7 Tips for Applying to Art School

Casey Lesser
Apr 13, 2018 4:48PM

So you want to get an MFA in art. You’re keen to make new work in an unfamiliar setting, focus all of your energy on your art, and forge lasting relationships with mentors and peers (even if that means enduring their scrutiny and sitting through harsh crits).

But where do you begin? What schools should you apply to? And how do you showcase your uniqueness in a one-size-fits-all application?

We tapped the expertise of admissions officers and professors at six top art schools across the U.S. to uncover the ins and outs of the application process—from what to include in a portfolio to where you should focus the most energy, and who should write your recommendation letters (spoiler alert: not your mom).

1. Ask yourself, “Am I ready for this?”

You need to find the program that best suits you and your art practice, but you should also be absolutely sure that you have the time, energy, and resources to give it your all. (Don’t be on the fence: Some schools tend to frown on deferrals.)

Lucy Bourgeault, associate director of admissions at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), advises applicants to weigh the practical considerations: “Does graduate school fit into your life? Are you ready to do a two-year, full-immersion program? Are you looking to move? Do you have family to consider? Do you want something more full-time or part-time?”

Photo by Jo Sittenfeld. Courtesy of Rhode Island School of Design.


Full-time MFA programs traditionally take two years, though some require three. That’s a serious time commitment, especially when life gets in the way. “We really expect our students to be mostly focused on the program and their studio practice throughout the course of their time here, and if they have a job, freelance projects, or whatever else in their life, that’s really secondary to being a student in the program,” explained Taryn Wolf, director of academic administration at the Yale School of Art, where an MFA takes two years in almost all of the departments.

If that sounds daunting, seek out schools that have part-time or low-residency options, which offer a mix of in-person classes and coursework you can do remotely. Bard College, for example, has an MFA program where coursework is concentrated to summers.

You should be able to articulate why you want to go to grad school, and why now.

In any case, if you’re coming straight out of an undergraduate program, you may want to take some time before jumping into grad school. Wolf, who has worked in admissions at art schools for nearly two decades, noted that there’s a general consensus among faculty across schools that students who have some time off between undergraduate and graduate work tend to fare better. “It’s not about a student’s age so much as the time they’ve given themselves post-undergraduate to be able to dedicate themselves to their practice,” she said, adding that faculty like to see that you can sustain an art practice outside of an academic setting.

As you think about applying, keep in mind that MFA programs are not meant to help you perfect or refine a type of artmaking that you’ve already settled into. Artist Carrie Moyer, who heads up Hunter College’s art department, noted that she often emphasizes this to prospective students: “We don’t think of this as a finishing school where you show up with a style and you get better at it,” she explained. “We’re really looking for people to grow and expand their work, and take advantage of the professional artists on the faculty who offer support and insight and can help them move to the next place.”

Ultimately, you should be able to articulate why you want to go to grad school, and why now.

2. Don’t let financial concerns deter you from applying

There’s been a long and fierce debate as to whether getting an MFA is worth the hefty financial investment. While that question is beyond the scope of this article, it’s important to recognize that tuition costs (and the potential debt you’re taking on) vary widely, and so do financial aid opportunities. For example, programs at public and state universities, though competitive, tend to be more affordable, and some are well-funded.

Joachim Pissarro, Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Art Galleries, in conversation with students in the Spring 2018 Thesis exhibition. Photo by Carlos Rigau.

At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), tuition for new master’s students in the 2017–18 year was $16,898 for California residents, and $32,000 for non-residents; and the art school reported that 100 percent of incoming MFA students received merit-based support—fellowships, assistantships, and departmental awards—averaging $30,000.

But keep in mind that you won’t have a clear picture of the financial aid, scholarships, fellowships, and other types of funding you’re eligible for until after you’ve been accepted into a program.

“As much as possible, push the entire financial question to as late in the process as possible,” said Christopher Harring, graduate admissions director at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). “If you can, separate the financial decision and look at what program is the best fit for your goals, and where you feel the most at home.”

3. Prepare your portfolio

Your portfolio will make or break your application. “Without question, it’s the most important part,” Bourgeault said. “There’s nothing that’s going to offset that work in a positive way if it isn’t great.”

Often, the portfolio is the first thing that faculty reviewing applications will consider. In most cases, you’re asked to submit a specific number of images (sometimes still referred to as “slides,” even though they’re in a digital format) of your work, typically in the range of 10 to 20 pieces. “If they say they want 20 pieces, give them 20 and don’t give them 25,” Bourgeault said. “I think it’s better to have a lower number of really fantastic pieces than to submit pieces that aren’t your best.”

Photo by Jo Sittenfeld. Courtesy of Rhode Island School of Design.


Faculty will want to see a clear indication of a cohesive practice—rather than a showcase of every single idea or skill that an applicant has, noted Sarah Sarchin of UCLA’s art department. The faculty reviewing admissions, she said, will be moving through countless sets of portfolio images. If your submitted works are all over the map, they could “completely disappear in that context,” Sarchin warned, versus a thoughtfully conceived portfolio that “constitutes a clear practice or body of work.”

