Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts, Inc.

So Your Child Wants to be an Artist

Advice for Applying to Art School

By Roberta Van Vlack

I have one child whom we always knew would be an artist. From age two when she drew sad spiders obsessively, her calling was clear. At age seven, we took her to a program at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell (now, sadly, defunct) and had to pull her away from the hands-on loom exhibit to give other children a chance. Today she is a senior at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) majoring in textiles, and weaving specifically, with a minor in painting.

While I am no expert, I thought today I would share what we have learned about applying to art schools.

Where to Apply

One of the first decisions to make is whether your child wants an art school specifically or whether they would be happy at a college that has an art major.  If your child is not sure that art is what they want or if they just have other academic interests, then a college with an art major but also with other options may be a better choice. RISD won my daughter’s heart when they said that if she went there she would never again be required to take a math or science course and that if she needed any math they would slip it in surreptitiously like hiding spinach in brownies. In truth, RISD does require students to take a certain number of liberal arts classes (and my daughter is even —gasp! —taking a geology course this year of her own free will) but their core requirements are much fewer than at other schools. Other art schools, like Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), have more breadth requirements but will still require less than a traditional college.

If your child likes doing art and nothing but art all their waking hours, then a school like RISD may be a good fit. I can’t speak to the schedule at other art schools, but RISD classes are six to eight hour studios that meet once a week and have plenty of homework, usually in the form of elaborate projects. To quote my daughter: if you want to have time to do anything other than art, RISD is not the place for you. (This is apparently not 100% true since she has found time to be a founding member of RISD’s ice skating club.) If your child wants to have time for sports and clubs and a social life, then they may prefer the traditional college option.

Again I can’t speak to other schools but RISD would also not be a good fit for students who have one very particular artistic interest. The freshman year at RISD is a foundation year that is the same for all students. Even if you never want to draw charcoal portraits, you will be required to do so in your first year at RISD. (They say you can recognize the first years walking around campus because they have a greyish tinge to them.)

How to Get In

If you have gotten this far and still think that art school may be a good fit for your child, then let’s talk about the admissions process. In applying to an art school, you will still have to do many of the same steps that come with any college application. You will need transcripts and recommendations. You may need to write the dreaded college essay and you may need standardized test scores (when my daughter applied, RISD still required SAT or ACT scores; they have since dropped that requirement, much to her chagrin).

The biggest factor in art school admissions, though, is the portfolio.  For RISD at least there were two parts to the portfolio—you submit 12-20 pieces of work you have already made and you create two brand new pieces following prompts that the school provides. These days all of these are submitted electronically.

When we toured MassArt in Boston, they said that a student who has a particular interest, e.g. film-making, can provide a portfolio which only includes that medium. For RISD this was not the case. Having gone through the process, our impression is that art schools are looking for breadth and creativity rather than just skill (though skill doesn’t hurt). You could be great at figure drawing but you need to show them some different kinds of art as well—different media, different techniques and styles, etc. (Be sparing with certain media, however—from everything we have heard, RISD is not impressed with anime and it is better not to include it.) My daughter knew she wanted to go into fiber arts so it was not too much of a stretch for her to include different media but she also had classic things—figure drawing and still-lifes and the like. Even there she tried to be a little different by drawing unusual objects instead of just bowls of fruit and flowers.

Not every piece needs to be perfect. For a few pieces, you can talk about your process and what you might have done differently. With online submissions, you may just get one image for each, but you can combine a few images on one page if an object needs to be shown from multiple angles (for 3D objects, for instance) or to show the stages you went through. Of course, the goal is still to show the best of what you can do.

It is helpful to look at others’ portfolios and to get feedback on your own before you submit it. One can find videos online in which admitted students show their portfolios so you can see what made the cut. My daughter also joined a Facebook group on RISD admissions and got some tips there. She got portfolio reviews from a few places—one from a friend who is a RISD grad, one from MassArt which offers a free portfolio review with its tour, and one from an online site (ACAD). Though we never made use of this option, there are also national portfolio review days at colleges across the country.

The High School Years: Preparation

I suggest beginning to think about your portfolio and to try to make portfolio-worthy pieces in ninth grade. Though in the end everything my daughter included was recent, she was glad that she had been thinking in those terms throughout high school.

As she prepared, my daughter intentionally sought out extracurricular classes that would help her improve in areas she knew she was weak in. Because we live close to RISD, she took some summer workshops there (this was about skill building; I don’t think it directly helped with admissions). She also had a private art teacher for a while. There are some more expensive art studios near us that would have helped with portfolio creation but we never went that route.

Up to a certain point, academics are going to be less important if your child is applying to an art school. You probably still want to present a well-rounded transcript but taking Physics and Calculus may not be a priority. I pushed my daughter through Algebra 2 and Geometry as well as Chemistry but after those were done I let her select less traditional math and science courses. Of her own initiative, she took a number of art-based courses in high school including AP Art History, AP Studio Art, and some graphic design courses. I am not sure that Algebra and Chemistry benefited her at all but I suspect that having some academic art classes on her transcript helped at least to the extent of demonstrating a consistent interest in art. 

I’ll wrap up with one cautionary piece of advice and one encouraging one—

If your child thinks they want to go to an art school, seek out honest criticism of their work. It is easy for us as parents to think everything our child does is wonderful, but it is important to get other assessments. This will help your child grow artistically and will maybe give you a heads up if they need to take more time and expand their skill set. (As a side benefit, it will also prepare them for art school itself which relies largely on critique as a means of evaluation.)

And for the positive note—if you have gotten far enough to be considering these things, then you have raised a creative, passionate individual. If by some chance they don’t get into their first choice school on their first try, encourage them not to give up. The world needs artists and there is a place for them somewhere if they just keep pursuing their calling.