Just hear me out for a sec okay.
Calarts character animation has an insanely low acceptance rate. Like, over a thousand people apply every year, and between 60 and 70 get in. That’s a 6-7% acceptance rate, on par with Princeton and Yale universities.
This means that, unlike most art schools with acceptance rates of over 50%, Calarts is picky. Calarts wants students who already know how to draw. That’s the defining thing. They want students who have creative and interesting styles that don’t look like anyone else’s stuff, but also have a very, very good grasp of anatomy and color theory and how to stylize things so that they would actually move in a believable way when animated. Calarts wants people who are almost ready to enter the animation industry, but want to go to college for four years before they actually do so. Therefore, their portfolio requirements are extremely specific: a sketchbook, a selection of figure drawings, and Other Work that shows you can do visual development and character design and storyboarding pretty well without them needing to teach you.
Most art schools are not like this. Most art schools have rigorous foundations classes that will, in fact, teach you all the fundamentals Calarts wants you to have nailed down five years before you apply. What those schools want from your application portfolio is proof that you’re willing to learn.
Your figure drawings can suck, your designs can be sloppy, but you have to show that you want to experiment. Use a lot of materials, draw a lot of different things in different styles, try collage, try sculpture, try photography, try as many things as possible. And spend time on your pieces. Having the fundamentals is great and will probably help, but what’s more important is that you have a passion and a desire to put time and effort into the art that you make.
Also, for Calarts, you’re applying to a very specific program with a very specific direction. Most schools, you indicate an area of interest on your application, but you don’t declare a major until you’ve actually been there for a few terms. A willingness to explore and experiment with things that aren’t directly related to animation will make those schools think you are right for them.
Someone messaged me to look at their application portfolio for SCAD. It was all figure drawings in colored pencil on newsprint, a character turnaround, some plain backgrounds, and a storyboard. I could immediately see this person applied to Calarts. I could also immediately see that a) they did not get in and b) this portfolio would not get them in anywhere else without other things to back it up. Figure drawings and concept artwork for one simple animated movie don’t show enough training, which art schools like because it means you’ll do well in the foundations classes, or enough of that willingness to learn, to experiment, to break out of your comfort zone and try shit that scares you. Which Calarts also wants, of course, they just want controlled experimentation in a very specific direction. Think of it as being more willing to do anything because you’re still growing and figuring things out as opposed to being more set because you’re more developed as an artist and actually know where you’re going.
Sidenote: Regardless of where you get accepted to and where you want to go, art school’s expensive and you would 100% be better off getting some credits and honing your skills at a community college for a few years and then transferring to wherever it is you want to go. Don’t let anyone tell you you Have To go to real college right after high school, they’re a bunch of lying liars. Literally all but 3 people out of 20 in my color theory class last quarter transferred in from somewhere else. Plus if you wait a little you’ll have more time to develop your skills on your own and be that much more ahead of the curve when you do apply places.
TL;DR don’t send 20 2-minute figure gestures to SCAD/ SVA / MICA and expect to get an acceptance letter and a full ride.