Hoping to get into a college art program? Many of the best art programs are highly competitive, and, even if your portfolio is strong, it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd. In this guide, we break down what every part of your college application must include for you to become a standout art applicant. This article applies to all types of arts programs, including drawing, painting, photography, and fashion. Follow these tips to produce an exceptional application for art programs.
What Do Colleges Look for in Applicants?
There are lots of misconceptions around what it takes to get into college, especially as a potential art student. Many people think you need to excel in a lot of areas in order to show schools that you're smart and talented. However, for many top programs, being well-rounded can actually put you at a disadvantage.
What the most competitive schools want to see is that you're highly-skilled in a specific area. This is especially true for art programs, where you'll need to show strong art talent to have a good chance of being accepted. So, instead of being pretty good in all your classes, being in an art club, playing a sport, doing some volunteer work, doing some art projects on your own time, etc. you'll be a much stronger art candidate if you can clearly show your talent for art. Having a strong focus in a single area is what we call a "spike." We go into spikes more in this article, but, basically, a spike is where you focus your talents in one area so that you become exceptional in it, rather than be "pretty good" in a bunch of different areas.
Why is the spike approach better? Art schools want to admit students they think will achieve great things as an artist. The best way to do this is for the schools to admit students who have already shown strong artistic talent and commitment to art as high school students. You can't be illiterate/unable to count, but showing that you're a great artist and spend most of your time on art makes you a much stronger art program candidate than showing that you're pretty good at a bunch of things, including art. Your goal is to have every part of your application show clearly "I'm a great artist!"
For your art spike, you must show:
- A passion for art
- Exceptional artistic skills
- Measurable achievements, particularly in extracurriculars and your portfolio
In the rest of this article, we'll explain how to do this for each part of your college application, and we'll also go over some examples of standout art candidates.
How Can You Impress Colleges as an Art Applicant?
Below, we break down how to make each key part of your application as strong as possible so you give yourself the best chance of being accepted into art programs. We go over:
- Test Scores
- Personal Statements
- Letter of Recommendation
For each, we give concrete goals to aim for, as well as general qualities your application should have throughout. In general, remember that you want your artistic talents to be most prominent, but you don't want to slack in other areas to make schools doubt you can handle college-level classes.
Your art portfolio is the #1 most important part of your application to art programs. If it's strong, it can often be enough to make up for weaker grades, test scores, and extracurriculars (to a point), and if it's weak, you probably won't get into top art programs, even if the rest of your application is perfect. We have a guide specifically on developing an art portfolio for college, but we'll give an overview here on how to make your portfolio shine.
An art portfolio is typically a collection of about 10-20 pieces of your very best work that you send to colleges to give them an overview of your work. Each school has slightly different requirements for the pieces to send in, how many to send in, and what they want to see in your portfolio. Make sure to read their portfolio instructions very carefully to make sure you're giving each school what they want. You may have to end up tweaking your portfolio for each school, which can be annoying, but this will be some of the most useful time you spend creating a strong college application. Admissions teams look for three main things in an art portfolio:
You could be the most creative and innovative artist in the world, but you still need to prove you have a strong foundation of basic skills. Technical mastery includes being able to apply basic and advanced art principals to your work, create work that shows a high level of attention and detail, and complete projects that are free of sloppiness and mistakes. Art programs are often most interested in your drawing skills because many art forms require a strong drawing ability. Most art programs recommend applicants submit at least drawing in their portfolio, even if that is not their preferred art form, and some schools, such as the Rhode Island School of Design, require at least one drawing sample.
Variety and Versatility
While it's expected for students to have an art form they create most frequently and are most comfortable with, art schools want applicants who are strong artists across a variety of media and art forms. One reason versatility is important is because the ability to create multiple art forms is a sign of a talented artist and one who can apply their skills in multiple ways.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) states on its admissions page that the most important thing they look for in an art portfolio is "[W]ork that will give us a sense of you, your interests, and your willingness to explore, experiment, and think beyond technical art and design skills." Your art portfolio must showcase your personality and unique way of looking at the world. You want to show art schools that there is a reason they should admit you specifically, so there must be some unique quality to your work. Technical skill is not enough if you can only copy what others have already created.
