University-level art programs are rigorous. Gone are the days when art colleges admitted students based solely on how promising their art skills looked. Today’s institutions now aim for more well-rounded candidates – the one with the high SAT or ACT test scores, respectable grade-point averages as well as a portfolio and a recommendation from a high school art teacher.
With higher standards and increasing competition, this key to wow admission officers today – such as the combination of an impressive art portfolio and strong academics – has never been more important.
A foolproof way to achieve this is to start off on the right foot. For young talents, this means placing them in leading art schools that are able to combine creative education with experiential academics.
Going to a good art school makes a difference. The importance of having good teachers for young artists cannot be overstated, considering that the arts is not something as easily or empirically taught as the STEM subjects.
Albert Einstein famously said: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge”.
What distinguishes good art teachers from the bad is how one guides and nurtures each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses so that they reach their full potential. Their earned degrees, professional experience, and demonstrated teaching competence for the subjects matter, but so do their temperament and an instinct to bring out the best in children and teenagers.
Curating a portfolio is a meticulous and exhaustive process that takes months, even years to get right. This is the window through which a college will decide whether a student’s unique abilities, interests, creativity, and overall development as an artist deserves a spot in their institution.
Comics artist Nathan Fox, who is Chair of the Visual Narrative MFA program at New York’s School of Visual Arts said: “The most solid portfolios we receive really show a personal, direct, and informed presentation of the applicant’s work, with full knowledge of the program and a passionate, focused reason for why they’re applying to our program specifically.”
Teachers are an indispensable part of this process of building solid portfolios. Outside opinion is crucial to pushing young artists to their full potential – they are the ones to advise whether a certain piece deserves to be at the front and which ones to take out based on their years of experience helping students get into undergraduate programs.
Another crucial ingredient in good art schools is their approach to ensure academic excellence. While many falter in helping young artists do well in standardised testing or conventional curriculum, these art schools take more novel approaches in this aspect.
Through the use of experiential education – a method of teaching based on the purposeful engagement of learners through direct experience and focused reflection – these art schools are able to offer their students a more tailor-made, individualised form of instruction.
Such an education philosophy – be it through guest lectures, field trips and physical activities – appreciates that art students process information in a “right-brained way,” requiring classes that are more interactive and less “chalk-and-talk,” as has been described by a few art college liberal arts chairmen. As a result, young artists find themselves testing with higher grades and scores, even if it is a more conventional curriculum and in standardised settings.
Fitting this tough list of criteria to be the leading art schools of today isn’t easy, but these four schools show they can be done:
OXBOW SCHOOL, CALIFORNIA
Located near the Napa River in California is The Oxbow School, where meaningful art and academics come together. Here, the curriculum rests on five main components to ensure it matches the requirements of the best public and private high schools. Oxbow offers accredited honors level academic courses, elective language tutorials and additional math courses, physical education, studio arts and visiting artist residencies.
Oxbow is a four-month long boarding program for Juniors, Seniors, and Gap Year students with a popular Summer Art Camp for ages 14-17.
At the end of the semester, students get the opportunity to put in-depth focus into a Final Project, based on a subject of their own choosing which will ultimately be installed in a public exhibition. Faculty mentors guide them through this process, fostering multidisciplinary dialogue between inquiry, research, writing, and art-making.
The success of Oxbow’s commitment to academics and art-making is evident in its notable list of alumni, which have got into prestigious colleges like the Rhode Island School of Design, Cooper Union, Yale, and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), with some even featured on the elite Saatchi Art website.
WALNUT HILL SCHOOL FOR THE ARTS, MASSACHUSETTS
Founded in 1893 by Wellesley College graduates Florence Bigelow and Charlotte Conant, this independent boarding and day high school caters to student artists in grades 9 – 12. Here, they offer a transformational educational experience, training the dancers, musicians, actors, artists, filmmakers, and artists of tomorrow.
Expert faculty members at Walnut Hill understand and practise different approaches to teaching young artists. The comprehensive college-preparatory academic curriculum is designed to not only meet grades and GPA scores but also promote their students’ growth as bold artists, curious learners, and mindful citizens.
On weekday mornings, students go for classes in history, algebra, chemistry, and foreign languages. This is then followed by studio and practice time in the afternoons and early evening. To round it off, there are activities dedicated to community-building, including student club meetings, advisory meetings, as well as opportunities to perform, exhibit, and experience art throughout the school year, both on and off the campus.
INTERLOCHEN CENTER FOR THE ARTS, MICHIGAN
The core purpose of this fine arts boarding high school in northwestern Michigan is to ignite lifelong passion for the arts. Interlochen employs many and varied approaches to this. From 8:30am to 6pm each day, students in grades 9 – 12 undertake comprehensive, college-preparatory classes, merging accelerated academic instruction with intensive artistic studies.
To provide holistic learning, arts and academic instructors collaborate to ensure math, science, history and literature complement the creativity of the 500 students who attend the scenic, wooded campus each year. As for the arts, Interlochen offers several major areas of study, from music to theatre arts to dance.
At this boarding school, young artists get to live and learn alongside others who share a passion for the creative. With opportunities to perform and share their work with others, this is a ripe place to not only learn and be encouraged by peers and faculty, but to work towards their own path towards self-discovery and growth.
CHICAGO ACADEMY FOR THE ARTS, ILLINOIS
Academic success, critical thought, and creative expression – these are the three skills the Chicago Academy for the Arts aims to imbue on each of its students that walk through its doors.
From dance to media arts, this nationally recognised independent high school for the performing and visual arts ensures every student receives the following: rigorous, college-preparatory academic classes, professional-level arts training and the opportunity to participate in more than 100 productions throughout the course of the school year including concerts, plays, readings, screenings, recordings, and exhibitions.
The success of the school’s education model can be seen in its accolades. It is ranked the top arts high school in Illinois by Niche and designated a National School of Distinction by the John F Kennedy Center. More than two-thirds (70 percent) of its college acceptances in 2010 – 2018 were institutions ranked in the “Top 300 Colleges and Universities in America,” according to Forbes.
*Some of the institutions featured are commercial partners of Study International
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