FINDING THE RIGHT college is a bit like online dating. Both can be filled with excitement, uncertainty, infatuation, disappointment, and hopefully, acceptance. You may spend hours swooning over online profiles, pictures, and descriptions — only to meet in person and realize you couldn’t be more wrong for each other. Or you may bumble into something unexpectedly perfect. Both processes begin with self-assessment.

You must outline what you are looking for (“X seeking Y”). Do you want to become a professional actor, director, or designer? Do you want a school offering the flexibility to explore interests before identifying your path? Is theatre your planned course of study, or do you want to practice theatre on the side, while pursuing a different major? Once you identify your goals, you may begin looking for potential partners to help you on your path.

In this search, you can apply a two-step “match” and “fit” process to save time and heartache.

COLLEGE MATCH

First identify schools of interest whose admissions requirements are within your grasp. Ask yourself: What are my chances of being accepted? Between classes, rehearsals, extracurriculars, and other commitments, you shouldn’t waste time looking at schools you don’t match academically. Aim to compile a list of 10-15 schools to research with a more critical eye.

You can answer the match question by reviewing a school’s admissions profile and acceptance rates. Schools publish these figures every year. Admissions profiles show the average GPA and test scores of their accepted students. For example, among students accepted to the class of 2022 by Vassar College, average GPA range was given as “A/A-” and average scores for the ACT and SAT were 32 and 1390–1500, respectively. Vassar’s acceptance rate for 2022 was 24.6 percent (8,312 students applied; 2,043 students were accepted).

As a possible theatre major, you have extra qualifications to look for in potential matches. These may include distinguished faculty members, opportunities for hands-on technical training, or programs focused on the particular aspects of theatrical production that interest you.

Keep in mind that theatre programs may also have extra qualifications for you. Highly selective programs often require an audition or portfolio interview, résumé, personal essay, and recommendations. Start early, prepare for each step in the application process, and narrow your options so that you don’t get burned out trying to woo 20 colleges at once. Once you have a list of 10-15 colleges that interest you, use admissions profiles and acceptance rates to group these into reach, target, and safety schools.

College mascot with flowers courting a student applicant
The right college is both a match for your qualifications and a fit for your interests. Illustration by Julie Benbassat.

Reach schools
These are your dream schools, those “perfect 10s” whose attention — and acceptance — everyone is competing to get. You may not exactly match their admissions profile. Perhaps their acceptance rate is low (below 30 percent), or they have a particularly rigorous audition process for their performing arts department. They may be long shots, but something about these schools — acting techniques, faculty, performance opportunities, location, etc. — impels you to try anyway. If you apply and work hard to stand out with your audition, recommendations, interview, and personal essay, you might have a chance. Or you might get shot down. But if you were accepted, these would be your ideal matches.

Target schools
These are your preferred schools whose standards match your academic qualifications. Your test scores are compatible with their admissions profile and their acceptance rate is north of 30 percent. You’ll still want to put your best foot forward to ensure you earn a spot. While these may not be perfect 10s, there are plenty of sparks worth kindling in terms of mutual interests, whether playwriting, lighting design, or student directing opportunities.

Safety schools
Commonly known as “slam-dunk schools,” these schools almost (though not quite) always grant admission to students who match your credentials. You scored above their GPA and SAT or ACT requirements, and their acceptance rate is above 40 percent. You still need to make a good impression, especially if they offer merit or performance-based scholarships. You wouldn’t let a date know that you feel like you’re settling, so apply that same courtesy to a school.

Rose petal

COLLEGE FIT

Now it’s time to narrow the field to between four and six schools to visit. Ask yourself this: Will we have chemistry? A program may look perfect on paper — or from the carefully selected pictures they post online — but it is very difficult to figure out whether a program is right for you without first visiting the campus, meeting some faculty and students, and experiencing the environment. Before and during your visit, consider the following factors to help you determine whether a college will be a good fit.

First identify whether the school’s program fits your overall educational goals. For example, if you are interested in immediately training for a specific role in professional theatre, a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) program may be the better fit. If you want a broad range of experience before you choose an area of concentration, you might instead select a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) program that requires experience in many facets of theatre arts. If you’re thinking about double-majoring or majoring in something else while doing theatre on the side, make sure that the school’s offerings meet your interests and allow for the flexibility you seek.

Strengths
To identify a theatre program’s strengths and weaknesses, start by reading major requirements, course descriptions, and faculty bios. Of course, ultimately, you should tour their facilities, specifically performance spaces, rehearsal spaces, and scene shops. If possible, sit in on a lesson, rehearsal, or performance to see the students and professors at work inside and outside of the classroom. Ask about the availability and quality of those aspects of theatre that interest you most.

