Choosing the right art school is important. Your first couple of terms at art school will set the tone for the rest of your college experience.
If you feel too challenged, or not challenged enough, it will be difficult to stay motivated and engaged.
Some art schools are old prestigious schools, while others are newer and a little more flashy. Depending on your style or your crowd, it’s easy to get sold on a specific school for the wrong reasons.
The cost of attendance at most art schools can add pressure to the mix, leading to added stress and burnout for students trying to make a smart choice.
Choosing an art school is like making any big decision. It helps to know who you are and what you want in the future. Most of us aren’t very good at that.
So high school and transfer artists will often pick a school based on:
- What their friends are doing
- What their teacher told them to do
- Their financial aid package
- What their parents think is best
Sometimes this works out. Other times it’s a big investment that doesn’t work out because it was a series of guesses and compromises from the very beginning.
This article will help you choose the right art school for your personality and artistic goals.
Choose the Right Art School for Your Major
If you’re not sure what you want to major in, you’ll want to pick a school with a comprehensive foundation year. If finances are tight, you may want to start at a community college and transfer when you know what you want your major to be.
As you start to research art schools, you’ll soon find out that many schools have a major that they’re best known for. Sometimes this is more urban legend than reality. But many smart students make their art school decision based on the strength of their chosen major.
At most art schools, there are a lot of great programs at the school. That said, a specific major program and the strength of that program can influence the other majors at the school. It can also affect the way people in the industry will think about your degree from that school.
For example, CalArts has a world-class experimental animation program. This is partly because Walt Disney founded the school and part because of its extraordinary program. Parsons has a killer fashion program, and not because it’s the home of Project Runway.
The majors at art schools often also offer a chance to truly learn the specifics of different industries.
Some schools offer minors, and others will require you to take extra credits to complete an optional minor. Minors are useful and important for more than educational purposes. Often your minor can be a way to prepare yourself for work after college.
For example, CCA has a minor in art education that offers a path to getting certified to teach high school art.
Select the Best Art School Location
The area where you study impacts more than your college experience. College is about adventure, but it’s also about networking. If you want to start working in the arts immediately after graduation you’ll probably be working in the same city where you got your degree.
Think about where you want to start your life after college and look for an art school in that community.
Local school research
If you want to stick close to home and there are no art schools nearby, check out the places you might like to work in your town.
- Architecture and design studios
- Ad agencies
- Literary and art events
- Galleries and museums
- Creative shops
- Local chapters of national organizations, like AIGA
- Places creative people in your community come together
Then, ask this new crowd where they went to school.
This gives you an idea of where they came from and what kind of education they respect.
Choosing a new city for college
Next, think about the college experience that you want. Maybe you want to be close to a lot of museums or maybe there’s a gaming startup you want to work with after graduation.
It’s enough if it’s just that the landscape near campus inspires you. But make sure the school you choose is a destination– somewhere that looks like the direction you want to grow in.
Study abroad and off-campus programs
If you’re interested in studying in another country for your degree but it’s just out of your reach, a study abroad program is a great option. These programs make it possible to study in another city for a few weeks or several months.
Study abroad programs vary wildly, so if this is an area of interest to you, you’ll want to ask a lot of questions.
For example, study abroad programs at art schools are different from university programs. Art schools are smaller, so the number of students who want to study off-campus is smaller too.
These programs can happen during some years but not others. The locations might change every year. You don’t want to go to a school that doesn’t consistently offer study in Paris if you’re fixated on studying in Paris.
Studying abroad can be an incredible experience no matter where you go. But it can also impact how long it takes and how much it costs to complete your degree.
Asking some questions in advance and setting clear expectations can help you avoid disappointment. You’ll also want to look at how a study-abroad program will affect your curriculum and graduation path.
Some schools can offer a semester exchange, but look closely. Some exchanges only happen if the partner school also has a student interested in studying at your school. If that doesn’t happen you might miss your opportunity to study abroad altogether!
Sample questions you’ll want to ask a school about their off-campus programs include:
- What year is the best time to study abroad as an undergrad?
- How much money should I save, and what will financial aid cover?
- What are the requirements to study off-campus, and how should I prepare in advance?
Art School Faculty and Industry Connections
Your faculty are your mentors at art school, so the teachers at any art school should impact your decision about whether to attend.
Famous teachers and long-time faculty
Some faculty rosters come packed with recognizable names. Others feature names that only true fans will recognize.
Many art school professors have names that aren’t so flashy, but they are incredible teachers. You’ll want mentors that have a clear and powerful presence in the community.
A balance of different kinds of teachers is good. It’s also important not to get too caught up in working with the most famous faculty. While their presence in the classroom can sometimes offer the same impact as industry connections, it can also be a challenge.
Faculty are often famous because they are active outside of the classroom, so they are very busy. It’s not unusual for these classes to meet for fewer sessions.
Sometimes teacher assistants instruct these classes. There is usually an occasional drop-in by the big-name faculty. This situation is fine for some but very frustrating for others.
Faculty are people you can learn from and potentially build relationships with. If you’re looking for close teacher relationships, a college with fewer big-name faculty is probably a better fit. You’ll also want to look at schools with smaller class sizes to maximize individual attention.
