Tips for getting in to the most competitive applied arts programs

Looking to get a leg up as a dancer/painter/designer? First step: get yourself into a competitive college program. Here's how.

College programs in dance, music, theatre and design are rigorous and can put a meaningful career in the arts within reach. But there’s a catch. From extensive portfolio requirements to challenging auditions, getting an admission offer involves patience, persistence and, above all else, practice. That said, a bit of insider information can’t hurt. We talked to admissions departments at four applied arts programs to find out how a prospective student can boost their chances of applying successfully.

So you want to make Toy Story 5

Graduates of Sheridan College’s honours bachelor of animation program have won Academy Awards and gone on to careers at studios like Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar. The admissions process is highly competitive—on average, the school receives around 1,800 applicants (domestic and international) for just 150 spots. Classes are held at the college’s Oakville, Ont., campus, though the 2020 fall semester is being delivered through remote learning.

According to Christopher Walsh, coordinator of the program, the process is heavily weighted toward the portfolio component (it also involves a letter of intent and personal artwork submission, meant to showcase range and individuality). While the basic components of the portfolio stay more or less the same from year to year, the details—like what kind of room to draw in the perspective section—change annually. Since the exact parameters are only revealed once you apply through, it’s best to apply as early as possible.

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You don’t have to go in as a highly skilled animator—that’s what the program is for—but you have to show proficiency in core artistic skills that are important for animation. To that end, the school typically asks to see a figure and hand drawing, a character drawn from different angles (character rotation), and perspective drawings (like the interior of a room or a natural landscape). You’ll also get a theme for a short storyboard—one year’s theme was “surprise,” and another’s was “hunger”—and a short animation assignment.

“It’s not just about pretty drawings,” Walsh emphasizes. “Movement is the heart of the medium. Go outside and look at the way the wind moves a tree, the way the dog runs across a field chasing a ball, and how people interact with each other.” In other words, he says, don’t try to imitate the latest Disney movie. Practise drawing movement based on observation and analysis of the real world, and it will show in your work.

Since so much of animation is drawing characters—many of which are human or humanoid—life drawing is a crucial skill. “Even a character like Mickey Mouse has an implied skeletal structure,” says Walsh. “Study anatomy and learn how to draw the human form realistically and quickly, which is a skill you can then develop to create stylized representations for animation.”

You don’t need post-secondary arts training to apply to the program, but the level of skill successful applicants show in their portfolios means many don’t come straight out of high school. “I’m always available to help applicants,” says admissions specialist Jill Alexander. “If you have questions, call us. We’re here to help.” And if you apply and don’t get in, don’t be discouraged—work on upgrading your skills and try again. Alexander says it’s not unusual for people to apply more than once before getting that coveted acceptance letter.

So you want to star in The Lion King

To get into St. Clair College’s three-year advanced diploma in music theatre performance, you need to make it through a one-day audition that tests your potential in acting, singing, musicianship and dance. The number of people accepted ranges from 20 to 40; the Windsor, Ont., school normally receives around 150 applications.

“We try to make it as stress-free as possible,” says Katherina Kaszas, program and artistic director. “Students need to remember that I have a problem: I need students. You should go into every audition or job interview with that in mind, as opposed to a defensive position like, ‘Oh my gosh, I might not make it.’ ”

The audition starts with a physical warm-up and stretching. A choreographer then teaches auditioning students a short dance routine, which they perform in groups. “The critical thing we’re looking for is the student’s ability to work,” says Kaszas. She says you’ll get a chance to correct your mistakes (unlike with professional dance auditions) if you can’t learn the routine right away. The key is to stick with it and show work ethic and positivity, even if you’re not the strongest dancer.

Next, students warm up their voices by the piano before presenting two songs and a monologue, which they have prepared in advance. The secret here is that the ability to discuss why you’ve made your selections is almost as important as your performance skills. “Applicants need to be able to have a conversation about the character and demonstrate that they really know the musical or play they’ve selected their performance pieces from,” says Kaszas. “It’s a test of critical thinking skills as well as performance.” Don’t forget to bring your music in a three-ringed binder to make it easy for an accompanist to follow along, as opposed to a messy stack of paper.

Kaszas says students often stumble when asked whether they have any questions about the program. “I like to see curiosity about the program,” she says. “And to know that they’re doing their due diligence.”

Student in graphic design program working on design project on computer at the Centre for Arts, Design. (George Brown College)

Student in graphic design program working on design project on computer at the Centre for Arts, Design. (George Brown College)

So you want to see your billboard in Times Square

Students in George Brown’s advanced diploma program in graphic design can opt to major in either communication or advertising design. Between 700 and 1,000 applicants vie for some 145 spots in any given year. As with admissions to many other arts programs, this one involves a portfolio, and there’s also an application questionnaire.

“The questionnaire is an opportunity to demonstrate passion and curiosity for the field,” says Ana Rita Morais, chair of the Toronto college’s School of Design. “When we ask about a student’s favourite designer, it’s nice to see them name someone a little outside the box, and perhaps someone local, to show that they’re really engaged with the field,” she says.

“Another question that’s really important to us focuses on design as a vehicle for change,” continues Morais. “There’s been a real shift in the world of design in the past few years toward a focus on the role of a designer in making the world a better place. We like to see that students are thinking through these issues as they come in.”

When putting together your portfolio, showcasing a range of mediums—even if you’re not an expert at all of them—is the best route. “We’re trying to attract students who are curious enough to say, ‘Painting or photography isn’t my strong suit, but I’m willing to try,’ ” says Morais. “We’re not looking for perfection. We want to see passion and a drive to learn.”

Alongside your pieces, include a write-up with details about your artistic process to show you’re thinking your work through. “It’s nice to have a description piece that shows how the student’s process informs the final design. That includes things like your research, how you moved things around and how your lived experiences have informed your design,” says Morais.

So you want to be the next Alex Colville

In the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design’s one-year certificate program in foundational visual arts, you’ll study drawing, design, photography, art history and several other disciplines designed to propel you toward a more specialized career. But first, you have to submit a portfolio—and prove you have the professionalism to advance in your chosen field. Denise Richard, head of the program, says the letter of intent is an important part of the application.

“Be mindful of grammar and spelling, address your letter properly, sign your name and add a date,” she says. “I’m amazed at how many people don’t proofread their letter.” The most important thing is to show passion and a desire to learn. “We can teach everything else, but we can’t teach that,” says Richard. “It helps to stay away from clichés, too. ‘I’ve always loved art’ is a common one.”

The application asks for an image list to accompany your portfolio pieces, where you include a title, materials and dimensions for each piece of work. Here, professionalism is key—make sure you enumerate your images carefully and lay the information out as clearly as possible.

As for the portfolio, Richard says showing your range isn’t as important as leaning into your strengths. If you’re an especially strong painter, it’s okay to centre the portfolio around painting, rather than throw in sketches and photographs for the sake of variety. The key ingredient for Richard is evidence that you’ve spent time on the work and have the patience to see it through.

“I think many of today’s students have the impression that everything can be done very quickly, but when it comes to art, that’s not the case,” she says. “If you don’t have patience, I don’t think there’s any room for you in a craft and design school. In the portfolio, it doesn’t matter the medium—it can be woodworking, it can be knitting, it can be painting, but I want to see work that I can tell has taken reflection and time.”

This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2020 Canadian Colleges Guidebook with the headline, “Putting your best fouetté forward.” Order a copy of the issue here. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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