Essays, personal statements and résumés for music students can be daunting. While the audition is a key component in the acceptance process, admission reps want you to keep in mind that the paperwork side of the application is also important.
by Caitlin Peterkin
“We have a small interview component to our audition process and we review recommendation letters and a student’s music history (typically via the résumé),” says Megan Grady, music recruitment coordinator and assistant director of Admission at the University of Puget Sound School of Music. “We also like to see what else students do and if we think they’ll fit in well with our liberal arts university, not just the School of Music.”
Applying to music school is a highly-competitive process. Brittany Jimenez, associate director of Undergraduate Admission at USC Thornton School of Music, encourages students to be genuine and to put their best foot forward in all parts of the admission process.
“There are many parts of the application and admission process you cannot control, like who else is applying,” she says, “so carefully managing the parts you can control (like the writing supplements and portfolio submissions) will be very important.”
Catch the attention you want
An essay, often referred to as your personal statement, is required by many music schools. Each school posts its own guidelines for these. If you’re uncertain about what they’re asking for, contact the admissions office.
The Common App streamlines the process of applying to several schools, although not all schools use it. You’ll find out whether colleges and universities that use the Common App require a personal essay once you create your Dashboard on the Common App website. The Common App provides a list of “prompts” or ideas to write about and you are given the option to edit your essay after you submit your first application. Even if schools don’t require a personal essay, you’ll have the option to submit one.
Music schools within universities as well as some colleges require you to apply to the university or college as well as to the music school. A separate school of music essay may also be required. Schools will indicate the word count as well as prompts or a specific theme they want you to write about. This may be referred to as a “supplemental essay.”
You can also choose to apply directly to schools instead of using the Common App. A request for supplemental materials including writing requirements is built in to these applications.
Note that these requirements may be different for transfer students.
So how do you make sure your essay and personal statement stand out from the crowd?
Here are suggestions from recruiters and admission representatives for creating essays they’ll they’ll be eager to read:
1. Do your research.
“It is beneficial to research the school and program and speak to the specific aspects and opportunities you find most relevant to you and your interests,” says Jimenez. “Getting to know the specific programs and faculty is important because every school is going to be unique in the type of experience they offer.”
Patrick Zylka, assistant dean for Admission, Financial Aid and Graduate Services at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, agrees. “We want to know an applicant has done the research on our institution, not just that it’s a top ten ranking, or that their best friend goes here, but that they’ve really dug a little bit deeper and understand what the institution offers….and whether we’re actually a good fit for them.”
But he adds the caveat to not just regurgitate what’s on a school’s website: “Don’t tell us we’re a beautiful campus next to Lake Michigan—we already know!”
2. Don’t copy and paste.
Faculty and staff recognize that you’re probably applying to multiple institutions. Make sure to write a unique statement for each one, tailoring each essay to the specific program you’re applying to. Schools do not want to see a generic, cookie-cutter answer as to why you’re choosing their particular program.
“Essays that are clearly ‘cut and paste’ versions of an essay you’ve sent to a dozen schools…are not very persuasive,” says Christina Crispin, assistant director of Admissions at Eastman School of Music.
3. Show your personality!
As faculty and admissions reps review hundreds of applications each year, they want to read thoughtful statements from prospective students to get a better sense of each individual’s personality.
According to Zylka, admission reps view the essay as an applicant’s only opportunity to really show who they are as an individual, more than what any transcript or test score can reveal. “Speak from the heart,” he says. “If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re serious, be serious.”
Grady agrees: “We are looking for students to tell us more about themselves. We like to see creative essays that tell us something we may not be able to learn from the rest of their application.”
4. Proofread—multiple times.
Not only are essays a good way to show your personality, but they’re also a chance to demonstrate that you can write in a clear and coherent way.
“The essays that we are least impressed by are those that have typos, grammatical or punctuation errors—anything that screams, ‘I didn’t proofread this,’” says Crispin.
Some other no-nos: run-on sentences and “writing one big paragraph instead of a thought-out essay,” according to Grady.
Your résumé – the right way
Nearly all applications for music schools require a résumé.
“The résumé is the place for applicants to highlight their musical accomplishments and experiences,” says Crispin. “If they want us to know about other extracurricular activities, leadership, volunteer work, etc., the résumé is a good place to capture that information.”
“It’s important to tell us about any honors, awards, summer festivals, private lessons,” adds Zylka. “Things that show us you didn’t just go to high school from a certain time in the morning to the afternoon.”
• Make it clean and organized.
There is no one right way to format a résumé unless specified by the schools you’re applying to. They should be easy to read. Include your contact information plus music-specific information and experience.
“Present your résumé in an organized way so it is easy to review what you have done and when,” says Jimenez. “The résumé is typically 1-2 pages in length and mostly focuses on accomplishments and activities during high school.”
“Clean résumés are best—for musicians, that involves what you’ve performed, competitions you’ve won, ensembles you’ve performed along with chair placement (if applicable),” says Grady.
“Keep your activities limited to your high school achievements,” she adds “unless there’s something particularly outstanding (like a performance at Carnegie Hall) that took place before high school. Show that you play multiple instruments and for how long, who you’ve studied with, ensemble directors, etc.”
Edit your résumé multiple times, and have a trusted friend, family member, or teacher look it over. “We never want to see typos, misspelled words, or grammatical errors,” says Jimenez.
Crispin advises all students to start their application early. “We often hear from applicants that they were surprised how much time it took to fill out their applications, and you don’t want to be rushing and risking errors right before the deadline,” she says. This also includes reaching out to teachers for recommendations well before applications are due.
Just like no two music programs are the same, no two application processes are the same. Do the research on what exactly is needed for each program you’re applying to, and make a checklist with deadlines for each one.
Finally, utilize all the resources available online and in admission offices. “Our website should be your best friend throughout the process,” says Jimenez. “Your other best friends will be the people in the office of admission. Applicants are always encouraged to ask questions anytime! We want our applicants to be successful throughout the admission process and are here to help however we can.”
Caitlin Peterkin is a writer/editor and arts enthusiast currently based in Portland, OR. She has worked as program manager for Earshot Jazz (Seattle) and has written for BestNewBands.com, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Paste Magazine. She graduated from Indiana University Bloomington with a B.A. in Journalism and a minor in Music.