Location 
How far are you willing to travel to make the relationship work? Are you looking for a school just a few hours’ drive from your family so you can come home most weekends, or are you comfortable relocating anywhere, only coming home during longer breaks?

What type of campus environment are you looking for? Do you want a college located in a large city, small city, suburban area, or rural area? Explore the campus and its surroundings.

Size
How much attention and personalization are you seeking from your college? Typically, the larger the school, the less attention you receive from your professors, as their efforts may be divided among undergraduate classes, graduate classes, research, and professional theatre obligations. This is not always the case, especially when it comes to schools with specialized performing arts programs, but you should ask about the average class size for your program of interest.

You should also ask yourself how confident you are meeting new people and being in crowds. Smaller schools typically provide opportunities to know more of the people on campus, whereas at larger schools you may have to take the reins in meeting new people.

Campus culture
What kinds of students are attracted to this school? What do they like to do in their free time? Why did they choose this school? The best way to answer this question is to meet with current theatre students and ask them to describe their experiences. While in-person conversations work best, you can talk over the phone or via email, or check out resources like The Princeton Review and the Fiske Guide to Colleges. These print sources offer more details on a school’s population than typically provided by demographic statistics.

Summer opportunities
If you’re willing to stay on or near campus during breaks, ask professors and students about summer theatre opportunities. Some colleges have partnerships with summer stock theatres and other organizations (children’s theatres, talent agencies, study-abroad programs) so students can gain hands-on experience and network with professionals outside of a strictly academic setting.

Post-graduation opportunities
Ask about a school’s alumni base or post-graduate statistics to get a sense of how the “exes” are thriving. There you can see what percentage of students became professionally involved with theatre arts after graduation and how. Colleges keep track of their recent graduate outcomes so they can brag about them to potential students, alumni, and potential donors.

Costs and funding opportunities
Working with an agreed budget is vital for any relationship. When looking at the price of college, it’s important to understand a college’s sticker price and financial aid options. The sticker price is the advertised full cost of tuition, room, and board for one year. While it may seem daunting, few people pay the full sticker price, because it isn’t reasonable for every family to pay $20,000-$80,000 per year.

To figure out if a college is a good financial fit, first identify your family’s Expected Financial Contribution by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This online government form estimates how much your family can reasonably pay for college each year. While you complete the FAFSA at the beginning of your senior year of high school, you can do an informal version (FAFSA4caster) online to get a rough estimate during your junior year. Once you understand what the government expects your family to contribute, you can look at how well each college can meet your demonstrated financial need (sticker price – EFC = DFN).

Some colleges may be able to meet 100 percent of your DFN with grants and scholarships, while others can meet 50 percent or less. Do a search online for the “average percentage of financial need met” by each college. This works best with private colleges, as the average stats on financial aid met for public colleges can get deflated due to the difference of in-state and out-of-state tuition. Public universities strive to provide affordable education to in-state residents, so these schools should be mostly affordable if you’re a resident of their state. Meanwhile, if a private school can meet 75 percent or more of demonstrated financial need, they should be relatively affordable, especially if your GPA and test scores are above those of their average admitted student, as this opens opportunities for additional scholarships.

When considering education loans, you should know that the average student in the U.S. graduates with just under $30,000 of student loan debt. Aim for a school that requires $30,000 or less in terms of loans. Anything over $50,000 is a red flag.

In short, financial aid is a complex matter. To learn more, contact your guidance counselor or a financial aid representative at one of your local colleges to see if they host a financial aid seminar.

College mascot icon

START EARLY

While finding a college match is more cut and dried, finding a college fit can be a complex, nuanced process. Think of this step as “playing the field.” You should get to know multiple colleges before you make the final commitment of enrolling. Before embarking on any long-term relationship, you need to understand mutual goals, interests, and values. For the college search, it is best to start this process early in your junior year so you can take your time comparing and contrasting schools and engaging in conversations with college admissions, guidance counselors, teachers, friends, and family. Many factors play into the success of a relationship, making this a complicated and sometimes confusing process. Applying this two-step search process should make college courting easier and more enjoyable.

This story appeared in the October 2019 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Planning your college visit

    Planning your college visit

    Must-do experiences for finding the right theatre program

    Jan 22, 2019

    A Tale Of Two Colleges

    A Tale Of Two Colleges

    Two liberal arts universities plant theatre majors

    May 01, 2017

    Four Questions

    Four Questions

    What to ask of any B.F.A. program

    Nov 01, 2016