Making the Grade: Why Academics Matter for Music Majors 

By: Karen Kerr

Ok, we get it – you love music! You want to perform, create, and make music all the time. Spending countless hours practicing, taking lessons, rehearsing, and performing to hone your skills means you sometimes don’t have time to focus on other things. How much does your high school academic performance matter when you are preparing to apply to or attend a top music school or university music program? Well, the short answer is, that it could matter a lot.

High school students work together on a project.

Depending on the type of school, degree, curriculum, and a host of other factors, your academic background could make a significant difference. In this blog, we’ll discuss those factors to clarify exactly why your academic background is so crucial and how it could impact your admission to highly competitive schools and music programs.

You have several school choices when pursuing a music degree — conservatories, liberal arts colleges with a music department or major, and music schools within universities. Each type of school has its own unique admission policies and procedures. With that in mind, let’s look at some general guidelines for admission.

How Do Schools Review Applications for Music Majors? 

Many schools today take a holistic approach to application review. That means they consider all application pieces, including the academic review and input from the music school. They do this by weighting each equally or placing slightly more emphasis on the music component. However, the academic threshold can still be high.

At most music schools within a university or liberal arts college, music applicants will undergo an academic review similar to the rest of the school’s applicant pool. This review might include things like your high school GPA, difficulty of courses taken, standardized test scores, the type of curriculum you took during high school, and a review of your college essays. Your coursework during high school may show you’ve challenged yourself by taking advantage of some of the higher-level courses, such as Advanced Placement, Honors, or dual-enrollment options your school offers.

How Many Liberal Arts Classes Do Music Majors Need? 

The curriculum for a music degree will typically include a general education component. Depending on the type of degree program you are in, that general education component could be substantial or relatively small. A Bachelor of Music degree will likely only have about 30% liberal arts coursework, with most of your classes being music-related. The liberal arts core (STEM, Humanities, and Social Sciences) could be a more significant percentage if you are a Bachelor of Arts student. This is one reason why liberal arts colleges and music schools within universities will emphasize academic review as part of the admission process.

How Important are Academics at Conservatories?

Conservatories are not generally connected to larger institutions that might have rigorous academic reviews as part of the admission process. They will be less concerned with your high school record and standardized test scores. However, they may still review your high school transcript with a certain level of scrutiny to ensure you can succeed in an academic setting, as it can indicate your work ethic and commitment to your studies. The academic rigor of your high school record and your scores on the SAT or ACT would not likely impact an admission decision if your audition is strong.

How Liberal Arts Schools Review Music Major Applications

Liberal arts colleges will be more interested than conservatories in how you perform academically in high school. You will be required to take a significant number of core classes and must demonstrate through your academic record that you can be successful outside of music courses. Remember that some liberal arts colleges are more competitive and will place significant weight on academics in the admissions review. 

Music School Admissions at Universities 

Some of the top music programs like University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, and Northwestern University Bienen School of Music are housed within highly competitive universities. Not only do these music schools admit the most talented student musicians, but they also have rigorous academic standards and some of the lowest admission rates in the country.

Merit Scholarships for Music Majors 

Your academic record could lead to consideration for merit-based academic scholarships. Many schools are test-optional, but higher scores and strong GPAs could impact academic awards. Music schools will usually have their own music scholarships, but you could be considered for additional academic awards if your transcript is strong.

In Conclusion

Depending on the type of music school you apply to, whether a conservatory, a liberal arts school, or a university, your academic record matters. The audition, interview, and/or portfolio review can be significantly more important than academics for gaining acceptance to a music program.  Schools may have more flexibility in accepting music applicants with diverse academic profiles. Remember to focus on music and become the best musician you can be, but don’t forget to be the best student you can be, too!  

About the Author

Karen Kerr, Senior Consultant at Inside Music Schools, is an accomplished professional with over 28 years of experience in higher education, admissions, and recruitment. Most recently, she served as the Director of Admission and Recruitment at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, where she was responsible for recruitment, auditions/interviews, and admissions of all undergraduate and graduate applicants. Before joining the Frost School, she served on the admissions staff at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Originally from the Midwest, she holds a Bachelor of Arts in music from Indiana University Southeast, where her principal instrument was piano. She also earned a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from the University of Miami and a certificate in College Counseling from the University of California San Diego.

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