Adjunct vs. full-time faculty
The number of adjunct vs. full-time faculty matters too. If an art school has mostly associate professors, those are usually tenured or tenure-track faculty, so they’ll be with the school for a long time. You’ll be able to connect with these teachers during your full course of study. They’re also most likely the faculty who lead committees and other groups on campus.
If the teachers in your program are mostly adjunct professors, they might be around in a year, but maybe not. These teachers teach specific classes for a limited amount of time.
Adjuncts are often rising stars working actively on their professional practice. They’re often excited to engage with and support the students they teach. They also frequently teach on more than one campus, so they could be more pressed for time.
As you check out faculty at different art schools and the faculty, look at student reviews. Some reviews don’t offer enough to get a clear picture, but sites like Rate My Professors and Niche can help. Reviews can show you whether a school has a collection of respected and interesting teachers or a handful of magnetic personalities that run the show.
Pay attention to the concerns that students share. Some negative reviews online say more about the reviewer than the school or teacher they’re reviewing. But when many students call out the same issue chances are it’s a real problem.
Before you choose a school or register for classes, do a quick Google search to look at the work of any of your prospective teachers.
This can give you an idea of their personality because it shows you what they are passionate about. Also, the work an artist makes reflects the world that they are most passionate about.
For example, some figurative painters focus exclusively on figurative painting. It doesn’t matter how impressive a teacher is if you have no interest in what they are passionate about teaching.
A great teacher will always be able to offer valuable and interesting critiques. But if they have a specific area of focus, expect them to view your work through that lens and decide if that is what you really want to learn.
In some industries and in some companies, the only way to get in is to know someone– to leverage your network.
That sounds unfair, but if you think about it it makes sense from a hiring perspective. Most people running top companies are very busy and hiring is a time-consuming, exhausting process.
Every hiring manager wants to hire the best person for the role, someone who will work hard, share a unique perspective, and add to what their team can do.
So, it’s natural for them to ask the people they trust for recommendations. It makes sense that they would rank those opinions above the hundreds of cold resumes that come in every time they post an open role.
How to find your dream company’s preferred art school
If you want to work for a competitive company in a creative role, there are a couple of simple places to start.
First, become a super fan and find non-creepy ways to connect with the companies you love.
Next, ask for help from a family member or friend in the industry. Many people aren’t into these two options for various reasons.
So for many, the best option is to go to an art school with industry connections. Art schools with industry connections host lectures and festivals where you can have a quick conversation. They offer in-class visits, critiques, or studio visits.
These connections are a simple way to get face time with busy people you may never get to meet otherwise. These opportunities could lead to great things in the future, including:
- Showing in exhibitions
- Competitive internships
- Mentor relationships
What Art School Should You Go To? A School That Helps You Find Your People
If you’re choosing between our schools in the same city, you may see something confusing when you start looking at the faculty roster.
Many art schools have adjunct professors who teach a few classes at many schools instead of teaching full-time at a single school.
Yes, faculty are a great reason to decide to attend a particular school. From there it may seem logical that if there are two schools with many of the same teachers, one school is the same as the other.
Choose the school where your people are
This absolutely is not the case. What really differentiates schools, beyond the educational philosophy, is your cohort– the students you’re in classes with.
Most professionals will tell you that your peers are the best possible reason to go to art school. They’re also the reason it’s so important to choose the right art school for you.
Many artists are competitive. So, if you are in a school with other talented artists you may push yourself harder than you would if you continue to be the best in your class.
At art schools, your friends will also be your teachers. They’ll know about materials, techniques, and artists you’ve never heard of.
Some schools are less competitive than others. Some students at these schools are very focused, but others are still figuring things out. These schools might feel more like your high school did when it comes to student diversity and social groups.
This is great for some, but frustrating for others who are looking for a more art-focused experience.
Look at the art school application process
The admission process can often give you an idea of how competitive your cohort will be. Some schools don’t need a portfolio but they do check student applications for a range of other skill sets.
For example, high school transcripts are important, not only for the GPA but to consider:
- Improvement over time
- Other areas of interest
Some schools ask for a general portfolio while others have major-specific portfolio requirements.
Community building, clubs, and student orgs
Your cohort is more than the people who sit beside you in class. Every art school understands that community building and networking are important for students. But how they enable students to connect varies widely.
Some art schools operate like a typical college or university with a full slate of athletics, clubs, and student organizations. Others are more independent and enable students to create their own activities on campus.
Some art schools and major disciplines keep students so busy with homework that most of your social life will center around studio time.
Think about your current social life and community of friends. Next, think about what times make you happiest and which stress you out.
Understanding how you respond to different social situations can help you see which campus community is the best fit for you.
Read more: How to Prepare for Art School
Choosing the right art school
It’s easy to get caught up in applying and getting admitted to a competitive school. Because this process can take months, sometimes accepted students jump on attending, even if the art school isn’t the right fit.
It’s a good idea to visit and apply to a range of schools. This can give you the feeling of which school is right for you.
Take advantage of events like online and in-person open houses and National Portfolio Days.
Talk to representatives from different schools. Try to ask each school the same questions so it’s easier to compare their answers later.
Keep in mind that no art school is perfect. Nonprofit or for-profit, private or public, big school or tiny school, every college has issues. It’s up to you to decide what is important for you and what is okay for you to let slide.
Your art school alumni will be a lifetime network, and it’s a big decision. Use both your head and your gut to figure it out.