The first year of art school is often the hardest for students. It’s a big change– living in a strange place, new rules and rituals, and a heavy workload of classes and homework. For many, this is also their first time living on their own. All of the above can be uncomfortable and stressful if you’re not prepared.

Let’s talk about how to prepare for art school, one challenge at a time, with tips and ideas for how to prepare for art school that can make your transition feel better.

How To Prepare for Art School

Living in a New Place
New Rules and Rituals
How To Prepare for Your Art School Courses
Going to Art School With No Experience

College is the first time many people sleep in a bed away from their house - so figuring out how to prepare for art school is important

Living in a New Place

For many, going to art school means a new town, and many art schools are in the center of bustling cities. To prepare for your new home, take a visit or two before you move out for school.

When you go, don’t just hang out with your parents. If you’re with your family the whole time you’re in this new place, you might not notice how you’re really feeling while you’re there. Try to take a walk on your own, maybe have lunch by yourself. 

Being in college is a big independent step. Getting to know your new city on your own will help you feel more comfortable when you start school. 

If you’re not able to visit before you head off to school, do some research online. Bookmark restaurants, special spots, and historic locations to visit. This way, when you arrive you can start finding things you love about your new home right away.

New Rules and Rituals

In high school, parents handle some of the work of daily life. You probably have your own chores and responsibilities, maybe even your own checking account. But it’s possible that you haven’t had to think about paying rent, overdraft fees, or how to cook until you go off to college. 

During art school, these are life decisions you’ll be making and balancing each day. Some of these decisions are a lot of fun. No curfew or other parent rules can mean all-night movie binging and a lot of other fun activities. 

It also means being a little more mature and responsible, which doesn’t sound super fun. But you can reduce stress as you create new rituals and get used to your new responsibilities. 

My friends from the dorm used to go to the Paper Moon Café to celebrate completed assignments, papers, and exams. A friend down the hall always did her laundry on Sundays. I had a notebook that I updated every Friday morning. I wrote down my receipts to figure out how much I was spending and how much I had left for the weekend.

A support system is important. If making friends is tough for you, think about living on campus your first year. This will give you constant contact with a lot of different types of people. It will also take some stress factors, like monthly rent and grocery shopping, off your to-do list while you get used to your new school schedule.

Being responsible for yourself and your stuff is part of art college prep too

How To Prepare for Your Art School Courses

Many students and grads post horror stories online about pulling all-nighters and an endless stream of homework. Yes, you will probably have more homework than you’ve ever had before. But there’s a good chance that your homework will be the work you came to art school to do. Your assignments will finally look more like the fun stuff you did on breaks and after school. But there are a few important questions we can answer that will help you prepare for art school.

1. How long does art school take

Another part of art school is figuring out how long it will take. Since most art colleges have the same accreditation as public colleges, their curriculum takes the same amount of time to complete, about four years. 

But how long is art school really? On average it takes the same amount of time to complete an art school degree as it does to complete a bachelor’s degree from a more traditional school. These rates aren’t ideal, with only 41% of students graduating in four years, and 60% graduating within six years. 

2. Choosing the right major is important

The expense of art schools can make this time a bigger concern, especially if you’re unsure about your major. When I chose illustration as a major I thought it was a compromise between Painting, the major I wanted, and Graphic Design, the major my parents thought was the best option for jobs after school. 

Instead, I ended up majoring in an industry I wasn’t really into. I finished school and worked in the industry as an illustrator and graphic designer for about a year and on and off before shifting into an admin job and painting on my own time. 

If this sounds like a problem you can see yourself running into, think about taking community college classes before or during your first couple of years at art school. It’s also a good idea to read about art job options

Reach out to professors and join clubs on campus to learn more about the art and design majors you’re considering, and do it early. Most curricula have a progression, with the expected technical and conceptual skills leveling up every few courses. Some classes have prerequisites for this reason, and others don’t. If you want to skip ahead, think about why and what you want to get from the course.

3. School is a great place to build professional connections

Another personal example– I started college wanting to focus on book illustration. I took the book illustration class as soon as I could, the second term of my sophomore year of college. While I did learn a lot in this course, I was the only sophomore in class.

My main takeaways ended up being, first, that book illustration wasn’t the most stable career for me to pursue. Second, it’s not great to take a class with a bunch of people who are about to graduate. This is because they’re busy and may be less open to building connections with younger students. This one decision threw the rest of my undergraduate curriculum a little out of whack, so I never really connected with other students in my major.

