Applying To & Paying For Art School

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Check out the amazing mixed media masterpieces that artist Lauren DiCioccio is known for!

It’s not breaking news… college costs money.

A lot of money.

And when you’re interested in studying for a career in an art/design field, it’s normal (and maybe a good idea) to have some concerns.

I know the free-wheeling creative optimists will roll their eyes and think:

“The cost of school will be far outweighed by the value of a creative education. Don’t short-change yourself, everything will work out. Follow your dreams and go BIG and you will be so much more fulfilled!”

And then the hard-core realists are shaking their heads at the opposite end and thinking:

“How in the WORLD can people pay off these debts? Who in their right mind would pursue such an expensive education, with no promise of a high income after graduation? Artists are destined to be poor! How irresponsible.”

Yes & No. To all of the above.

There is not a perfectly accurate fact list for any of this, but art school is more likely to improve your life if you can pursue your passion without signing your future over to the bank. If your parents can and will pay for it, YOU ARE LUCKY! If you’ve saved college fund money for years, GOOD WORK! But if I were doing this again and was not offered the same scholarship opportunities… I don’t know how I could possibly go. For me, the idea of going to art school was totally contingent on getting scholarships.

If you want to go to art school, and are in the same kind of financial position I was, it’s time to get ready! Keep reading for three basic ideas and lots of extra tips to help you stand out and get those scholarships.


How To Improve Your Chances of Art School Acceptance and Scholarships

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From a collection of photos of the artist Emma Fineman by Harrison Glazier

1) Prepare an awesome portfolio.

Duh, why would’t you send in a great portfolio? Turns out deciding exactly what or how much of something to include in your application portfolio can be a little tricky.

Here’s a great tip from graphic artist Molly McManus about choosing which art to showcase in an application portfolio:

“First things first, do what you love! Create work that is fun and interesting to you. Feel free to include projects that are a little offbeat, like that pair of sneakers you customized or the comic strip you drew. Once you’ve done that, it’s good to have some “traditional” type of art, if you don’t have it already. Most schools will want to see that you can draw realistic still lifes, and figure drawing is even better.” (read more here

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Here are just a handful of potential portfolio pieces by my friend Ely Kauffman. Check out her diversity of subject matter and media use. Everything has a high level of craftsmanship, most of it was done from observation, and she often experiments with emotionally mature ideas. I was lucky to have her as a student in a comic illustration class I taught a few years ago. She is now KILLING IT in her first year at Rhode Island School of Design! Follow her on instagram @elykauffman.

During high school, I was fortunate enough to attend an excellent after school art program, which focused mainly on observational drawing and painting, especially drawing and painting live models. Having figure drawings and paintings in an application portfolio can really help your work to stand out when it is reviewed. This isn’t something most high school art classes teach, so looking for extracurricular life drawing classes is a really good idea. Check out my article: “What is it like to take a life drawing class?” to learn more about what to expect, and how this kind of classical training could take your work to the next level.

When you present your application portfolio, you need to show that you have technical proficiency and curiosity about different subject matter and media. Observational drawing is SO important, and art schools love to see an element of experimentation in portfolios. They also like to see that you’ve made an effort to set up interesting compositions and that your processes show good craftsmanship. Make sure the pieces you decide to showcase are ones you’ve really poured yourself into.

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Illustration by Noah MacMillan for a 2014 portfolio day at Washington University in St. Louis. See more of his gorgeous, graphic work here

It is extremely helpful to have representatives from different art schools look at your portfolios ahead of application dates so they can give you tips on adjusting your collection. You can attend National Portfolio Day (held in different cities around the US each year — this was super helpful to me), or make appointments to meet with reviewers if you’re visiting individual schools before applying. It’s possible this can even be done online now (I’ve done it over Skype with an art director before). It’s definitely worth looking into, and if you want to find out about online reviews, you should call admissions at the schools you’re interested in to ask about review options.

Dorian Angelo, a portfolio reviewer from Ringling College of Art & Design said:

“…if you’re not sure what to draw, draw the things in your room. Draw your hands, draw your feet, draw your dog. That’s perfectly fine. Try not to get into any clichés or any traps of drawing all the same thing. We don’t want to see a sketchbook full of horses. We don’t want to see a sketchbook full of just cartoons or anime. Show that you are looking at real life; that you’re looking at different subject matter…” (read more on studentartguide.com)

2) Aim for good grades & test scores in high school.

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Photo source: delightfull.eu

Seriously, do your best and it will come back to help you when it’s time to apply for scholarships.

I took AP and IB classes in high school and had a decent GPA. I think my cumulative was a 3.4 when I got out. I wasn’t a genius, but I took challenging courses and really tried. Many of the kids in my classes were 3.9 – 4.0 students who went to MIT and Stanford. You don’t need a 4.0 to get into art school, or even to get scholarships at one, but that DOES NOT mean that grades don’t matter.