Does that mean that the works should all be from one series, or in one medium? No. But there should be a conceptual thread to follow, Harring explained. “I think the best advice I can give students is to encapsulate the last year of your practice: Show us what that is,” he offered. “We’re not looking for a retrospective of your career, we’re looking for the work you’re making right now.”

Wolf echoed this sentiment, noting that admissions faculty likely don’t want to see your senior thesis or the work from your distant undergraduate days. “It’s nice to see the work mature a little bit, out in the world,” she explained. “Perspectives change after students leave undergrad and they’re having to make work with the other challenges of life.”

“We’re not looking for a retrospective of your career, we’re looking for the work you’re making right now.”

Importantly, the work should be recent. A good rule of thumb is within the past two or three years.

Your portfolio should also reflect your potential. This is your chance to show faculty the pieces or ideas you want them to help you develop.

“I’m interested in seeing slides that show a person’s ability to grow,” said Moyer. “One of the mistakes that potential students often make is they give you 10 to 15 images of the same body of work. That’s not as interesting as having the person demonstrate that they had a few different ideas, and how those things have become manifest. It’s really important to show that you have an intellectual flexibility around where the ideas will go.”

If you need to photograph your pieces, make sure the images are crisp and well-lit. Consider investing in a professional who can do justice to your work, especially three-dimensional pieces. Put one image on each slide; don’t make collages, use templates, or add text.

4. Seek out faculty members who could be your future mentors

Photo by Jo Sittenfeld. Courtesy of Rhode Island School of Design.

If you can, make a visit to the campuses that interest you. While some schools hold regular open houses, tours, and information sessions, others have much more limited opportunities to experience the facilities. Look out for open houses in the fall (some, like Yale, require you to register) and public open studio days in the spring, when you can meet and see the work of current students. Both are great opportunities to better understand a program, its ethos, and its teaching methods.

Pay attention to the specific departments a school has. In many cases, schools have medium-specific departments that you will have to apply to, like painting or sculpture or ceramics. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have the opportunity to pursue more interdisciplinary work—in many cases you can. But, if you’re torn between painting and sculpture, for example, look at the faculty and former students to help you choose one over the other (though some schools, like Yale, let you apply to two programs at once).

Research the faculty who are working with materials, processes, and conceptual frameworks that resonate with your own artistic goals. Harring advises that prospective MICA students dig into not only a faculty member’s career, but also “what their teaching style is, how they’re involved with their students, what their style of critique is.” More than anything, he added, “the top thing you’re investing in is the access to faculty.”

Faculty are also indicators of a program’s approach, aesthetic, and strengths. Jesse Damazo, assistant director of admissions at CalArts, noted that many of the school’s faculty are focused on institutional critique, video art, or performance, and “researching the kinds of work that the faculty here do—which is very broad, but does have a certain flavor—definitely behooves the student.” For instance, if your practice revolves around realist figurative painting, you might feel adrift at CalArts—whereas a school like RISD could be a better fit.

Get a sense of the kinds of work that school is fostering, and think about if it feels in line with the kind of work you want to pursue.

You should double-check to make sure that a faculty member will be at the school when you would be attending. Wolf noted that at Yale, teaching artists work in various capacities on campus, from temporary critics and lecturers to full-time faculty. “When you’re looking to pursue a degree at a certain school because of the faculty, make sure you have a high level understanding of who is really there, rather than who is just coming in for a semester,” she said.

While it’s vital to familiarize yourself with faculty members’ backgrounds, don’t be pushy. Refrain from emailing them or showing up unannounced at their offices—that won’t help you get in.

It’s also a good idea to look into the current students and recent graduates of programs you’re interested in. Get a sense of the kinds of work that school is fostering, and think about if it feels in line with the kind of work you want to pursue.

This should all circle back, though, to the potential relationships you could form during your time in the program. “When you leave grad school, it’s the connections to faculty and to your classmates, I think, that really make students’ futures,” said Harring.

5. Write a concise statement that communicates your practice, not an autobiography

Though not as important as your portfolio, the essay portion of the application is, at times, reviewed simultaneously. Remember that the reviewing committee is likely reading hundreds of applications, so be concise and use clear language (this is not the chance to stretch your poetic muscles).

The purpose of this text varies across schools, so read instructions carefully, but many schools are looking for an artist statement. Whatever the case, don’t try to tell your life’s story.

“It should really be about the work—not about your life. It’s not like a college essay,” Wolf said. “The writing should be very practice-focused, biographical only in the context of how personal history or circumstance enters the making.” Ultimately, together with the portfolio, she added, “a faculty member needs to be able to understand the practice and say, ‘I want to spend two years talking about this and helping develop it.’”

Courtesy of MICA.

Moyer noted that she wants to learn from the essay why the applicant has chosen art as a means of expressing their ideas. “We are living in a world where there are so many artists, so knowing what the impetus is is really important,” she explained.

