How to help your student plan—and pick up the pieces—after a college admission rejection

Sarah Lustbader of Catherine Cabeen - Hyphen was rejected by all of her first-choice colleges.

It’s a high school senior’s worst nightmare. Sarah Lustbader, now a dancer with Catherine Cabeen - Hyphen and CabinFever, was rejected by all of her first-choice colleges. The New Mexico native dreamed of living in New York City, and she had applied unsuccessfully to New York University/Tisch School of the Arts, SUNY Purchase, Barnard and Fordham. “I found myself with no college to go to, which was devastating,” she says. “I felt like a failure.”

College admissions season gives students the jitters, with good reason. Top-tier programs accept a limited number of students (Juilliard, for example, accepts approximately eight percent of applicants to their Dance Division), meaning many young dancers inevitably face rejection from their top-choice schools. Teachers can support their students through the applications/admissions roller coaster by focusing on three Rs: research, reality checks and recovery from disappointment.

Research: Know the Programs, Know the Options

Acceptance into a college program rarely hinges on multiple pirouettes or a six o’clock penchée. Students can be rejected for reasons beyond a simple lack of training or technical proficiency. Karen Bradley, associate professor at the University of Maryland, notes that a poor understanding of UM’s program and faculty may be grounds for rejection. Students must research programs they’re interested in to determine whether and how they fit their interests, and vice versa. This way, during an audition or interview, they can articulate why they’re a good candidate for the school and demonstrate an understanding of its offerings.

Your students may be naturally drawn to top-tier programs, but make sure their list includes multiple options. Encourage them to search for schools based on program characteristics, rather than simply reputation or location. Dancers need to look deeply at what each school offers, keeping in mind a list of questions. (Is the program ballet- or modern-focused? What is the curriculum? Does it emphasize dancemaking?) The answers should help dancers assemble a range of programs that reflect their interests, including second- and third-choice schools. Of course they should try for their top choice. But, as Lustbader notes, “I should have had a couple of other options as well, instead of having all my eggs in one basket.”

A well-researched list of program options should also be prioritized based on admissions deadlines and audition dates. Dancers should plan out their audition schedules well in advance and know when they can expect to hear from each school, so they can adjust their plans, if necessary.

Reality Check: Know the Student

Know your student’s strengths and weaknesses, and be honest about them. Encourage her to aim high, while also guiding her toward programs that best suit her abilities. Look at dance techniques your student has been exposed to and ask where he or she shines the brightest. If he is lacking in ballet technique, say so. If you see great creative potential in her choreography, make sure she knows it. The more students know about their talents from experienced observers, the better they can determine which college programs are right for them.

Also, encourage students to articulate—for themselves and on applications—what they want from a dance degree, and where their other interests lie. Bradley says applicants may be rejected from UM if it seems “they haven’t thought about what they want to do in dance; they only seem to want to be accepted into the program, and then figure it out.” Susan Van Pelt Petry, chair of dance at The Ohio State University, adds that demonstrated interests beyond dance are a plus. “We like to see evidence of intellectual curiosity, and ability to make connections across different disciplines,” she says.

Recovery: Embrace Possibilities

If your students are rejected, be ready to console them and help them regroup. Let them know they have options, and discuss possible strategies for moving forward. For instance, they could apply to a new round of schools, attend a backup school for a year and try to transfer, or even take a year off to focus on their training. Some dancers might also consider entering their top-choice school (if admitted) as a nonmajor, and re-auditioning for the dance program later.

After Alex Tenreiro Theis was rejected from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she enrolled as a dance major at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In hindsight, she realizes she was unprepared for NYU’s conservatory training and had little choreographic experience. After attending CU-Boulder for one year, Theis re-auditioned for NYU—feeling much better prepared the second time around. “Having that freshman year to grow up and explore my technique matured my dance styling quite a bit,” she says. After her second audition, she was admitted to NYU, where she’s currently a sophomore.

Remind students, too, that being rejected by their preferred college doesn’t mean they won’t find success somewhere else. Lustbader attended Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle after auditioning via video (the dance auditions had already ended). Looking back, she marvels at the unexpected opportunities that emerged. “I was challenged in ways I never expected. [Cornish’s] program was so different than the others I’d looked at,” she says. “I thought I knew what path was in front of me, but then it redirected in ways I could have never imagined.” DT

Lea Marshall is interim chair of the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance.

 Photo courtesy of Catherine Cabeen - Hyphen

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