4. Is art school hard?

One common issue is that each teacher assigns homework like theirs is the only class. This issue is something that many creators will experience in the workplace too.

Another common challenge is foundation coursework. Foundation courses usually include classes like Drawing 1, 2D and 3D Design, Art History, and Color Theory. 

Going to art school with no experience is easier if you have a clear idea of what you want to get out of art school

For majors who use technology to make their work, like photographers or graphic designers, these classes can feel like a torture exercise. This is because they often require drawing or painting skills that these young artists haven’t developed. Some suffer through their first year, waiting to get to their major courses.

Students who draw on tablets may not want to work with graphite, pastels, or paint. Traditional media enthusiasts might hate any and all computer requirements. Other artists aren’t as strong academically. Art history and critical theory courses remind them of the hard times they had in high school. 

What these common issues mostly boil down to is that change is hard. 

5. Stretch yourself

Stretching skills in new directions is exhausting. It’s especially tough when you have to do it over and over and over again the way most art students do in first-year courses. This is also the time when young artists have a startling realization. While art was their favorite class when it was only once a day, it’s not as fun when it’s an endless stream of intense classes. 

Yes, it’s exhausting doing a collage copy of a master painting in Color Aid paper or a chiaroscuro pencil drawing of autumn leaves. This is how you’ll learn. 

Art college prep should be tough because it’s preparing you for what comes next. But it should also feel manageable, productive, and fun. And some of the best stories you’ll hear from art graduates involve caffeine and late-night ridiculousness as they hustled to finish class projects.

Going to college for art isn't just about college it's about changing your life - how you eat, make and think, where you live, who you spend time with

These tips can help improve your experience:

6. Talk to your teachers

No good teacher wants their students to be miserable. If you’re stuck on an assignment or having a hard time keeping up, ask your teacher about your options. Often teachers will change assignments or share strategies and techniques that can make their coursework feel more manageable for you.

7. Take advantage of drop/add

Most schools have a window at the start of each term where you can sit in on other classes to see if there’s a better fit. Schools will often offer more than one section of a class. You might find that another professor’s assignments or personality are a better fit for the way you learn.

8. Change up your expectations

If you are a scholarship-winning student you might feel like you have the basics figured out and foundation classes are an expensive waste of time. That is a common feeling during the first year too. 

The tricky thing is– it will always feel gross to go from being the best in your class to learning the basics. 

Critiques can be uncomfortable too. Going to college for art isn’t just tough technically, it’s tough mentally and emotionally. Part of your first year of art school is getting used to the feeling of putting yourself out there. You’re pushing your boundaries in a healthy way, and moving your creative practice from something you do for yourself to something that you do as a professional. That is really hard to do.

9. Stress management strategies

If you feel stuck or frustrated, venting to a friend can sometimes help. But if you’re talking to people with similar frustrations, this can lead you to repeat and reinforce your issues instead of relieving them or letting them go.

Sometimes taking a walk, getting a short nap, or exercising for 15 minutes can help you refocus and figure out what’s best for you. These activities can give you some mental space, whether your issue is completing an assignment or changing your major entirely.

If time management isn’t your top skill, use a project management tool like Asana. If you’re a visual learner, their calendar option can help you visualize how your project due dates line up. This strategy can also help you make the most of your free time during the week. This can help you spend less time freaking out about assignments last minute.

Going to Art School With No Experience

If you took advanced art classes in high school or finished an AP portfolio you may think you’ll feel more prepared for college. If you got into art school late, you may feel like you’re behind before you even start classes. 

Starting art school can be tough for anyone because it is so many new experiences all at once.

So, mental and emotional preparation is the best way to get the most out of art school, no matter what your level of experience is.

There are a few ways you can get a feel for each of your classes before they start, like doing a pre-college program or taking life drawing classes at a local school. Mostly, it’s about knowing yourself.

Ask yourself:

You can prepare for the hard parts of art school by making sure that whatever makes you feel good is always on hand. 

How long does art school take? It will feel faster if you stay in touch with people you love and trust as you push your boundaries.

You’ll also want to make sure these are habits or other things that you can control. For example, talking to a parent or best friend right away always helps some people. But they won’t always be available when you’re in school, especially if you’re in a different time zone. So, you might want to schedule a regular time to talk. 

My care package for myself includes my favorite granola and chocolate bars, a 9×12 sketchbook with a couple of meditations and writing prompts, and a quilt my mom made for me. 

Music is also a great way to shift your mood. Creating a playlist that makes you feel good is a great way to prepare for the challenges of starting at a new art school.