applying for grad school: timeline and resources

So you’re thinking about taking the next academic step in pursuing a musical career! Good for you! There are some big factors to keep in mind when deciding to apply for a master’s degree in music:

  • applying during your senior year of undergrad allows you to take advantage of the momentum you have while still in school.
  • taking a gap year allows you to prepare for auditions/work and save some money/explore new things. As my friend Emilie says, “Applying is a long process of both physical and mental preparation. Taking a gap year is okay because it might make your audition way better and you won’t be so pressed for time. But don’t force yourself to apply right now just because you decided you wanted to go to grad school.” 
  • money for grad school–both applying and attending–is a very real and practical concern, and grad school may present some different financial situations. Emilie: “Different for different people, but maybe it’s more expensive (like if you go from public university to conservatory, or move out, or parents stop paying for your tuition). Application process is expensive – $85 app fee + prescreening fee = over $100 per application – choose wisely!

Once you’ve decided to move forward with your decision to apply (exciting!), here is a general timeline, list of documents you will probably need, and resources to make your application process a little easier (i.e., keep you from tearing your hair out and sinking into a puddle of depression and Doritos).

1. Figure out your schools and audition repertoire (June-September, or 3-6 months before application deadline)

  • Figure out where you’re applying to, and find out application deadlines! Most schools have December 1 as the application deadline for master’s students. When choosing schools, don’t be afraid to try for the big ones–but also have a “backup” or “safe” school that you’d be willing to go to as well.
  • If you’re planning to apply to more than a few schools, plan the rest of your life accordingly! Take fewer classes, or at least fewer homework-heavy classes, during the quarter/semester that you’ll be flying around auditioning.
  • Make sure you have, or are learning, all the necessary audition repertoire. For piano, the basics are a complete Classical sonata, a large-scale Romantic work (such as a Chopin scherzo or ballade), and a virtuosic etude. Additional requirements depend largely on the school–for example, many schools in California request a contemporary piece as well, and some schools may also want a longer-length Bach work such as a suite or toccata. Finding this out is a necessary evil, since each school is different.

2. Get recommendation letters (1 month before application deadline)

Generally, you should figure out who your recommenders should be and let them know at least a couple of weeks in advance. Many schools ask for up to 3 references. Your first choice should be your current private teacher for your instrument. Your other recommenders can include music history/theory professors, other musical directors/teachers you have worked with or accompanied for (e.g. the teacher of the vocalist you accompany, or the director of your chamber ensemble, or the conductor of the university orchestra), and (unless the school specifically asks for three musical recommenders) even non-music professors who are familiar with your academic work.

Tip: Don’t be shy about asking for recommendation letters! Most people feel unnecessarily apologetic or undeserving. Writing recommendation letters is an important and oft-encountered task for professors.

3. Make arrangements for the pre-screening (1 month before application deadline) 

Book the auditorium a month in advance, make arrangements with your accompanist. Don’t assume you will be able to record everything in one session. Try for at least two 2-hour sessions.

Tips for recording: Recording is a very different animal from live performing, so be prepared mentally. There is less pressure involved, but you may find it hard to concentrate because of the temptation to start over after every slip-up. It might help to bring friends/family to just sit in the audience while you record. At the same time, don’t freak out if you don’t get a 100% perfect take. The pre-screening is not the audition, and many schools simply use it to cull out the people whom they feel are not ready for the live audition.

4. Get all your documents in order (start 1 month before application deadline)

Most schools will ask for:
[] a 1-2 page statement of purpose. Get at least 1 or 2 people to look it over for you.
[] college transcripts.
[] resume/CV. The Eastman School of Music has a really great guide for writing a musical CV, with lots of example CV’s attached: The Musician’s Resume Handbook (PDF). SFCM also has a helpful Music Resume Guide (Google PDF). And several vocalists have collaborated on Carnegie Hall’s Musical Exchange forum to create a resume and bio guide (with helpful examples!).
[] repertoire list. It can be as straightforward as listing alphabetically by composer, although you can create different categories for solo works, concerti, chamber works, etc. Some schools will ask that you indicate which pieces have been performed in public.

5. Audition!

Once you know the results of your pre-screenings, figure out your audition schedule first, then book your flights. This can be a stressful procedure, especially if you’re trying to also balance work/school. Don’t freak out! Many things can be made possible with good, clear, calm planning.

  • Many professors–especially music professors–are interested in helping their students and may be willing to accommodate your audition schedule by extending a homework deadline for you, or giving you a special test date, if necessary. (This only works if you’ve proven yourself to be a conscientious student in the past.)
  • Some schools can be flexible with their audition schedule–I called to ask if I could change my audition to a week later, and it was done without a problem.
  • Keep time zones in mind. Emilie: “I picked an audition day that was the day after a school orchestra concert, which ended up being a red-eye flight so I could get to my audition on time. Oops.”
  • Make sure you know where the music school is (this can be especially tricky if it’s located on a large university campus). Arrive early and see if you can find a student to let you into an empty practice room. Explain that you have an audition that day–they’ve been in your situation before; they’ll understand!
  • Don’t head home right after your audition. At least stay the full day if you can–not only can you get the most out of your plane ticket by doing some sight-seeing or attending a performance of the city’s symphony that night, but, as Emilie says, “someone on your audition panel might ask to speak to you and you don’t want to be rushing back to the airport (happened to me 3/4 of my auditions – prof asked to see me later, and I couldn’t. Kinda dumb but I had no idea!)”

When it comes time for your audition, breathe, let yourself fill the room, and ask for no more of yourself than that you try your best. For more tips on how to prepare yourself for an audition, try reading the post on audition advice.

Good luck!

This is by no means an exhaustive list. What advice/steps would you add?

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