art school for artists

Art School

Going to art school is a big exciting step in the life of an artist. Preparing ahead of time and researching your options will help make the transition from “the real world” to art school (and back again) a painless and extremely rewarding experience. This section is not about naming the best art schools or what schools will turn you into an art star. As you will learn, art schools change all the time, so it’s best to look for the school that’s right for you and not rely on the promises and opinions of others unless they have direct experience.

People decide to go to art school at many different times in their lives. Some go right out of high school, some wait one, two, or even 20 years before they enroll in an art program. Some people put lucrative careers on hold to go to art school. And some artists never go to school at all. Wherever you are on your road to an academic art education, know that there is no right or wrong time to start school. In the end, it’s up to you.

Going to art school for a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree is very different from going for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. The financial, emotional, and academic requirements vary drastically from program to program, and there is no hard and fast way to describe every school. 

A bachelor’s degree program usually lasts four years. Most BFA programs require a high school degree for entry and, depending on their status as a public or private institution, might not require you to take the SATs. Some schools may also look favorably on students coming from the community college level, specifically because many of the teachers at these schools are also adjunct teachers at art schools. 

During the course of a Bachelor of Fine Arts education, students usually study many different kinds of art, taking a variety of studio, art history, and writing courses before they decide on a concentrated field of artistic inquiry. The rigidity of this medium-specific course of study can vary from school-to-school. Some schools require you to decide if you want to only major in a very specific media, like photography, and others are content to let you work in many different media. Depending on the type of school you enroll in, you might have to take courses in subjects unrelated to art, like Math or Science. And yes, you will have to write papers in art school. Usually a BFA degree culminates in a senior thesis show where students exhibit their work in either a group or solo exhibition. Some BFA programs also require that you write a thesis paper before graduation.

A Master of Fine Arts Degree usually takes two to three years, and you must have a bachelor’s degree to apply to an MFA program, though most programs don’t require you to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). You don’t have to have an undergraduate degree in art in order to enroll in a master’s program. In fact, some master’s programs look favorably on applicants specifically because they don’t have an Art BFA, because these students bring ideas from outside of the art world to the classroom. Some schools may request that applicants with little to no art background enroll in a Post-Baccalaureate program, which is a preparatory program between undergrad and grad school.

Artists decide to go to a master’s program for a number of reasons, most typically:

To receive an MFA so they can teach at the collegiate level.

To focus their artistic practice in practical, technical, theoretical, and conceptual terms. 

To form a network of supportive artists, mentors, and professional contacts.

To learn more about how to operate as an artist in the world.

To study with, and under the instruction of, accomplished working artists.

Master’s programs differ tremendously from school to school, but generally classes in these programs include many individual and group critiques, where students and teachers get together to discuss work in depth. Additionally, master’s candidates will usually take a mixture of Art History and Studio classes pertinent to their focused area of study. Since MFA programs are much more student-driven (less required courses), time is given to individual study and research so that the student can develop a well-researched and -executed body of work. A master’s program usually culminates in a thesis exhibition where a student exhibits her/his work in a solo or small group show. Additionally, many MFA programs require students to write a lengthy thesis paper about their practice and artistic influences.

After you have decided that being an artist is your desired career choice, and you want to go to art school, there are few very important things to consider:

Is this the right time to go to school? Can you devote two to four years of your life completely to school? Being able to go to school and not work full time will make your studies and artwork more focused. Some MFA programs insist that you not work while in school.

Are you financially prepared to go to school? Do you have savings to pay for school? Are you going to rely on scholarships, loans, or work-study programs? Getting a degree is rewarding, but leaving school with tens, sometimes almost one-hundred thousand dollars worth of debt can be suffocating. Make sure you have your financial situation in order before beginning the application process. But remember that money should not be the reason for you to attend or not attend art school. There are many options open to students to make any school a possibility. 

What geographic locations appeal to you? Do you need to be in an urban environment? Can you learn in an out-of-the-way rural surrounding? Are there loved ones you need to be near? Can you afford to move to a different city? A different country?

Do you want to go to a traditional university/college or a private, art-specific school? Do you desire to study other topics outside of art?

Are you committed to teaching? An MFA is required to teach in most schools across the country, but you should not apply to a program for that reason alone.

Your answers to these questions will help you better understand what schools are right for you. No matter what, prepare yourself for about a year of research to identify and apply to the perfect school for you.

Starting the Search

It takes time and lots of research to pick the right school. You don’t just wake up one day, decide to go to art school, and the next month, you’re in. The more time and consideration that goes into your art school search, the happier and more professionally and academically satisfied you’ll be when you matriculate and graduate.