After you've read the portfolio requirements and recommendations of each school you're applying to, you're ready to assemble your portfolio. As you do, keep these tips in mind:
Give yourself plenty of time: You'll likely need months, or even years to create the work you'll use in your portfolio, but give yourself at least eight weeks just to compile the portfolio itself.
Show the breadth of your skills: Even if you are only submitting work from one art form, you can show a great deal of variety within it, both in technique and subject matter.
Include pieces from direct observation: Many art programs require or highly recommend pieces created from direct observation. These are pieces created by observing real things around you. Even if your background is more in abstract art, most programs want to know you can recreate scenes around you, hence the direct observation requirement.
Ensure your pieces look their best: First, make sure there are no smudges, rips, wrinkles, etc. that you don't want on your work. Once they're perfect, put a lot of care into photographing/videoing them as well. Spending time to take quality pictures and videos of your work is almost as important as creating quality art itself.
Contrary to what you might have been told, you can't fail your classes and still expect to get into top art programs, even if your portfolio is exceptional. Art schools want students with at least a solid education. This is for several reasons. First, even if you become the best artist in the world, you will still need additional skills to get by in the world; everyone does. Reading, writing, and math skills are often the most important because you'll likely be using these skills every day for the rest of your life. Art schools want to know you already have a strong foundation in these areas.
Additionally, art school is still school. Art schools want to make sure you have the work ethic needed to complete classes in a satisfactory manner, even if you're not that excited about the coursework. If your high school transcript shows a wave of dropped classes and low grades because you just "didn't like those subjects" they're going to wonder if you'll bail on their classes, too.
How much do your grades matter for art school? It really depends on the school. Art programs that are part of a highly-competitive university, such as the art programs at Yale, USC, and Brown, will expect strong grades. At these schools, you'll be taking plenty of non-art classes and will need to keep up with a high-achieving student body. For these programs, even the most amazing portfolio won't guarantee admission if your grades are poor. If you really do have a stellar portfolio, you don't need to aim for perfect scores (because your portfolio will be the shining tip of your spike and make up for shortcomings elsewhere), but, in general, we recommend at least a 3.5 unweighted GPA. You should also be taking honors and AP classes if your school offers them. As art is your spike, you can take advanced classes in whichever classes you enjoy most/do best in.
For all your classes, aim to not get anything lower than a "B," although a few C's might be OK if your portfolio is very strong. Take all the art classes you can, especially AP art classes (the current options are 2-D Art and Design, 3-D Art and Design, Art History, Drawing, and Music Theory). If your school doesn't offer many art classes, see if you can take classes at a local community college to add to your transcript and show your commitment to gaining a solid foundation in basic art skills.
Schools that exclusively cater to art and design students, even highly competitive ones such as RISD and CalArts, generally have lower grade expectations. For these, your art portfolio will matter more, and your grades and test scores are of lower importance. This is especially true if you'll be receiving a BFA degree, rather than a BA degree. However, there is still a lot of variation between different schools. RISD is known for wanting strong grades and test scores, while programs like CalArts and SAIC often accept students with lower GPAs if their portfolios are excellent. In general, we recommend taking all the art classes you can (honors and AP if possible). For the rest of your classes, take the most challenging course schedule you can without getting overwhelmed. Set a goal to not get grades lower than a "B," but some lower grades are usually OK.
As with your GPA, some programs find your standardized test scores to be an important part of your application, while others don't really care about them. Some programs, such as CalArts and Massachusetts College of Art and Design, don't require standardized test scores. You'll need to do some research to see how much different art programs value standardized test scores. As with GPA, purely art schools tend to not weigh test scores very heavily or even require them at all, but more general liberal arts schools will expect decent to strong test scores. If you're applying to a school where standardized test scores are an important part of the application, it is very much to your benefit to get a strong score. Even just a few days of study for the SAT and ACT is often enough to give you a significant score boost.
What score should you aim for? Again, it depends on the school. For highly-competitive schools like Yale, aim for a 700+ on both sections of the SAT or a 30+ on the ACT. Higher is always better, especially if you feel other parts of your application aren't as strong as you want.
For other schools, what should you aim for? RISD is one of the few art schools to report its average SAT scores: its admitted freshman students average a 688 on SAT Math and 655 on EBRW. Those are good benchmarks to aim for if you're applying to non-Ivy League schools that still consider test scores a key part of the college application.
