Friday, November 11, 2016

Writing your college essay, and other insider information from the audition seat

This late in the fall, high school seniors have hopefully already narrowed down their top choices for college and, ideally, visited the campuses, at least for a cursory glance at life in each setting. But the heavy lifting isn't over until you have signed an acceptance letter in the spring! Here are some thoughts, based on my own 12 years of college teaching, that can help you put your best foot forward as you proceed though the application and audition process.

Be real in your entrance essay.

I don't know if everyone reads the entrance essays that you write for college, but I certainly do, and I'm looking for clues about your personality, mindset, motivation, and work ethic.

If you are writing for a specific set of questions, answer them. The college entrance essay is not a creative writing exercise--we really want to know what we are asking you to tell us. Be genuine and straightforward in your answers, and avoid passive voice (always in life), flowery prose, and vague allusions when you can be specific.

If the essay itself is vaguely introduced ("tell us about yourself and why you should come to _____"), then give yourself an assignment that is more specific. Be careful not to clearly recreate an essay for another school, as that can look like you haven't given this particular school your careful consideration.  But if the assignment is not specific, make is specifically about you: why do you want to major in music, why do you want to come here, and what do you wish to accomplish as a professional musician? This will give the acceptance committee, and your prospective studio teacher, a clear sense of your sense of  purpose and specific professional goals.

I strongly recommend communicating with professors before the audition.

I appreciate when a prospective student emails me during the early stages of considering colleges, because it gives me an opportunity to better represent my school while getting to know that student. I also think it's an excellent way for the student to get a sense of my personality, which will be an important factor in deciding who s/he wants to study so closely with for an entire degree! So, I encourage you to reach out before applying, with these caveats:

Be sure to read all available online material (university website, music department website, flute studio website, professor's individual website) before emailing. Then when asking questions, you won't make the mistake of asking something that is already answered in the aforementioned material online, making it look like you either really don't care about the program or are not a very thorough student.

Also avoid incredibly vague questions like "what kind of feel is your flute studio"? That is a real question I got one year, and I had no idea how to respond. What do you really want to know? Ask that.

It is entirely acceptable to inquire about financial assistance opportunities (read everything on the websites first), numbers of students in the studio and numbers in each major, and performing and teaching opportunities off-campus and on. I often provide the names and emails of some of my current students for prospective students to contact them about their perspective, but if it isn't offered, I think it's acceptable to ask for that, as well.

I also like giving a sample lesson to a prospective student who is seriously considering coming to UW, for the aforementioned reasons: we can both get a better sense of what it would be like to work together. Some teachers will charge for this (I do not), so don't assume it's free. Because Laramie is so far from other towns, I often do a Skype lesson for people who are trying to decide if they want to spend all the money to fly out and audition. Conversely, I will also do a lesson the day before a live audition if that works out best. So ask, as it behooves you to know what style of teaching you are possibly signing on for, but do it respectfully and inquire about a fee.

I also invite prospective students to sit in on studio class if they are in town when it's happening.  You are about to join a community of flutists with whom you will work very closely for several years, and you will be happier (and perhaps more successful!) if you feel comfortable inthis new adopted family.  Is the environment in a particular studio class warm and welcoming? Intense and focused?  And how do the other students sound?  How does the teacher work with current students--respectfully? It's not always possible to observe a studio class (in which case, get some emails of current students!), but it's a great bonus when gathering information about where you want to be.

Showcase your best self in your auditions.

You will most likely be required to learn specific literature for some of your auditions, and other schools will keep things more flexible; double up as much as possible to avoid learning an impractical number of new pieces for each school. When given a choice between specific pieces, choose what you can play best, not what you think might be the most impressive.  The most impressive audition is one that is well-prepared. This goes for tempos, too. If your Chaminade is a little sloppy at your ideal tempo, but well-controlled and musical two clicks slower, perform it two clicks slower, and with great style.

Advice on appropriate audition pieces can also be asked in your initial contact with prospective flute teachers, but be sure it isn't already explained somewhere online or in written materials from the school, of course!

From the time you first make contact with a potential college teacher to the time you are accepted, you are both auditioning for each other, in a way. Your communication, preparation of application materials, and of course your demeanor and playing ability as demonstrated in your live audition all help a teacher determine whether you will be a good "fit" in the studio and likely to meet with success in that program.  Similarly, you are gleaning clues about the flute community at any given school and the relationship you will be able to develop with your flute teacher every time you interact with the teacher and the students at that school. No decision has to be permanent (there is always the option of transferring schools if you really feel you're in the wrong place), and there is no one perfect place for you, but rather several very good places to be; a situation is what you make of it once you commit to it. But taking this decision seriously now, and communicating who you are and what you need as a student clearly and honestly, will set you up for the best experience possible when you get to college.

Good luck, and happy hunting!

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