Begin by looking at the goals section of this manual. Think ahead. Where do you want to be in three, five, 10 years? What are your life goals? These goals may not be set in stone but they will help you keep track of your priorities and conceptualize which school will help you fulfill your goals.

After this, think about your answers to the questions above. If you don’t want to move to another state or country, if you can’t afford to spend a certain amount, and if you only want to go to school for a specific amount of time, that will narrow your choices down quite a bit.

If you are in high school, start your college search by visiting your guidance/college counselor. She/he will advise you on what schools are in your price/location range. Additionally she/he will be able to put you in touch with admissions representatives from your top school choices. At the same time you should be compiling research on your own. Visit websites like, to find schools, their contact info, prices, and statistics.

Cast your net far and wide at first. Look at school websites. There you will be able to find a list of full time faculty, curriculum, admissions policies, and more. Start a research file on your computer and give each school its own sub file. Start compiling lists of pertinent info on each school and take meticulous notes. If the school has a website link to student work, check out the quality of the work. If the students have personal websites, check those out too. Do you think your work will mesh with this work? This does not mean decide if your work looks like their work, or is even in the same media. You want to see if you can find comrades in the program. Are the students dealing with issues that also concern you? You want to find a place that will not only teach you how to develop a thriving practice, but also a place where you will have an extensive and supportive network of students and professors.

There is a distinct difference between types of schools. You may decide to go to a large university where they offer a number of degrees and courses. You might want to go to a private art school or institute that is much smaller and focuses primarily on art and other culture-producing degrees.  Some artists prefer one type of educational platform, while others like the diversity of options, such as choosing a four-year university for their undergraduate education and then a private art school for their graduate studies. Just remember that your experience will vary drastically from these diverse institutions.  

When you find a school that interests you, request that they send you an application packet. This will come with college brochures, an application, and other promotional material to spark your interest. Pore over these materials with a fine-toothed comb. Pay close attention to information like curriculums, resources, and alumni statistics. While all these promotional materials can give you a general idea of what the school will be like, especially things like courses offered/required, keep in mind that this material is carefully designed to convince you to apply and enroll. So take claims, pretty pictures, and superlative phrases with a grain of salt.

The next step is to ask teachers, mentors, and anyone whose opinion you trust and respect which schools they think you should consider. When asking around try to find people who know about how the school functions now, as opposed to five to ten years ago. Schools change, so their opinions of the school could be out of date. Most importantly, ask around and see if your contacts know people who currently teach at schools you are considering. These contacts will be vital when you want to visit schools and ask more specific questions. Find recent alumni from schools you’re considering and ask them questions about their experience. Here are a few questions you might want to ask your contacts:

What schools do you consider the best for establishing your career as an artist?

Who do you know who teaches at these schools?

What schools will be receptive to my specific art practice?

What schools will put me in a good position to find a teaching job/gallery show/professional position?

What schools support their students after they graduate?

What is the culture like at the school? Do students get along and socialize outside of the classroom?

How successful are the alumni from these schools?

For MFA programs, an excellent place to start your school search is to consider who your professors will be. Your mentors and professors in grad school will be the greatest asset you have after graduation to get teaching positions, gallery connections and more. So start thinking about artists you admire and find out if they teach. But beware, some schools will highlight their most well-known faculty on their website, but in reality these famous faculty are rarely available to students. It would be a shame if you enrolled in an MFA program to learn from a certain artist, only to find that they rarely meet with students, do two studio visits a year, and little more. 

Additionally, if you are considering a university for an undergrad BFA program, you might find yourself only learning from teaching assistants instead of professors. This is especially true for large universities. If you really want to study with a particular professor, call her/his department and ask if she/he is scheduled to go on sabbatical in the next few years. You don’t want to arrive at school and find out that your favorite professor will be away for a year or two. Most importantly, remember that just because an artist is a great artist, doesn’t mean they are a good instructor. There are ways to find out if a professor is effective. If you can, ask her/his students how she/he performs in the classroom. Websites like let students grade their professors and provide comments about their teaching. Take these ratings with a grain of salt, but in general, you can learn about which professors are student favorites. Overall, when considering professors and programs, make sure you are getting what you pay for.

Additionally, try and answer the following questions during your research:

What housing options are available to students?

Does the school offer teaching assistant positions?

Does the school have a work-study program?

What financial aid options are available?

How much does it cost to live on campus? Off campus?

Does the curriculum include professional-practice classes on the business of being an artist?

What is the career track for alumni?

What is the school’s endowment?

What is the turnaround for the school’s faculty?

Is the faculty made up of full-time professors or part-time adjuncts?

How accessible are the faculty members for studio visits or individual meetings?

Does the school routinely invite visiting artists to give lectures and hold individual critiques?