The artist statement is the place to put words to the ideas present in your work; being able to articulate those ideas in a clear way is crucial, Damazo explained. Your statement should clarify the broader questions or topics you’re working through in your work, like related social or political issues. Faculty will want to know what’s motivating you as an artist.

Don’t be afraid to be honest, either. “What we want to pull out of that statement is: Why graduate school? That’s really all we’re interested in,” Harring said of MICA’s admissions department. “We’re often incredibly receptive to a student [who’s] saying, ‘I have my own practice and I’ve hit a wall—I can’t answer my own questions anymore.’ We respond very well to that—that’s a great reason to go to graduate school.”

It’s okay to be applying to several schools, but you should be applying with serious intent, and making sure that that comes across.

As you get more familiar with a program, though, make sure you’re not catering your application to what you think the school wants. Bourgeault said she sees this mistake happen often in applications to RISD. “A lot of students think from the school backwards, rather than thinking from themselves forward,” she said.

On the flipside, you shouldn’t make a boilerplate application that you’re submitting to multiple schools (they can tell). Avoiding this could be as simple as writing a new paragraph or two in each of your written statements. It’s okay to be applying to several schools, but you should be applying with serious intent, and making sure that that comes across.

6. Get recommendations from people who know your work well

Though less important than your portfolio and written statement, recommendation letters or references can play a significant role.

For those applicants who were recently in undergraduate art programs, this is easier: You can choose the art professors and advisors you worked with closely. If you’re many years out of school, though, and have not kept in touch with those professors, this can get tricky.

“The most helpful references are people that can speak to an applicant’s artistic potential,” Damazo explained. The people who write your recommendation letters should be very familiar with your work and your work ethic. Ideally, these are artists or people in the art world who have seen your work and can attest to your ability to commit to your practice.

“It should be someone who can speak to your work, the kinds of things you’re doing, any kind of growth they’ve experienced you have,” Wolf offered. “It can be an employer, an artist you know or have assisted, a faculty member you’ve worked with.” Some schools say that enlisting former employers who aren’t necessarily familiar with your artwork is acceptable, so long as they can speak to your character, dedication, and determination. Others prefer your recommendations come from someone you’ve worked with directly in a creative capacity.

Bourgeault noted that at RISD, the recommendations and your undergraduate transcript are reviewed somewhat equally. If your grades from college are conspicuously poor, that’s something you may want to address in your written statement. Generally speaking, MFA programs do not typically require a minimum GPA—but they want to see that you’re a hardworking individual.

7. Be patient and ready

After you’ve submitted your application materials, it’s largely a waiting game. It’s fine to be in touch with the point person for graduate admissions at a school to make sure your application is complete, and to confirm when decisions will be made. You should not, however, be reaching out directly to faculty.

Many schools invite finalists to the school for an interview. You’ll likely be asked to speak to multiple faculty members, and in some cases, you may need to give a presentation.

“Typically, applicants are asked to talk to us about their work, where they think the work will go, where they’re interested in pushing it, and why this school,” Moyer said of Hunter’s interviews. “We’re also interested in what kinds of books they read, because that gives us a sense of what kind of intellectual life they have with their artmaking practice.”

Photo by Jo Sittenfeld. Courtesy of Rhode Island School of Design.

This is a question students get at MICA, too, where they’re also expected to talk about exhibitions they’re seeing, as well as their own strengths and shortcomings.

At Yale, Wolf notes, the interview format varies from department to department. The painting department, for example, asks that the applicant bring their work with them to the campus, where they can install it and discuss each piece with a pair of faculty members. (The school also asks that students leave one work behind, so that it can be considered during a later portion of the review process.) Other departments are more forgiving—the sculpture department, for instance, isn’t asking prospective students to haul cumbersome works to campus. With that medium, applicants are generally asked to give a short presentation with an accompanying slideshow of visual aids. Practice your presentation so that you can deliver it without notes.

Damazo emphasizes that the interview should be understood as a two-way conversation. The applicant should be ready with questions for the faculty. “MFA programs vary so much, so for students it’s just as much an opportunity for them to learn,” he said.

Keep in mind that the majority of applicants won’t make it to the interview stage. If you don’t, try not to take it personally. In most cases, the reason why an applicant won’t be admitted to a school has to do with their work not being a good fit for the program, or needing more development.

In the end, the best things you can do to increase your chances are to make sure the work in your portfolio is as strong as it can possibly be, and to apply to programs that clearly align with your aims as an artist.

Moyer notes that it’s best to cast a wide net and look beyond the best-known, top-tier schools: “There’s a limited capacity, and each place is very different—that’s the main thing. You want to figure out what’s the best setup for you.” Given the shifting landscape of the contemporary art market, she added, “it’s a big gamble to go to grad school. It’s really important to choose the right place.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.

Header image: Photo by Jo Sittenfeld. Courtesy of Rhode Island School of Design.