The Top 10 Tips to Prepare Your Student for Art School

Aug 1, 2019

If you have an art student (or you are one), then I know why you are here. 

Perhaps you are getting a little nervous or confused as you look at the future of your budding art student.  You may be concerned about how he/she will get into college or wonder what should be done to prepare for acceptance.  You are not alone!  There are some general things you can do as you walk through the college search process.  For future art school students there are a few things that should be considered.

Here are the top 10 things you can do that will especially help your art student enter a college art program.

  1. Create a rigorous schedule – As with any college bound student, colleges look for art students who have followed a rigorous high school schedule through 12th grade. The minimum requirements for education vary slightly from state to state and colleges will have their own preferences as well. A good rule of thumb is fully described on the NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) website as:  4 years of challenging study in the major areas of English, Math, and Science as well as 2-3 years in Social Studies and Foreign Language. 

On top of that, art students must also show rigor in their art courses.  Over the course of the high school years, students should experience both a broad and deep understanding of art.  It should be a broad experience in that students should have exposure to many different processes, media, cultural histories, and experiences.  It should be deep in the exploration of at least one topic or media (painting, pottery, drawing, digital art, etc.).  Students should establish the well-rounded foundation to prepare for college.

  1. Embrace diverse opportunities – Great places to find art instruction include: Art centers, museums, continuing education programs, art studios, art classes, online courses, and even online tutorials. It is best to do many of these things for the most well-rounded experience.  Being “self-taught on YouTube videos” may sound impressive, but it is one-sided.  There is more out there!  (For more exciting thoughts about using museums to supplement education, check out one of my past articles here.)  Take advantage of as many opportunities as you can.
  2. Do an early college search – You should start no later than the beginning of the Junior year if possible. Don’t worry: searching does not mean committing! If you have planned a rigorous schedule with time for art, then your academics are set.  Now you must turn your mind to the future!  Consider the types of things your student may value or desire in a college.  Look around and develop a list of 10 or even 15 colleges that might be possibilities.  (Eventually you will narrow it down to 3-5 for application).  Consider even starting a spreadsheet to compare the institutions.  A helpful place to begin is a college search engine like the one offered on The College Board’s website.  (This site is an invaluable resource for many topics related to college entrance.  Create a free account there.  It is worth your time.)
  3. Keep track of Deadlines – Most college websites will offer admission deadlines as well as portfolio or audition deadlines. Plan ahead. Art students who spend a year actively creating art with potential to submit in a portfolio will be much less stressed out and much more successful than students who try to create their portfolio over the course of 2 or 3 months.  Find out deadlines and include time for art students to work on creating during the regular school week.  Some examples of top tier art schools are Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) , Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and Ringling College of Art and Design, and each offers a clear timeline.
  4. Understand Portfolio Requirements – As you research, you should also look for additional art program requirements. (Those previous links will give you examples of these as well.)  It is particularly important for you to see if the college or university requires incoming art majors to submit an art portfolio to be admitted.  Some do and some don’t.  Find out.  If they do, there will be specific requirements that they expect of these submissions along with deadlines.  You should follow the specific requirements exactly as suggested.
  5. Create a lot of art – Do not make the mistake of allowing an art student who has taken one class to think that will get them into a competitive art school. Do not crowd out focused time in art with other topics. Give time and priority to your student during their high school time, just as you would a high school musician or future scientific researcher.  A funny and informative video on the topic can be seen here.
  6. Work with a Mentor – Find a person outside of your home and family to work with your student. (It is just too hard to be objective. Of course your student is the most talented, gifted student out there– just like they were the most beautiful baby in the nursery!)   Professional artists, teachers, and people working in visual design fields have seen countless projects and ideas.  They can challenge and encourage your student in ways that you cannot, and they may be able to guide your student to new exploration or steer them away from a rut!  Excelsior teachers work with students every year in this capacity, but so do many folks in your very own neighborhood at art studios and community colleges.  Find someone who really connects with your student and ask them for feedback. 
  7. Look for samples – One easy way to understand the types of portfolio or project submissions you might be competing with is to do a Google/YouTube search of “Accepted” or “Rejected” portfolios to the particular colleges you are interested in applying for. You will find many students have posted run-through videos to show others what they submitted. While you may or may not love their particular styles, you will see the types of things that are accepted at your school of interest.  Look though many if you can.    One other outstanding resource I must mention here is a site called Ask the Art Prof, offered by Clare Lieu, professor as Rhode Island School of Design.  Her website reviews student portfolios, gives helpful advice on creating effective pieces, and even offers art challenges throughout the year.  She provides much insight and her site is worth exploring.
  8. Attend a “Portfolio Day” – Many colleges that do require portfolios will also often offer an opportunity for a “pre-application” portfolio review. They may offer these as live online presentations, or they may open time in their college or at other events for interested students. A prime site to explore is the National Portfolio Days site which hosts large gatherings of many colleges for this purpose.  They hold events around the country, and your student may have access to multiple colleges of interest in one place.  If there is any way to take your student and their work to one of these events, do make the effort.  And remember, the things they tell you to change or do are not meant as insults, but rather incentive. They will help you and let you know exactly what you should improve or work on. (Be ready to take it as help, not rejection!)
  9. Encourage and support efforts – This may be one of the most important things you can do. Taking on the challenge of creating art above and beyond completing a rigorous academic load can be exhausting! Families and friends can help students to think about what is most meaningful to them.  They can allow time for art.  They can provide space for it.  They can give encouraging feedback when they like what a student is working on or express respect for the amount of work students give to their ideas.  They can encourage the student to really develop the gifts they have been given.

Each and every student has strengths and interests that may one day become meaningful careers.  As they look ahead and consider what they might do for college, they will need to choose wisely where they spend their time and efforts in order to maximize their precious high school years.  Art students can enjoy their high school years and successfully prepare for college application if you will take the time to follow these 10 steps. You’ve made it the end of this article.  I know you care about this.  You and your student are on the road to success.  Keep going!

Julie Rohr has taught for the past 20+ years in many areas of art and culture.  She knows there is more to enjoy in great art than just “The Last Supper.”  Ms. Rohr has personally developed a series of Art History courses that delights and engages students.  Her drawing classes have seen participants grow in leaps and bounds!

Both parents and students praise Julie Rohr as having a knack for presenting material in a way that makes it interesting to understand and absorb.  She is known for her enthusiasm and insight into the arts.  More than once, she has been proclaimed as “my favorite teacher.”