If the art programs you're applying to don't weigh test scores strongly, you can aim lower. A 1200 on the SAT or 1200 on the ACT is a good goal to set, but if your portfolio is strong, you can likely get lower than these scores and still have an excellent chance of getting accepted.
For programs that don't require standardized test scores, you can opt not to take the ACT/SAT or not to send scores if you're unhappy with them. However, we only recommend doing this if your grades are fairly strong, as you'll need to have some proof of being able to succeed in school. Also, if you score well, we recommend sending in your scores, even if they're not required. Strong standardized test scores will always be a boost to your application.
Having additional test scores, such as AP or IB scores, is also a good way to strengthen your application. Aim for a 3 or higher for APs (or a 4 or 5 if you're applying to highly competitive schools like Yale or Brown), and 4+ on IBs (or a 5 or higher for highly competitive schools). Again, art is already your spike, so you can take these tests in the subjects you think you'll do best in.
In general, you want the majority (at least ¾) of your extracurriculars to relate to art. This will reinforce your spike. There are multiple ways to get strong extracurriculars:
If you have won an art competition, that's a great thing to have on your application! This is true even if it was a small/local competition, or if you weren't given the top prize but were still given an award/honorable mention. Winning a competition obviously shows you are a talented artist, but even just applying to one shows colleges you're motivated and believe in your skills, which they love seeing in applicants.
Being a member of an art club is a great extracurricular because it gives you more experience creating art, exposes you to the viewpoints of other artists so you can learn more about art and how to improve your own work, and shows you have social skills and like being around others. The art club you join can be a school club, community club, or even one you start on your own and recruit others to. One thing you don't need to do though is pay lots of money to go to a "prestigious" art camp. Unless the art camp is both highly competitive (acceptance rate less than 25%) and well-known, paying thousands of dollars to attend an art camp won't be any more impressive to colleges than joining your school art club for free. As always, it's the art you produce that's most important, not where you produce the art.
All schools want applicants who are generally good people and will have a positive impact on campus. Having extracurriculars on your application that show you care about others is a strong plus. Also, unlike competitions, you don't need to win anything to give back as an artist; you just need to decide you want to help others! Examples include volunteering to teach younger students about art, donating art supplies to daycares/schools/senior homes that can't afford them, contributing to a community art event like painting over graffiti with a mural, etc. Just participating in these is great, but if you start your own project, that's even better because it shows leadership skills and a strong work ethic (two things all colleges love).
Non-Art ExtracurricularsA big mistake people make here is feeling like they need a lot of "filler extracurriculars." This results in students spending hours and hours playing a sport/learning an instrument/volunteering/doing things they don't enjoy but feel like that "have" to do to add to their college application. These activities can be great if you genuinely enjoy them, but if you don't, then you're basically wasting your time on things that won't affect your chances of getting into art programs. The most important aspect of your application is the art. That's why it's your spike. You need to show you're capable of doing well in school, which is why grades still matter--even in non-art classes--but beyond that, you only need one or two non-art extracurriculars, and they don't need to be particularly time intensive. Just make sure you're actually enjoying them!
The art program you're applying to may have an essay prompt specifically related to art (this is sometimes called an "artist statement." For this, be sure to answer every part of the prompt (they often contain three or more things to discuss), and show your unique approach to art, specific artistic achievements, and your artistic goals for the future (as long as those topics apply to the prompt, of course).
For most of these prompts, you can answer them with a past/present/future focus. For the past, discuss why you became interested in art, for the present discuss current projects/skills/accomplishments, and for the future discuss how you envision your artistic career progressing, both short-term and long-term, including how the school you're applying to will help you achieve those goals. Most schools recommend this statement be between 1-2 double-spaced pages, so expect to go into some depth. The artist's statement is often an extremely important part of your art application, so really put some time into it. Make sure it's free of spelling and grammar errors, too (have someone else look it over to double-check).
