Posted in art school advice

How to Art School, Part 3: Picking a school

So let’s fast forward a couple of months in the admissions timeline. You sent your awesome portfolio to a few colleges you liked, you filled out your FAFSA and CSS Profile, you waited patiently and got a few acceptance letters back! With scholarships! And financial aid statements!

And now you have to figure out the hardest part. Where do you want to go? Where do you really want to spend the next four or more years of your life? Which art school is right for YOU?

This is not a simple choice. It’s never just going to be “this school is more worth it.” What does “worth it” mean to you? What is important to you?

Imagine, for a moment, your ideal college experience. Where is it located? How many people attend this imaginary college- more or less than your high school? What kind of majors does it have? What kind of clubs? Do you want to be able to study abroad? How much are you willing to pay for this college? What sort of internships, networking, career opportunities do you want?

What are the things you value the most about this ideal college?

Write it all down.

Then, think about the colleges you were accepted to.

A sidenote, if you’re reading this as someone who is still choosing where to apply: only apply to schools you’d want to go to. Application fees add up.

Also, do not apply to the Academy of Arts University or any of the Art Institute colleges. Those are for-profit schools with a 100% acceptance rate, and their absolute primary goal is to make money off of you. They have a terrible reputation and, though some students come out of there with good portfolios, the instruction is shoddy at best. Just don’t do it.

  1. Money.

If you’re the average college student, you can’t afford to pay the sticker price for your education. Don’t freak out. If your portfolio is good, and if your grades are decent, you probably got some scholarships from the colleges you got into. Congrats! Scholarships and grants are what’s considered gift aid– they’re free money you never have to pay back. And a lot of them are renewable, too! Awesome.

If you filled out your FAFSA and CSS Profile correctly, you also might have gotten work-study. This means you work for your school part-time– in the school store, giving tours to prospective students, filing paperwork in the office, stuff like that– which covers part of your tuition.

In addition to work study, you might’ve qualified for some federal loans, which are generally at lower interest rates than private loans and, though you will have to pay them back eventually, they’ll be less of a pain than private loans.

Go get your financial aid statements from all your colleges and look at the final price, including housing and cost of living, if applicable. This is the amount not covered by scholarships, work-study, or federal loans. Might as well discount the Parent PLUS Loans- those are loans taken out by your parents on your behalf, and if your parents don’t have a high income or a good credit history, they’re not a good option. My parents refused to even consider taking out such loans.

Rank all your colleges in order of lowest price per year to highest. Some colleges which have lower tuition up front give less scholarship money, so it’s really important to look at that final number. Remember, you’re going to art school. You will not be making $100,000 a year right after graduation. Check a student loan repayment calculator online to see what your monthly payments would have to be on a certain loan plan. A lot of art students go into art school thinking they’ll worry about the money later- this is almost always a terrible idea. You do not want to find yourself suddenly paying an extra $2,000 a month just in loan repayments.

  1. Location.

Look at your college. Look at the places around your college where you could get a job in your major. What kind of transportation would you need to get around the town or city your school is in– can you walk or bike everywhere, or do you need a car to get around? Are there interesting things to do near campus? What is the art scene like? Are there galleries, museums, cafes that do art shows sometimes? Would you like to live and work in that town/city after college, as a lot of graduates end up doing?

What do you think about the college campus? Do you like the ~vibe~ of the place? Do the students look like people you could be friends with?

If you can, visit all of your colleges, either before or after you apply. It can completely change your impression of a school. I thought I would like Laguna College of Art and Design, but when I visited, I found it far too small and isolated for me to be happy there, and I didn’t end up applying. This doesn’t mean LCAD’s a bad school, far from it. It just wasn’t the school for me. On the other hand, when I visited SCAD’s Atlanta campus, I really loved both the neighborhood it was in and the campus itself. The buildings were huge, cheerful and welcoming, and I could really see myself living comfortably in that environment.
If you can’t visit a school, the college website should have info about the campus size and surrounding area, as well as pictures of the campus. SCAD sent me a set of VR goggles (like the google cardboard thing? Whatever you call them) and a link so I could go on a Virtual Campus Tour, which was really cool. Find current students and ask them about the campus, how clean and maintained it is, is it easy to get around, is it safe, etc.

This is a good time to look back on your ideal college paper and see which of the schools you applied to match that list best. Also, think about how important location is to you. Personally, I value money and the type of programs offered over the physical placement of a school. Even though I love the Bay Area, I chose SCAD over CCA because SCAD gave me more financial aid and has better programs (such as a storyboarding minor and a separate program for sequential art) for the things I want to do.  

  1. Reputation.

A lot of people put reputation first, when applying and choosing art colleges. This isn’t like choosing between Harvard Law or Your State School (TM) Law. You are not guaranteed a higher-paid salary right out of college if you go to the more reputable school over the less reputable one, because whether or not you have a college degree and where you got it from is not very important to the people hiring you. Your portfolio is the #1 thing clients look at when they determine whether or not to hire you. It is not worth going into an extra 50,000 dollars of debt for a slightly more selective art college. Nevertheless, what industry professionals tend to say about a school, and the people that graduate from it, can be a pretty good indicator of whether or not an education there is worth the cost.

  1. Academics.

Do you care about your liberal arts classes? Do you enjoy math/science/other area of study that’s not necessary artistic? Is this something you care about in your college decision?

If this sounds like you, check to see if the colleges you’re considering allow you to take classes at other universities, or if you would be better off being in an arts program at a larger university like NYU-Tisch or UMich Stamps.

The most difficult thing to determine from the outsider perspective of an applicant is the quality of the art classes themselves. If you can, take a precollege course at a school you want to go to. Some schools also give you the option to sit in on a class when you visit the campus. Find current students of schools you like on tumblr and ask them what they think about their classes. Look at student work. Look at the work the student was making as a freshman, or as a senior in high school, and see how much they have improved since starting college.

Also, consider how closely a college’s programs match your interests. If you want to do comics as a career, would you rather go to a college with an illustration major and a concentration in sequential art, or a college with a sequential art major? How customizable is your schedule at a college?

Rank your schools again, best to worst, on this point.

  1. Networking

I suppose this could go under reputation, but it’s a pretty big thing by itself. If you can’t really afford to go to college but are going to college anyway, you’re doing it to get a job that will hopefully eventually pay for the college you can’t afford. Will the colleges you’re looking at get you a job? Some schools post lists of successful graduates on their websites; check those out. If you can find any such graduates on tumblr, ask them about if they thought the school they went to helped them find work in the field they desired. Some schools also post statistics that tell you the percentage of graduates working in the industry they wanted to work in within a year or two of graduation. Do companies you want to work for go to this college to recruit? Do they have a special internship plan with your college? Pixar has a special internship for CCA students. Speaking of internships, how many students get internships before they graduate? At an SVA open house, I asked the animation student representative people who were talking to us if they’d had any internships (they were seniors). Only one of the three had, at a small independent studio. I place a pretty high priority on internship opportunities, so SVA dropped down in my personal list of Colleges I’d Like To Go To.

Also, since we’re pretending you’ve been accepted to all your colleges already, join the class facebook groups. Do you like the people in those groups? Do you like the ~vibe~ you get from your potential classmates?

You still have your lists there, right? After all this researching, one or two schools should be bubbling up to the top as your best options. The more you research, the clearer your best option should become. You’ll also gain a better understanding of what you want out of your college education, and what you want to do when you actually start college. Hopefully, after breaking everything down like this, you feel more confident and secure about your future path.



cartoonist, illustrator, reader, writer. SCAD 2020

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