Channel your inner college admissions counselor to help your students impress the academic panel and the dance faculty.

The dance audition isn’t the only hurdle potential students have to clear. For many schools, the academic application is equally important.

No one knows a student’s potential better than the teacher who works with her every day at the studio. So it can be heartbreaking to see a dancer rejected from a college program. Or worse, to see her accepted into her dream dance program, only to be rejected by the university itself. College applications are a two-part process: A student has to do more than win over the dance faculty—she needs to pass a separate academic screening, too. “When we’re evaluating whether they’re a match for the program, we have to acknowledge that we’re going to lose some very talented students to the university’s high academic standards,” says Ric Rose, dance coordinator at the University of Florida’s School of Theatre and Dance. But with your help, your student can tailor her application to maximize her odds of getting in.

Making the Grade

In the fall, even before a dancer signs up for an audition, she’ll have to fill out an online academic application, including test scores, grades, a resumé, letters of recommendation and a personal essay. At a conservatory like the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, this application will become a part of the dance faculty’s overall view of the individual’s potential; but at a large institution like the University of Florida, the dance department will never see this application.

Each school has its own requirements for minimum GPAs and test scores. Many now allow applicants to self-report their transcripts. (While this may sound like an opportunity to falsify grades, an official transcript will eventually be required, and if the official grades don’t match, the student will not be accepted.)

When it comes to the more subjective parts of an application, like the essay, letters of recommendation and resumé, dancers applying to large institutions should find a way to convey the value of their dance training to a nondance audience. A list of dance awards may mean very little to an academic officer. “Our dance faculty will know what it means, but in admissions, they’re not going to know how prestigious an award is,” says Kevin Austin, UF’s academic advisor for the School of Theatre and Dance. Instead, Austin suggests, write something like: “Only two people in the state of Florida get this award, out of 2,000.”

Applicants should also list how long they spend each week on dance to ensure that the reviewers understand the consistency, discipline and dedication required—all qualities that they look for. But there’s no need to overpack a resumé with every master class ever taken. Admissions officers won’t be familiar with that kind of experience, and they won’t take the time to read a five-page resumé. The best resumés, says UNCSA admissions officer Clyde Howell, tend to be just one-and-a-half to two pages long.

In the essay, admissions officers want to see maturity—that a candidate understands and is prepared for the challenge of college—and resilience, or how she has overcome obstacles. A dancer’s training is a virtual case study of these qualities, so be sure to make that clear.

Although the dance department at large schools like UF will have no direct communication with the admissions office, there are ways of communicating interest in a student. At UF, the dance faculty awards merit scholarships. “It alerts the admissions office that we are very interested in the student,” says Rose, “and if they are sufficient academically, that usually helps get them into the university.” Still, many great dancers will not get in.

Dance Like No One’s Everyone’s Watching

For the dance portion of applying to college, applicants may need to submit separate paperwork to the dance faculty. At UNCSA, this means bringing dance photos to the audition and filling out audition forms. At UF, prospective students submit dance-focused letters of recommendation, an essay (which should demonstrate that the student is familiar with the faculty and unique qualities of the program) and a resumé (which may look different from the one sent to the admissions office, since this one is dance-specific).

The audition typically involves one or more classes in ballet and modern or contemporary and may include a prepared solo, improvisation and interview. Over the course of what could be a day-long event, faculty want to see what dancers do best, but they also want to see what happens when they’re outside of their comfort zones. “Improvisation shows us how creatively they can think on their feet,” says Rose.

Adjudication methods vary. At UF, the faculty discusses each dancer’s artistic potential individually, notifying candidates that they have been selected for the dance program before official acceptance comes from the university in February or March. At UNCSA, adjudicators fill out a rubric for each student, which results in a final assessment. The faculty then sends their recommendations to the admissions office, where a second cut is made based on GPA and test score requirements. This short list of candidates will have their full application packages evaluated by admissions and the dance faculty.

At UNCSA, the written application can determine the kind of dance scholarship a student receives (most are talent- and/or need-based). “Some of our scholarships take into consideration a student’s academic performance as well as leadership and service,” says Brenda Daniels, associate dance dean at UNCSA. “You can see it when they have this third element beyond technique and grades: commitment to something greater than themselves.”

Because the process is so thorough, Daniels says that students should feel confident that the dance faculty will get a comprehensive view of them. Dancers won’t be judged solely on any one thing. “We’re looking for potential,” she says. “Just relax and let us see what you can do.” DT

Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.

Photo by Suzanna Mars, courtesy of University of Florida

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