If your programs don't require artist statements, no worries! Even generic prompts can be related to your art spike if you get creative (which of course you can do; you're an artist!). We recommend you still try to connect these essays to art, as this is your chance for schools to really understand what makes you tick as an artist. Here are some examples of things to discuss for different prompts:
- Why do you want to attend this school? Discuss the school's art program, including specific professors/classes/internships/etc… that you're most excited about. Also discuss how the school's art program will help you achieve your goals as an artist.
- Describe a problem you've solved: Discuss a difficulty you had with one of your art projects, whether that was conceptualizing it, getting the proper materials/workspace, matching the art to your vision, etc.
- Discuss an accomplishment you're proud of: Winning an art competition, mentoring other art students, or a piece you're particularly proud of creating
- Which fictional character best represents you? Discuss an artistic character such as Peeta Mellark from The Hunger Games, Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter, Rapunzel in Tangled, etc...Pick aspects that relate to you, and connect them to your love of art and creating.
- What have you done to make your school or community a better place? Discuss donating art supplies, volunteering your time to teach art classes, a community art project you participated in, etc.
Obviously, your essay topic will depend on your own individual circumstances, but there are many ways to relate it to your art spike. Besides general college essay tips, your focus should be to highlight both your passion for art and creating. If there's anything you're particularly proud of in your spike, this is a great place to mention it again. But you don't need to come off as perfect. You can discuss struggling with tough classes, or being unsure of exactly how you'll make a career out of art, as long as you can explain that you're now ready to thrive as an undergrad art student.
Letters of Recommendation
You should aim for at least one of your letters of recommendation to be written by an art teacher of yours or an art mentor you have. If a school you're applying to sets requirements for who can write your letters of rec (such as one from a math/science teacher and one from a social science/English teacher), follow those guidelines, and check to see if the school allows additional letters of recommendation to be submitted; many schools allow this.
When you ask a teacher to write you a letter of recommendation (which you should always do in person, when possible), it's very helpful if you include a "brag sheet" or list of accomplishments/qualities you're proud of. This both helps the teacher know what to write and helps you make sure your best achievements have a better chance of being discussed. For an art teacher writing a letter of rec, there may be specific pieces or skills you want them to mention.
For other teachers, they'll obviously discuss other things besides your art skills. Potential things for them to discuss include your strong work ethic, skill in a particular topic, willingness to help other students, etc. Remember, you can't control what teachers will write about in your letters, but by offering suggestions and potentially discussing what they'll include, you can make sure they're writing a letter they feel comfortable with and that highlights the accomplishments you want.
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What Do Good Examples of Art Spikes Look Like?
Below are two hypothetical examples of students who developed great art spikes. Students with these profiles don't have a guarantee of getting into their art programs of choice, but these examples can give you a jumping-off point for developing your spike and setting goals for yourself.
Profile 1: Elodie the Painter
Portfolio: Elodie's profile mostly includes paintings that she embellishes with scavenged materials. She also included several drawings she's particularly proud of because of how detailed and realistic they are. Elodie's work shows clear skill in both drawing and painting, and she uses the scavenged materials in unique ways to add interest and create compelling stories behind each work. Elodie's art evokes a strong sense of the natural world that strongly ties in to her artist statement.
Grades: Elodie has gotten A's in all her art classes, including AP 2-D Art. Most of her other grades are Bs, with a few C's in math (which she has never liked). Her overall unweighted GPA is a 3.2.
Test Scores: Elodie received a 26 on the ACT. She received 3s on AP World History and AP English Literature, and a 5 in AP 2-D Art.
Extracurriculars: She's a member of her school art club, and she organized a new showcase of student art at the end of each year. Elodie has also played soccer for ten years, although she's never made the school varsity team. She's won several local art awards, including a 2nd place prize at a citywide painting competition. She was the only high school student to receive an award at the competition.
Personal Statement: Elodie uses her artist statement to explain how painting and using natural materials allows her to feel connected to the natural world. She turned to art when her family moved from the countryside to the city and she began missing nature. Her goal in creating her paintings and collages is to incite a love for nature in others, and she often includes scavenged materials in her work both to show the prevalence of trash in the world as well as how items we may think of as disposable and useless still have value. Her personal statements give specific anecdotes about her life and her work, and she's able to clearly show how the schools she's applying to will help her achieve her goals of opening her own art studio and creating a program where inner-city students can take field trips to nature preserves and create art based on their experiences.
