WINTER IS THE HIGH SEASON for college visits to performing arts programs around the nation. Students and their parents typically visit colleges either before they’ve auditioned, to see if the school should be on their list, or after they’ve auditioned and been accepted, to make an informed final decision. In both cases, the visit is enormously important in deciding where you’ll go to school.

But how should you assess each college you visit to evaluate the qualities that matter most to you? Whether you’re an actor, designer, technician, or undecided theatre arts major, many of the same criteria should be considered.

A typical college visit for physics or English majors includes a generic tour that introduces you to traditions and school pride. It will inevitably include a visit to a dorm and cafeteria, led by upbeat student representatives. This is of some, but truthfully limited, value to a theatre student. You need to know different things. Below are five essential experiences you’ll want to have at every school you visit.


As impressive as brochures and a school’s online reputation can be, the heart of your education will be in an acting studio or shop. Ask to observe a class or visit the scenic and costume shops where you’ll be spending the next four years. You’ll get a sense of the culture and attitudes of the training environment. Take time to see how students engage and respond, as well as how faculty members work with students. No program is right for every student, so see if the culture of a particular program is right for you. Remember, you’re the customer.


The proof is in the pudding, as the old saying goes. If you can time your college visit to see a production that aligns with your major, you’ll find out an awful lot about the training. If you’re an acting or musical theatre major, look at the quality of those students. Technical theatre students should focus on design and execution of the production. Is that work compelling and suitably preprofessional for your tastes? Does the aesthetic of the production align with your own? Don’t be distracted by impressive sets if you’re an acting major. And designers can focus less on impressive singing and more on the technical aspects of a show.


If you can arrange time alone with a student from your potential major, you’ll be able to get a sense of day-to-day life in the program. Some schools are very heavy on contact hours with faculty and staff. Others give you lots of time to work on your own. Students can tell you things that faculty may never really know. This isn’t a subterfuge to get dirt on a program, just a chance to get a student perspective.

A student meets with college representatives at the 2017 International Thespian Festival.
A student meets with college representatives at the 2017 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Aaron Nix.


If you can, meet with the head of your potential program or another faculty member. In many ways, the faculty — not the buildings or campus — are the institution. Especially for theatre students, campus life has less to do with Greek life or on-campus activities and much more to do with what you’ll be undertaking on a daily and nightly basis in your classes, rehearsals, and shops. Prepare a list of questions. Often, students ask minute questions but never get to the big conversation about the philosophy of the program, what faculty members think makes it special, or what they see as markers of student and post-college success.

Importantly, you’re the potential student. So have a chat with your parents about letting you lead the discussion. Your parents will have good questions too. But you’d be surprised how many students give the interview over to their parents and don’t take the initiative to lead the questioning. I recommend agreeing in advance that you’ll start the discussion, and when you’re done, your parents can ask their questions.

Your parents will ask about money (and you should too). Find out what the real cost of your education will be. Theatre programs often have activity fees, singing lesson charges, etc. These are common and necessary for many parts of your training but may not be obvious by going to the university website. Be sure you’re not setting yourself up for a lifetime of debt. This will matter to you a lot in 10 years when you’re still paying for college.


Once you’ve completed these other activities, give yourself some time to walk around the campus and neighborhood. See how it feels to you. Beyond classes and productions, you’ll be spending your life in that environment for four years. Some students love huge state schools, while others feel at home in small liberal arts colleges. You may be a city mouse who has no idea what to do in a rural environment or vice versa. This is important to admit, even if you love the reputation of the school.

Include these experiences in your next college visit, and you’ll have the best shot at finding a school that’s truly your best fit. Good luck!

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