Four common mistakes made by art college applicants

Applying to art college — or any college, for that matter — is complicated.

Between completing your online application, assembling your portfolio, soliciting your letters of recommendation, wrangling your high school transcripts, and applying for financial aid, there are plenty of opportunities for mistakes to creep in — even for the most careful applicant.

Yet, the competition for acceptance to the country’s top art colleges is fierce. Every little mistake can risk giving admissions personnel the wrong impression about you and shuffling your application to the bottom of lists.

At minimum, you should double- and triple-check every aspect of your application for tiny mistakes. And then have someone you trust check it over again. Then, be vigilant about avoiding these common mistakes:

Mistake 1: Not following directions

With all the applications you're submitting (some students complete up to 30 or 40, according to some reports), a certain feeling of been-there-done-that starts to set in. Applications blend together, and you start to skim over basic directions.

Don’t. Art college applications are not one-size-fits all exercise (just like job applications). You would be surprised with the subtle ways they can differ, especially once you get beyond the application itself and get into the supplementary material.

  • Essay questions are the most unique, with differing word-length and style requirements.
  • Portfolio standards can vary. One school may ask for 10 work samples, while others may ask for 15.
  • The submission process for letters of recommendation may involve many different steps.

Mistake 2: Letting Your parents or art teachers do everything

There’s nothing wrong with working together with your family members on your art college applications. But admissions officers want to see that you’re at least as involved in the process are your parents. They want to be sure you’re excited about attending their school, not just going along with what your parents want.

“We want families involved,” an admissions officer at Bates College told U.S. News and World Report. But the student needs to take the lead.”

Mistake 3: Submitting a sloppy portfolio

Your portfolio is the single most important part of your art college application. Therefore, you want to be sure to present your work samples in as clean and professional a manner as possible.

Art professor Clara Lieu, who has experience reviewing portfolios for art college acceptance, warns against:

  • Poor photos of your artwork, with uneven lighting, bad cropping, or poor focus.
  • Unfinished artwork that needs another hour or two of polishing. (Though, don’t let this turn you off from including art from a sketchbook.)
  • Blank backgrounds. “Nothing is more distracting than blank white paper that makes your drawing look unfinished,” Lieu says.

Mistake 4: A portfolio that doesn’t show your true potential

Your portfolio shouldn’t just show off the artwork you like best. It needs to tell the full “story of you” as an artist — who you are now and who you are capable of becoming. It should also demonstrate an understanding of the priorities of the particular art school to which you are applying.

Clara Lieu also recommends avoiding:

  • Drawing from photos rather than live observation. Almost every art school applicant does this, Lieu says, and to reviewers, it’s blindingly obvious. Draw from real life and instantly set your portfolio apart.
  • Submitting images of celebrities, fictional characters, boyfriends, or girlfriends. It may be fun, but it’s not what art schools are looking for. Save your fan art for your free time.
  • Being repetitive. Schools are impressed by applicants who “have more than one skill set, and can move fluidly from one media into the next,” Lieu says.

For more pointers on putting together a killer art college application portfolio, read our recent article, 6 Things Your Art Portfolio Must Have.

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