Letters of Rec: Elodie's drawing and painting teacher wrote one of her letters of recommendation, and he gives a glowing review of Elodie's artistic skills, work ethic, and vision. She's clearly one of the most talented students he has taught. Elodie's other letter is written by her geometry teacher. Even though Elodie only received a B in geometry, her teacher describes the effort Elodie put into understanding the material, and how she explained challenging topics to other struggling students once she understood them. Her geometry teacher states that it's clear that Elodie has a strong natural curiosity and isn't one to give up easily.
Elodie is an excellent example of someone having a very strong art spike. She is a hard worker, but doesn't naturally excel in many academic areas, which is why her overall GPA and test scores are pretty average. That's fine though, because her art spike is so strong. Her portfolio and artist statement will be the majority of the reason why she's accepted into art programs, but competition wins, strong letters of recommendation, and her personal statement all help bolster her spike and show the admissions teams that this is an applicant who is not only extremely talented as an artist, but who is driven to work hard and has clear goals for herself. Elodie may not get into Ivy League schools, but she's a very strong candidate for most art programs.
Profile 2: Darian the Photographer
Portfolio: Darian's portfolio shows strong photography skills, particularly for portraits. He uses his advanced technical and lighting skills to showcase his sitters in the best light. Darian also uses photo editing programs, including some he modified on his own, to give his photographs a bleak, minimalist mood. This adds a unique aspect to an otherwise standard portfolio.
Grades: Although photography is his passion, Darian enjoys school, especially when he's able to connect his schoolwork to photography. He especially excels in computer classes (because he uses photo editing programs) and English classes (because he loves writing). He understands the importance of a good education and pushes himself to take challenging classes. He's taken numerous honors and AP classes, in each main subject, and gotten mostly As. His unweighted GPA is 3.85.
Test Scores: Darian studied quite a bit for the SAT, and, on his third time taking the test, was able to achieve a 750 in both sections. He's taken five AP exams and earned a 4 or 5 in each of them.
Extracurriculars: Darian is a member of both his school's and local community's photography club where he has learned a lot from other photographers. Because he has had such great mentors, he created a club where high school and college-aged students teach photography to students at lower-income schools who have limited access to art classes. Each student is loaned a camera and encouraged to take photos of their world as they see it. At the end of the program, the students' photos are showcased at the community library. Darian started this program as a freshman, and it has grown so that dozens of students have been mentored, and local politicians and out-of-state artists attend the event. Additionally, Darian is a member of his school's coding club, and he plays on an ultimate frisbee team and works at his parent's restaurant on the weekends.
Personal Statement: Darian used his personal statements to discuss how important photography can be to a community to create social connections and a sense of place. His current work is heavily-based on his hometown and the people in it because he wants people to feel proud about being from there. He takes time to discuss the mentorship program he started, how important it is to him, and his hopes for how it will grow. Like Elodie, Darian has clear plans for his future and what he hopes to get from an art program.
Letters of Rec: Darian's photography teacher and computer science teacher wrote his letters of recommendation. Both discussed his obvious talent, but they spend more time giving examples of what a caring and helpful person Darian is, and how much effort he puts in to help others improve and achieve their goals. Darian submits a supplemental letter of rec from the library director where Darian's mentor program holds its community showcase. The director describes what a positive impact the program has had on participants and what an exceptional person he thinks Darian is to have started such a successful program while in high school.
Darian is a strong art program candidate, but in a somewhat different way than Elodie. Darian's portfolio is strongly above average, but not hugely exceptional, although he shows the potential to keep improving his skills. Unlike Elodie, Darian's portfolio alone isn't enough to get him into top programs. However, Darian makes up for this in other areas, particularly his strong grades and test scores, and especially the mentorship program he started. Overall, Darian is a good photographer who also seems like a genuinely caring, smart, and hardworking person. He likely has a better chance of getting into liberal arts colleges with art programs than Elodie does because Darian has the strong academic background these schools want.
Your portfolio is the most important part of your application to art programs. Learn more about how to make a great portfolio that will impress your dream school.
Wondering what art programs you should apply to? Check out our guide on the best art schools in the United States!
How's your contour line drawing skill? Learn the basics of how to draw without shading with this guide.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.