular is what’s good.

The stress of this situation leads many talented artists to give up before they even get started. 

It’s telling that art schools get this criticism so often when the same could be said of pretty much any college major. Yes, it is technically possible to learn how to draw or to learn the principles of astrophysics on your own. You can learn how to be a graphic designer and how to write an essay about Thomas Hardy’s early writing all by yourself. Anyone can learn to produce video or the ins and outs of property law.

True education isn’t about the basics, it’s about nuance, the details. Art school teaches you about your major and discipline. It teaches technical and conceptual skills. Art school enables social connections and networks of creators. It’s also a crash course in problem-solving and critical thinking. 

It’s about the conversations and quick aha! moments. A great art education can help you process information faster, and direct your energy toward the tasks and skills that are most likely to help you reach your goals. It’s a time to ask questions, to challenge, and to experiment. Make the most of it.

Sign up for 90 Days of Inspiration 

Daily reminders about what’s really important when you head into the studio.


What is Artists Deserve Money? Learn about our mission here.

Get in touch. I don't send emails.

Post by Jana Rumberger