The arts enhance just about any aspect of education so most college-prep boarding schools offer classes in the arts. But for students who are passionate about the arts and want a stronger arts focus during their high school years, an arts boarding school may be a dream come true.
Arts boarding schools can engage you in the arts as deeply as you want to go. Graduates of these programs often head to conservatories or college and university arts programs to major in the area they focused on in high school. Others discover a new passion while attending an arts boarding school and pursue that field instead. And some shift gears entirely, following a more academic direction in science, engineering, pre-law, or pre-med, but forever enriched by the years they spent immersed in an arts environment.
There are just a few private, independent arts-focused boarding schools in the United States: Idyllwild Arts Academy in southern California; Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan; and Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Massachusetts, just west of Boston. Students are accepted from freshman through junior year at all three. They come from every state as well as from many other countries. A handful of students commute from nearby. For students residing in South Carolina and deemed “artistically talented,” the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities accepts boarders for up to the last three years of high school.
Why arts boarding schools are special
Arts-focused high schools abound with creativity. There’s music in the air wherever you go. Amazing student artwork adorns the walls and hallways. And excellent teachers and internationally renowned visual artists, musicians, writers, dancers and filmmakers offer all kinds of workshops and master classes. These schools embrace both classical and cutting-edge work. Your days of feeling like a music (or dance, theater, etc.) geek are over. Your classmates are as enthusiastic and passionate about their interests as you are.
In the article “Is an Arts High School a Good Fit for You?” on MajoringInMusic.com, Nadine Abigana, coordinator of music admission at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, says, “The community is especially powerful and compelling because its members – students, faculty and staff alike – share a deep passion for making and celebrating art.”
Joe Hill, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, attended Interlochen Arts Academy in his senior year of high school. Active in musical theater while growing up, he was obsessed with acting by the time he started at Interlochen.
“Quickly, I made friends with musicians, filmmakers, writers, visual artists, dancers,” he recalls. “What I found was that it was possible to create an opportunity for all of us to do what we were passionate about together in one context. Suddenly, we were making dance films that had music composed by our friends and the music was under a poem written by another friend.
“It helped me realize that what I really wanted to do was to create, and I had literally everything at my disposal.”
Hill founded his own theater troupe while in college and has since moved into international storytelling through filmmaking.
How arts boarding schools prepare you for college
An arts boarding school will help you figure out whether pursuing an arts path for college is really the right way to proceed.
Even if you’ve been the big fish in your previous school’s small pond, you’re likely to find equally proficient (or more proficient) students in your classes. You will learn from your peers, which can lead to lifelong friendships and future professional connections. It can also result in recognizing that the competition in your field is greater than you’re willing or able to face.
All arts boarding schools pride themselves on the intensity of their academic programs and their ability to provide a strong balance of academic and artistic training. An emphasis is placed on learning how to juggle the demands of your art field along with academics. Learning time management in high school makes it so much easier to adjust in college. You’ll get to see what it’s like to spend hours practicing or in the studio.
Arts-focused boarding schools also offer 1:1 mentoring and extensive college and career guidance. That kind of dedicated support for pre-college students is worth its weight in gold.
What arts boarding schools expect from applicants
All boarding arts high schools expect you to already be engaged in the area of the arts you’re interested in studying. In fact, you’ll need to audition or submit a portfolio (depending on your area of interest) to be considered for acceptance. Each school specifies on its website exactly what it expects in your application and audition or portfolio.
Live auditions or portfolio interviews are encouraged if at all possible, and auditions/interviews can typically be combined with a visit to the school(s) you’re considering.
Touring the campus, visiting the residence halls, sitting in on classes, hanging out with current students, talking with admission officers and teachers can give you an insider’s view of what to expect. Before you even set up your visit, contact the admission staff. They will welcome your questions even if you’re not sure an arts boarding school is the right place for you.
Another way to check out a school is to attend a high school summer program on campus. All of the arts boarding schools offer summer programs in areas such as instrumental and vocal music, songwriting, filmmaking, photography, creative writing, theater, music production and dance. Spending a significant part of your summer diving into your area of interest will provide you with experience of the surroundings where you’d be living, your comfort level at being away from home, and your ability to immerse yourself in the intensity of an arts school environment.
The three main U.S. arts boarding schools accept students up to their junior year. This provides breathing room for students who aren’t ready to leave home freshman year but might be in another year or two.
How to afford an arts boarding school
A big concern for many parents is how to pay for boarding school with college looming on the horizon. Indeed, it doesn’t work for everyone. Fortunately, all of the arts boarding schools work with families to provide need-based financial assistance. Some students have come up with additional creative ways of helping to pay for school, from crowdfunding to performing to applying for outside grants and scholarships.
If your family lives within commuting distance, it may be an option to attend one of these schools as a day student. However, some of the activities, performances, and bonding happen in the evening hours, and commuters may find themselves missing out on some of the perks of attending an arts boarding school.
How to decide if an arts boarding school is right for you
Determining whether an arts-focused boarding school is the right approach is similar in some ways to figuring out where to go to college. You’ll want to do everything you can to find out whether the school you have in mind fits well with your current and future needs and goals as well as your finances. While not for everyone, a boarding arts high school can help your talent and potential for growth take flight as well as open many doors to the future.