Answers for High School Students Determined to Pursue an Acting Degree but Totally Stressed Out by the Process!

Covid has changed many things, but it has not changed how anxiety-producing and puzzling the process of selecting a post-secondary acting/theater program can be! And yet every year I am reminded how much of that anxiety is the result of seniors who just waited too long to get started!

For that reason, I have one crucial piece of advice for you high school juniors: Start thinking now about next year… what school, what major, what degree? Be assured it will go a long way to mitigating your stress level next year, which will be high enough on its own. To help you begin, below are answers to questions I most often get asked by students who are early in the process.

Where should I study?

The short answer is to start at the end. Ask yourself where you want to be when you graduate. Making connections in a particular locale is critical to securing opportunities to audition, perform, and collaborate once you graduate, so study where you think you will want to live and work.

I’ve always been in musicals, so should I major in musical theater?

This is a tricky and personal decision, but there are some cautions you should keep in mind: First, musical theater tends to be a young person’s game, especially for females, which means it can be harder to book work as you age if this is your only area of expertise. Second, musicals typically employ a heightened reality and acting style that does not necessarily work well in other genres, such as a dramatic play. For those reasons, you should at least consider majoring in straight theater and finding a way to study voice and continue singing on the side.

Should I pursue a BFA, BA, or certificate program?

Many students see a BFA as the brass ring since it provides intense, comprehensive training for aspiring professional actors. In a BFA program, about 2/3 of the coursework is performance studies while the remaining 1/3 is dedicated to gen ed and/or liberal arts. This means BFA students are afforded little time outside the studio and given few options for classes both within their degree program and outside of it. Shakespeare may seem intimidating, but if it is part of your prescribed program then studying and performing it will be mandatory despite any reservations you may have. On the other hand, no matter how eager you may be to master French, since electives, double majoring, and studying abroad are typically not possible for BFA students, you may have to bid au revoir to that aspiration until after you earn your degree.

For other students, a broad based liberal arts education is the most appealing option. For one thing, there is rarely an audition requirement for a BA/BS Theater degree, so if your transcript makes you a strong applicant for the school at large, you have a very good chance of finding your way into its theater program. Added to that is the time and freedom you will have to pursue a much broader range of topics than in a BFA program since the ratio of performance studies to gen ed studies is flipped, i.e. only 1/3 for the former. This is a glorious opportunity, perhaps available only at this one time in life, to not only broaden your world view, but to lay a rich groundwork of cultural, literary, historical, and sociological knowledge on which to build the many characters you will portray as a working actor, an advantage well worth considering.

Finally, for all those bright, talented, eager-to-learn students for whom a university setting is less than satisfying — either because of the temporal demands of earning a degree, the high cost associated with it, and/or a lack of interest in any coursework beyond actor training — one of the numerous conservatories found in large cities throughout the country can be an ideal choice. Students may be surprised to discover how many well-known and highly regarded actors are graduates of these conservatories, and how many of them, even top-tier ones, have less stringent acceptance rates and offer certification completion in two years or less.

The truth is there is no one right answer, no one road to success. In fact, your road to success will be determined much more by your professionalism, eagerness to engage wholly in the study and practice of your craft, and willingness to push hard than by the documentation you earn.

If I decide to pursue a BFA, how do I identify my “safety” school?

Know this: There is no such thing as a safety BFA program! No. Such. Thing. You could deliver the best audition anyone has ever seen and still not be offered a slot in a BFA program simply because they have too many actors with your same type, too many singers in your same vocal range, too many enrolled students from your hometown, or for any other reason completely out of your purview. Myriad factors go into the audition/selection process, and you control very few of them. (For more on this, read The 5 Audition Tips You Absolutely Want to Know!) So, if you definitely want to go to college to study the performing arts, make sure you supplement your school list with one or two schools well within your reach that offer solid BA or BS programs.

I hope these insights help minimize your stress and maximize your success, but if you need specific help with any part of the application/audition process give me a holler. I am available for monologue coaching and private study via Skype. And for more on this topic from me and other experts, read this article in U.S. News and World Report.

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