College Talk: Where should I apply?

So I want this to be kind of a self-help series for my high school senior pals (and anyone applying to college in the future), because I have learned that there are many things you don’t think about (or nobody thinks to tell you) when you’re applying to college. I’ll consider this a “part one” post, and continue as the year goes on to share what I learned in my crazy college application process. Please feel free to contact me (there's a little envelope at the bottom of my website) if you have any questions, I’d love to help you out!

*Disclaimer: All of this is based on my own collection of experiences, and therefore this post may not apply to everyone. The most important thing in the college application process is making sure you are on the same page with your parents, mentors, and guidance counselors!*

I think the best way to start off this post series is by explaining why I applied where I applied, and why it was the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life: 

As I wrote in my journal back in November of application season, “I can’t believe I’m actually applying to college. When did I become old enough to do that?! I’m so not ready, but I just kind of have to pretend like I am so that everyone else believes in me and boosts my self-esteem… Even though in reality, I’m terrified out of my mind.” The first thing it is important to note in applying to college is that somehow the graduating classes before you always appear to have the whole thing figured out, or at least that’s what I thought. I remember thinking, “Wow. It seems like those girls came out of the womb with all their common app essays done, seniors are so mature. They know exactly what they want to do with their lives.” WRONG. Although it might seem that way (because seniors want to look cool and prepared for life), trust me when I say that nobody knows what they’re doing. So that takes A TON of pressure off of you, right? Kind of… at least you know you’re not alone. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re absolutely clueless, sorry. 

BUT WAIT. NEVER FEAR. The internet is here. I spent COUNTLESS hours in my sophomore and junior years researching schools. The college board website is a great place to start for academic majors, and for music majors, I would suggest making a list of people you like on your instrument, and finding out who they studied with. And then who that teacher studied with. And so on and so forth until you have a list of teachers you’d like to learn from. Ultimately, the teacher is probably the most important factor in a music degree, because you will be working so closely with them during some of the most formative years of your life. If you don’t get along or like their style, even if you love everything else about the school, you will be miserable. But back to my research, my number one piece of advice is to do your homework. Make those spreadsheets. Compare those statistics. Even if it doesn’t bring you closer to knowing where you want to go to school, it’ll give you a clearer perspective, which is always helpful. 

Okay, story time. Here comes the REAL number one piece of advice. I applied to (in alphabetical order) Baylor University, Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Northwestern University, Peabody Conservatory, Shenandoah University, SUNY Fredonia, University of Louisville, and University of Michigan. Ten schools. But I had a good reason (or so I thought).

I was insecure. Back to my journal, I wrote in October, “I’m starting to question my desire and capability to be a composer. I just can’t help but feel like somehow I tricked everyone, including myself, into thinking I could do this thing, when we all know I can’t.” This mostly stemmed from the fact that my only experience as a composer had been at camp the previous summer. As a cabin-mate commented on Facebook the other day, “ur composing life went from 0 to 100 rl quick,” which is completely accurate. Except in the moment, I didn’t know if I was going from 0 to 90 or 0 to 4. I didn’t have enough experience to be able to tell. So I applied to ten very different schools in the hopes that along the way, I would find what I wanted and what I was capable of, and one of my schools would fit that. 

After I had written 12 essays, submitted 7 compositions, and recorded 8 clarinet pre-screenings, I did 9 composition interviews, performed 5 live clarinet auditions, stumbled through 1 live piano audition, took 5 theory tests, and rode in 22 airplanes between 9 airports (and a partridge in a pear tree) all within the span of a month and a half. I wish I had a journal excerpt to show how stressed I was, but I didn’t journal at all between January 24 and March 12… if that tells you anything about how much free time I had. I was stressed, I was doubting myself, and most of all, I didn’t have time to be creative. 

My interview answers became robotic, unfamiliar questions caught me off guard and broke down my confidence, and I lost any previous connection I had with the words I was actually speaking. One interviewer asked me why I composed music: for myself? For others? For the industry? I took a minute before sharing that I believe very strongly in music’s power to bring people together. I write music that I would want to listen to, with the hope that someone else wants to listen to it too, and then we’ll be on the same page even if we don’t speak the same language or have the same background. I was brought back to what I believed in this one question, and I realized that my audition schedule was actually restricting me from doing what I cared about. 

I became extremely frustrated with the fact that I hadn't written any new music since November, and I started trying to carve out time to write during the only free time I had: 4 AM until 6 AM. During audition season, on top of being physically exhausted from the travel, I only slept 3-4 hours a night as an attempt to get back into productivity. And how much did I write in those morning writing sessions? Absolutely nothing I liked. Actually, during the entire span of second semester, all I wrote was my collaborative piece with my roommate, my theory project, and my take-home assignment for my MSM audition. I was not in a frame of mind to be creative and I got completely stuck for months. Even now, I feel like I'm still coming out of that hole, which is terrifying since I'm simultaneously trying to prepare for college in a week and a half.

This is why I would like to strongly discourage everyone who reads this from applying to as many schools as I did. It doesn’t matter how insecure you are in your abilities, as long as you find the right schools up front, you won’t need ten to feel like you have plenty of options. My thought process was something along the lines of, “I won’t pass pre-screenings at any of the conservatories, and Northwestern and UMich might be tough. So I’ll have 4-6 options, and it’ll be great.” Wrong. I passed all of my pre-screenings except Northwestern, and my second semester mindset really suffered because of the restrictions that put on me. That being said, you don’t want to get yourself into a situation where you HAVE to pass Juilliard pre-screenings or else you’ll end up at clown college. When choosing where to apply, talk to your teachers about the most reasonable options for you, and also enlist the help of any other mentors or musicians you look up to. Nobody will fault you for a quick email that says, “Here are some of my pre-screening tapes, could you take a look at them? I’m looking at auditioning here: ____, what do you think?”

In terms of number, at least for me, I think 4-7 would have been preferable as long I had at least one or two schools I felt confident I'd be accepted to, one or two that might be a little bit of a stretch, and one or two very competitive schools. Please keep in mind that you will actually have to live through audition season, and you don’t want to overwork yourself on auditions when you should be simultaneously learning and growing at home. Happy college hunting, and have a wonderful day :)