Most art colleges do not require a high GPA, SAT/ACT scores, or difficult class levels. But I think the fact that I had a well curated portfolio and made those educational efforts before college was the icing on the cake that helped bump me up the list as a scholarship contender. Here’s another great quote by Molly McManus from her blog Molly from Raleigh:

“Grades and SAT/ACT scores matter. I know some people like to think that if they’re going to art school, their grades don’t matter much if they have a good portfolio. That’s true to a certain extent; grades aren’t going to matter as much as they would for someone who’s pre-med, or something. And the portfolio is going to be very important, too. However, grades are still part of the acceptance equation and it is only going to help, not hurt you, if your grades and SAT scores are good. When I was applying to school, I mostly noticed this in the scholarships I was offered. My portfolio was decent but not excellent, but the scholarships I was offered were due to my high school grades and SAT scores. I guess this might be common sense, but just remember that studying hard in high school will pay off when you apply to college.” (Read the rest of her article “How to Apply to Art School: The Ultimate Guide”)

Think about it this way: If you were an art-loving philanthropist who wanted to donate scholarship money to support an art student, you’d want to know that student would put your money to good use, right? Like showing up for classes, doing all their homework, taking assignments seriously… just being responsible. A record of good grades in high school is evidence of responsibility, accountability, and a good work ethic. Those three things are critical to a worthwhile art school experience. Unless a portfolio is mind-blowingly genius, bad grades could easily stand in the way of scholarship gifting.

Remember, I said “good grades,” not “perfect grades.” Just do your best!

3) Apply to as many schools as you can, and for as many scholarships as you can.

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The new PNCA building at 511 NW Broadway in Portland, OR. Love this gorgeous space! 

I ended up applying to twelve schools across the US. Some were private art colleges, and some were universities with celebrated fine arts programs. It was a lot of essay writing, and tailoring portfolios to the vibes of different schools. My mom insisted that I apply to as many schools as possible, and for dozens and dozens of scholarships. I was unhappy about doing the extra work at the time, but of course… she was totally right. Casting that wide net helped us to compare tuitions, cost of living, and financial awards between the schools I was accepted to. After I got acceptance letters and received the financial info, my amazing mom took me to tour the three schools which offered me the best financial options.

***Important side note*** My super tenacious, savvy mom really pushed me to stay on track with all this stuff, you know… since I was a 17 year-old butt at one point. I could NOT have done this without her. If you have supportive parents, you’re incredibly lucky. Don’t take them for granted! 

In the end I chose Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. I had a fabulous impression of the school and city when we visited, and they also gave me generous financial support. PNCA was a great experience and I’d do it all over again! You can read more about those creative college days in my previous article “Is Art School Right For Me?”.

Scholarship Money

After all the applications, essays, and portfolio prep, I was privileged to be offered some highly generous scholarships. One private art collector and the school itself paid for 86% of my tuition over those 4 years. I have so much gratitude to Ed Cauduro and PNCA for giving me that experience.

Here’s a little video interview of me and three other PNCA scholarship recipients (filmed in 2012). Seriously, I can’t thank the school and it’s donors enough for supporting my education.

Student Loans

If it weren’t for that financial support, it’s very unlikely I would have attended. I didn’t have a lot of money saved before school and my parents weren’t able to pay for it. The scholarships helped immensely, but I still had to take out loans, and students loans are the real deal. I have a friend who graduated from art school in 2013 who will be paying $600 per month until 2023. This isn’t a joke, and the financial aspect of this decision deserves serious consideration. No one else is responsible to pay off the loans you sign up for.

Total amount of scholarships I received: $19,000 per year from the school and a connected philanthropist (Ed Cauduro) + a one-time $1,000 award from an essay contest.

Tuition in 2008: about $22,000 per year (half the amount other art schools were asking).

Loans I took out during school: $15,000

Student loan payments after graduation: $172 per month. This payment schedule is spread out over a period of 10 years. If you can pay your student loans off faster than that, DO IT. You will not be penalized.

Having a Job During School

I was lucky to get a good job at a restaurant near my school and home in downtown Portland. I worked 25-35 hours per week year-round. Staying busy really kept me motivated in school, and I felt a sense of pride from earning money that could pay for my rent and living expenses. The job helped to drastically minimize the amount of student loans I had to take out. I know people have different opinions about working during college, and that’s fine. For me it was totally helpful and empowering, and I didn’t feel like it took away from the work I was doing in school. I love to stay busy.


Ready to start looking for scholarships?

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Source: lonewolfmag.com

Check out this list of American fine arts scholarships on scholarship.com. Do a lot of google searches. You should also research scholarships on the websites of art schools you’re applying to. Make sure to make a calendar so you know all the dates when applications for school and scholarships are due.

Good luck!

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