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This article originally appeared in the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling.

BFA? vs. BA?

What could be more emblematic of the winter season than the music of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker?” This music was almost never written, as Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s parents sent him to law school because they didn’t consider music an acceptable profession. He ultimately quit his legal job to attend the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Thus began his now world-renowned career in music.

Over a century later, many of today’s families have similar concerns for their own young performing artists. Can they “risk” letting their teen pursue a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) degree, versus a liberal arts (BA) degree? As an independent college counselor specializing in performing arts, this is the question I am asked most often. It’s often difficult for parents (and students) hearing their peers target the “hardest” school they can get into, to enter a world where U.S .News & World Report lists and other ratings are immaterial. For any student, but especially those who seek a career in the arts, “best fit” does not equate to “most prestigious”.

What is a Bachelor of Fine Arts? A BFA or college conservatory degree is intended for pre-professionals in a field of art (such as theater, dance, music, film, studio art). A typical BFA model in the performing arts is generally 75% arts vs. 25% general education or more specifically, it could be 60% “studio “courses, 20% related arts academics and 20% non – arts academics. In a program that is part of a larger university, there may be academic requirements that are included in the latter group, such as freshmen seminars or writing classes that are required for all students at that college. A BFA model also typically includes residencies/workshops/seminars with professionals in that field. This is a critical component as it gives students professional connections they can draw upon after graduation. Students in BFA programs should expect an intensive study of their art with the goal of training to be a working professional. Acceptance into these programs weighs academic record and artistic merit (usually through an audition or portfolio review). How much emphasis is put on academic record in the selection process varies by program.

I recently attended a symposium where William Swan, Director of Admissions for the Pratt Institute said if a student is deciding whether to apply to BFA/Conservatory programs vs. BA/liberal arts programs, he might ask “Do you have the disease?” He meant that if a student has “the disease” (absolute passion for painting or theatre or dance or music ) and wants to start doing the work that he is passionate about as soon as possible, the far more intense and in-depth BFA program is probably the right route. However, “if a student is torn between painting and Boolean Algebra”, she would be better served at a Liberal Arts college.