After you have met with your contacts, done extensive online research, and talked with college             counselors, you’ll be ready to start filling out applications.

Your Application

Every school looks for different things in an applicant’s portfolio, and it is smart to know how it tailors its admissions. Some skill-focused art schools, based in what is known as the Beaux Arts, will look for a wide range of traditional drawings that show you can draw, and expect you to focus on developing craftsmanship while in school. Other schools are more dedicated to conceptual development, and will concentrate on work you have done outside of class in order to assess your inventiveness, independent thinking skills, and conceptual rigor. They also look for skill sets, but are more interested in creative potential.

If you are applying to a BFA degree program you should have a history of taking art classes and creating work for a while. If you have been producing work outside of classes, then you may have developed a way of working that is less about assignments and more about your own creative expression. Know what kind of school you are applying to, and understand how your application will or won’t link up with that school’s pedagogical outlook. 

When approaching the application the most important thing is to FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS. Read the application twice before you even begin to answer questions. Consider the application as an opportunity to better understand you, your work, and what you want to do as an artist. The application essays will usually ask why you want to be an artist, what you expect to get out of art school, and perhaps what artists you admire. As you work your way along the application process, you’ll learn more about your art practice than you ever would have expected, and you might whittle down your college choices as well.

 The Application Portfolio

Your portfolio should concentrate on your personal voice as an artist and include a variety of media and styles. Read application requirements very carefully. Make sure to only include what the school is requesting from you. Don’t submit more than the maximum amount of work samples, or less than the minimum. Failure to follow admission directions will certainly seal your fate and guarantee that rejection letter in your mailbox.   Check out the Portfolio chapter for more information.

The most important thing about your portfolio, other than having good work, is having excellent quality reproductions of work. Bad documentation, out of focus shots, poor lighting, or awkward framing can make even the best work look amateurish. Getting a good portfolio together requires some planning ahead. If you don’t have a high quality camera to document your work, consider hiring a photographer to do it for you. See the Documenting Your Work chapter for info on how to properly document your work.

For undergraduate applications, many art schools like to have the following in a portfolio (but not all, so check the guidelines!):

Drawings from observation. This means still-life studies, figure drawings, self-portraits, and other drawings, which show off your skills and how you make choices.

Work in color to demonstrate your color sensibility and your ability to create palettes.

Design work to convey your ability to think conceptually and incorporate graphic elements in your work. These can be 2-D or 3-D works.

A range of media in the rest of the works can be helpful. Photography, printmaking, sculpture, installation, or public projects are good choices. Some schools like to see jewelry, ceramics, or fiber art if you are interested in more skills-centric programs.

Theme-based work to show your interests in subject matter and form.

Some schools require a specific assignment. They may ask you to make a drawing inspired by a theme. Be sure to read the instructions carefully. This assignment might give you a good idea of what the school finds important.

Other schools do not want to see any assignment-based work at all. They are looking for your own creativity and the work you make outside of a classroom. These schools are looking for your ideas as much as your talent for painting or printmaking.

Unless specifically requested, do not send original works with your portfolio. Always include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) if you want the school to return your portfolio. If the application doesn’t explicitly state who will review your portfolio, ask the admissions department for those details. Will it be only full-time staff? Some schools have current students review portfolios to ensure that incoming students will mesh with the program. It is a good idea to find out who your audience will be.

If you are unsure with whether or not your portfolio exhibits the skill and conceptual rigor necessary to get into your choice schools, you may consider seeking outside advice and training. Enroll in extra art classes, take a class at a community college, or a summer course. The added training will look good on your applications and the extra work will enhance your portfolio.

If you ever have questions about your portfolio, and what to include or not include, don’t hesitate to contact the school. The admissions staff will take note of your inquisitiveness and follow-through.

National Portfolio Days

Schools from across the country participate in National Portfolio Day, where representatives from admissions departments gather in accessible locations and review prospective students’ portfolios. Portfolio day provides an excellent opportunity to get multiple opinions about your work from an array of schools. Additionally, reps can answer questions about their programs of study. For more information visit

Prospective students may be asked if there is anything that their teacher told them not to put in their portfolio and if they have documentation of work not included. It is a good idea to take these images with you in case a more progressive school wants to see non school-based work. Some high school teachers are very conservative and use the same assignments everyone else in the country does, so most of the work looks the same. This kind of work is hard to judge for individuality, so make your portfolio distinctive if they don’t ask for specifics.

Follow-Up Interviews

After looking through initial applications, some schools narrow down their choices to a second tier group. They will then ask this group to interview with faculty, representatives, or alumni from the school. If you are called back for an interview the school may ask you to visit the campus if you are local or able to travel. While some might pay for your travel expenses to conduct an interview, many schools opt to schedule a Skype or phone interview. The interview should be laid back. The interviewer is just trying to get a feel for your dedication to the arts and to art school, and make sure you are a right fit for the school’s program. Be relaxed and prepared. Know enough about the program to be informed and come with educated questions about the school. The interviewer will appreciate your thought-out questions.

