Why Is Applying to College for Music So Hard? 7 Common Application Process Challenges


Applying to college is one of the most exciting and stressful times in a teenager’s life. Although technology has made certain processes more convenient, it has done very little to quell the confusion and anxiety that accompanies the complex college application process. For aspiring music majors, the processes become even more challenging, often leading to aggravation – or even a reduced chance of acceptance. 

Inside Music Schools (IMS) was founded by Steven Lipman, the former Director of Admissions at Berklee College of Music, and grew to include Karen Kerr, the former head of admissions and recruitment from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. Families who engage IMS college music admissions consulting services benefit from working with this level of insight and expertise. IMS strives to help students navigate the complex world of music admissions — the first step in achieving a student’s dreams. By understanding exactly what music schools expect from their applicants and by helping students prepare for the music college application process, IMS alleviates some of the stress at the dining room table and gives students better acceptance odds. 

How Does College Admissions Work for Music Majors?

Applying to college seems fairly straightforward, but college music admissions are entirely different. Not only do aspiring music majors need to meet the guidelines associated with the music program, but if that program exists under the umbrella of a larger university, they must also meet the same strict academic guidelines as a liberal arts or science major. Some of the things that music majors will encounter include the following:

  • Portfolios: Portfolios might be required for specific programs such as composition, film scoring, production, or technology. In some cases, a portfolio is required in addition to prescreening and auditions and is assessed by different faculty. Each school will have specific requirements for its portfolios.
  • Pre-Screening: Pre-screenings can vary from one school or program to the next. These are recorded videos of students performing part of their repertoire, answering questions, or simply discussing their desire to learn more about music. Many music schools have specific pre-screening requirements that must be met to be considered. 
  • Auditions: Regardless of the student’s intended major, many music schools require students to perform an audition, either recorded or in person. This is one of the most important parts of the entire music college application process as it demonstrates students’ technical ability and potential. 
  • Resumes and Repertoire Lists: Some schools require students to submit a resume detailing their academic and musical accomplishments, especially regarding awards, achievements, and prior training. A list of the student’s repertoire serves as an example of their experience, range, and capabilities. 
  • Letters of Recommendation: Letters from previous music teachers and mentors who can vouch for a student’s ability and potential can be helpful, and often required when it comes to college music acceptance. 
  • Theory or Musicianship Assessments: Music schools and programs may require potential students to take music theory or musicianship assessments to demonstrate their grasp of foundational concepts and/or for class placement purposes.
  • Essays or Personal Statements: Finally, music majors may be asked to write essays or statements detailing their background, goals, and passion for becoming a musician. They may also be asked to write about their reasons for applying to a specific school or major.

The College Application Process is Challenging for Everyone. You Are Not Alone! 

Many students and families struggling with the college application process feel they must be doing something wrong. Why is it so challenging? The reasons can vary from one student and school to the next, with seven primary factors leading to college music admissions anxiety.

Challenge #1: Every College Application Process is Different

First and foremost, no two college music programs have the exact same application process. Other than the Common App, there is no standardized form, which means applying to 8 to 10 music schools – which is always in a student’s best interest – can lead to confusion and anxiety. Sometimes, students need to send a pre-screening video or portfolio to be considered. In other cases, students must audition in person with a pre-approved repertoire. Different colleges have different financial aid programs, require different documents, and operate on different timelines. 

Challenge #2: The Music College Application Process Should Start Early

High school students benefit from early preparation for the college application process, even though applications are typically due in the fall of their senior year. Music applicants must meet the same application deadlines as other students, but they must follow even more steps in order to complete the full application. Early preparation is a must in this case. Music students are required to apply separately to the music school, send in their pre-screening videos, and set up auditions from January through March, including the required travel arrangements – all while finishing high school. 

Challenge #3: Limited Acceptance Leads to Fierce Competition

Music programs are very limited, and this is especially true for prestigious, highly competitive schools like Juilliard and the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. How do college admissions work when the availability is so limited? In short, each program has a certain number of seats for each instrument or vocalist, composer, songwriter, producer, etc. For example, if an exceptional flutist applies for one of 12 seats in a top program but they are applicant number 13, they are often out of luck. College music acceptance requires applying for limited seats early on and meeting school deadlines for delivering documents, pre-screenings, and auditions. 

Challenge #4: You Need More than Musical Talent 

Even if you are the best pianist or vocalist in the world, music admissions requires more than just musical talent. Some music programs are part of much larger universities, and that means students must meet two sets of requirements: the academic requirements for the university and the approval of the music school. Admissions also takes into account the experiences and activities the student participated in during high school, their willingness to challenge themselves, and their presentation during auditions, videos and interviews. 

Challenge #5: There Are Countless Decisions to Make

Students who are applying to college make seemingly hundreds of choices that can impact their education. Which geographic location does the student prefer? What schools are their top choices, and which are backup choices? What repertoire is best for the audition? What should the student wear for their pre-screening video and at their live audition? Decision fatigue can make it very difficult for students and families to make well-informed choices. 

Challenge #6: The Music Admissions Process Has Many Moving Parts 

Applying for a liberal arts or science major is complicated enough, but the moving parts associated with applying to music school can feel overwhelming. From choosing the right, best-fit schools, to navigating the complex college application process, and even gathering a list of accolades and references, students and families feel as if they are being pulled in many directions at once. 

Challenge #7: Anticipating (or Fearing) the Outcome is Real

So many students we assist report feeling that Inside Music Schools helps keep them on track and moving forward. Students (and parents) don’t have time to think about, fear, or speculate on the outcome of the process. Having an admissions consultant helps families stay focused on the task (or many tasks!) at hand by continuing to take steps toward the outcome that eventually comes — being accepted into a top school.

How a College Music Admissions Consultant Makes the Application Process Easier 

Applying for college is a painstaking and nerve-wracking experience for many students and families, but an experienced and qualified admissions consultant makes the application process more manageable. Inside Music Schools starts by assessing each student’s skills and capabilities and then identifying the schools that can best help them reach their goals. From there, we guide each student through the entire admissions process, including preparing for interviews and auditions, relieving some of the burden and allowing students and their families to focus on what really matters – honing their musical skills. 

To learn more about our college music admissions consulting and audition coaching services, or to schedule a consultation, reach out to Inside Music Schools today. With a nearly 100% success rate in college music acceptance, our goal is to help students feel confident during the college application process and earn a music degree from their ideal music program or school. 

Photo of Karen Kerr
Karen Kerr
Senior Consultant at Inside Music Schools

An accomplished professional with over 28 years of experience in higher education, admissions, and recruitment, Karen has always made her goal finding the best-fit school for student musicians. 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. Prior to joining the Frost School, she was part of the admissions staff at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance where she reviewed applications at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.