How Do I Apply for Music Programs?

Applying to music programs can seem daunting, due to all of the components required. Even choosing programs to apply to can be difficult: do you want to study performance, education, or theory and composition? Do you want to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Music, or Bachelor of Fine Arts? Should you apply to conservatories or liberal arts colleges? Luckily, no matter the program and whether the application is supplemental or a stand-alone, the process is usually similar. This guide will walk you through the steps of a music program application.

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Music is a field that usually requires preparation for your application well in advance of your senior year, as many instruments take years to become proficient in. Think about how you have participated in music: have you attended performances and performed yourself? Do you compose music and have those compositions been performed or recorded? Do you teach music, use music in community service, or work as a musician? Do you play multiple instruments? These are all facets that music programs want to know about so that they can gauge your serious interest in music as a career.

If finances have kept you from traditional music opportunities, discuss this in your application as well as other ways that you have used music instead. Maybe you base all of your history papers on famous female composers or have listened to every one of Wagner’s operas while you study. Maybe you practice singing with the children you babysit after school. In any case, you need to showcase your passion for music.

Photographer: Akshar Dave | Source: Unsplash

Letters of Recommendation

Typically, two letters of recommendation are requested: one from a school music teacher (think band, orchestra, choir, or AP Music Theory) and one from a private instructor. Again, finances or other circumstances might prevent access to private music instruction. Other people you can ask for letters of recommendation include:

· Middle/elementary school music teachers

· Community/religious institution music program director

· Master class instructor

Having two letter writers with backgrounds in music is preferred. Barring that, anyone that has personally known you and your connection to music – be it through performance, composition, or teaching – and not a family member or friend will work. For instance, if you lead a Sunday School choir at your church, the education director or pastor may be able to write a letter of recommendation. When in doubt, contact the school’s music admissions director.


Essay prompts for music programs generally fit into one of these three categories:

· Why this program?

· What drives you to pursue a career in music?

· Where do you see yourself in music in ten years?

As with any application essay, your writing needs to be specific, unique, and memorable. Paint a picture for the reader: how did you get started in music and how did you get here, applying to this specific school or program? Because finances can be a massive barrier, this is a good place to discuss how you’ve overcome obstacles and still pursued music.

Additionally, do your research! Some schools offer special honor housing for music students. Others are well-known for their professors that play a specific instrument, or have a niche program. Make it clear that you are a good fit for this school and that they are a good fit for you.

Audition Tape or Portfolio

In general, you will first be asked to submit a video audition (for music performance or education programs) or a portfolio of your compositions (for music theory and composition programs) before moving on to an in-person audition. Check with each school to see their requirements. Usually, you must provide two to four pieces of varying length, style, and language if your instrument is voice. Depending on your instrument, you may need piano or other accompaniment; if you cannot afford to pay an accompanist, your music teacher may be able to do this for you. Otherwise, many piano accompaniment recordings are available for free online.

Nowadays, smart phones have sufficient audio and video quality for recording audition tapes so you do not need specific equipment. Dress as if you are performing for a live audience, and perform each piece in one take with a separate video for each piece. Do not attempt to cut, splice, dub, or otherwise alter a tape – music programs are looking for your musical prowess and not your digital editing skills and might be suspicious of foul play if a recording has been changed.

Photographer: Marius Masalar | Source: Unsplash

In-Person Audition, Interviews, and Music Theory Exam

If the admissions committee likes your audition tape or portfolio you will be invited to campus for an in-person audition, interview, and/or music theory exam based on the program you apply to. You may be able to request funding to cover your travel costs to and from campus; additionally, you may request to stay overnight with a current student to reduce lodging costs. This will also give you a chance to talk to students about their experience in the music program!

For your in-person audition, as with your audition tape, wear clothing appropriate for a solo performance of your instrument. Note that some schools will want to hear the same pieces as your audition tape; others will ask for entirely different pieces. Depending on the instrument, sheet music is discouraged or even banned, so plan ahead. If you are sick the day of your audition, contact the music admissions director immediately to see if it is possible to audition a different day. Even if they cannot grant this, at least they are aware that you’re not in top shape for your audition. If you must audition while sick, remember to hydrate and stretch beforehand and get plenty of sleep. Some, but not all, music schools will hold an interview before or after your audition.

You may also be asked to take a music theory exam, regardless of the program you are applying to. Typically, you will be asked to take a dictation of several individual notes, measures, or short melodies by ear, as well as answer general theory questions. Many resources are available online to study the various components of the exam; taking a music theory course in school or asking for study help from a private instructor is recommended.

Choosing a School

If you get into a music program: congratulations! These programs are competitive and will be hard work for the next four years. If you were not offered admission, check each school’s policy. Some liberal arts colleges may accept you to the school and not the music department specifically, but you can audition again during your freshman year. Others may offer you admission for a Bachelor of Arts program instead of a Bachelor of Music or Bachelor of Fine Arts program. Choosing between music programs is much like the process of choosing any school to attend; a Admissions Expert can help you with this.

Good luck with your application!

This application guide was written by Olivia Sullivan, St. Olaf Class of 2018. If you want to get help writing your St. Olaf or music program application essays from Olivia or other Admissions Experts, register with today.