Acceptances and Rejections

So you’ve sent out applications, received acceptance and rejection letters, and now you have to decide on a school. First of all, if you got rejected from your top choice, consider applying again. You can call the school and ask how you can improve your portfolio. Many schools are happy to give application feedback, these schools want you to succeed. When you apply again you will be in a better position to get accepted. Art schools reject applicants for many reasons beyond the quality of the work submitted. They could have too many painters, photographers, or performance artists and need to diversify the incoming class. The application committee can also change frequently; therefore, you may not get in the first time but you might be accepted the second or third time around. While some applicants get accepted immediately, for some it may take a few years. This is not necessarily a reflection of your work but perhaps timing or just plain luck. 

Visit the campus

If you get accepted by one or more schools, you should seriously consider visiting the schools to get firsthand experience, and meet professors and students. Schedule your visit with the admissions office. Ask for a tour and an interview with an admissions staff member. Sit in on a critique to see if you can get along with other students. When you visit a critique class ask yourself a few questions:

How long is the critique?

Does the critique give enough time for adequate review of the work?

Is the critique environment respectful? Do people talk over each other?

Do the students seem knowledgeable about each others’ work?

Are students using academic terms and vocabulary appropriate for the discussion of professional work?

Does everyone talk, or is the critique dominated by one or two people?

How effective are the professors at moderating the critique?

How receptive is the critique to diverse viewpoints?

Does discussion of the work address multiple viewpoints, such as cultural specificity, political standpoint, race, gender, sexuality, and formal and conceptual ideas?

While on campus, take note of the following issues:

Are students talking with each other? Does it seem like a sociable environment?

What are the campus galleries like? Will they be the right size to properly exhibit your work?

Is the campus easy to navigate?

Is there a place where you can buy last-minute supplies?

Are the facilities clean?

How big are the studios? Will you have enough room to make your work?

Do you have to share a studio? When do you get your own studio?

Does the school have the technology you need to create your work? Are the computers up to date?  

Are they operating with current software?

Is the shop well maintained and stocked with the tools you will need to create your work?

Do students have 24-hour access to studios and other facilities?

Where will you eat while on campus? Do they have alternative choices for special diets?

Does the school provide adequate storage for your work when it’s not in your studio?

What is the library like? Will you be able to conduct research?

Does the school have professional-practices classes where students learn about the business of being an         artist?

Are professors easily accessible? Do they socialize with students outside of class?

Do students regularly attend gallery openings?

Does the school invite guest lecturers to campus? Is there a guest lecturer series?

Have fun during your visit. Check out the surrounding town/city/neighborhood. Remember, you’ll be         spending a lot of time at school but you’ll also need to get away from time to time. Are there places to         have fun? See movies? Study with a cup of coffee? Get a drink? Meet new people?

For some people, a school’s location is the most important factor of all. If a school is in an urban environment, close to well-known galleries, non profits, and museums, it’s easier to make connections with these institutions. On the flip side, working in an isolated rural environment might be best for other artists, who enjoy the time to be alone and focus on work.

Preparing for School

You’ve visited the campuses, talked to students, sat in on classes, weighed the pluses and minuses of each school, and finally decided where you’re going to go. You need to make sure you have your finances in order and loans in place before registration. This might mean meeting with the Financial Aid office beforehand.

Before school starts, decide what classes you want to take by thoroughly reading the school’s course schedule. For beginning undergraduate students, some classes, like Foundation, or Design I, etc. will be mandatory. For all other elective classes, it’s good to have an idea of the classes you want to take before registration day. If possible, let the professors teaching your desired course know you want to take it before registration. Should the class reach capacity early, this contact might help you get in. Beginning students often are at the bottom rung when it comes to registration, so expressing interest ahead of time will put you in a better position to get the classes you want.

If at all possible, see if you can get a copy of the syllabi ahead of time for the courses you will take. It never hurts to read ahead and get an understanding of the books and articles routinely assigned for the class. This won’t replace reading these texts when they are assigned, but it will give you a jump-start on the class.

Remember that your time in school will be best spent if you continually work to develop a professional practice. This means establishing good organization, documentation, and business skills as early as possible. If your school doesn’t teach professional practices, ask if you can bring in guest lecturers to talk about the business of art.


Feel free to share this article with other artists.

You can also get our popular book for artists, Getting Your Sh*t Together: The Ultimate Business Manual for Every Practicing Artist, which includes all of this information and more here.