What to know about art school

Tips on how to prepare and what to expect in art school

“I don’t know much about art school, so I’m going to trust you to navigate that on your own.” These were the brilliant words of advice my high school guidance counselor granted me during the fall of my senior year. To his credit, with a B.F.A. in hand seven years later, I can say with confidence that he was right to trust me in my determination (at 17, I hardly wanted his input anyway).

We shouldn’t need to be left to our own devices when it comes to navigating the choice to attend a school for art or design. There are unique challenges that present themselves when you choose to pursue a career in the arts. Here are some things I learned in the process that may help you decide whether art school is right for you—don’t worry, it’s a lot of fun. 

Cross your T’s and dot your I’s

Getting started doesn’t have to be scary. It mostly involves doing your research on what’s required to make your goals happen and then following through step by step. Pursuing a career in the arts was always in the cards for me. In high school, I took some portfolio development classes at an art college not too far from my hometown, but it wasn’t until I attended the National College Fair that I discovered SCAD (The Savannah College of Art and Design). I immediately knew that this was the school I had to attend.

As soon as my art teachers helped me arrange a solid portfolio of things I’d worked on throughout high school, I submitted my application and learned I had been accepted in early November of my senior year. Once I had my finances squared away, I was ready and off to Georgia. All in all, use any school resources to your advantage and look to your community for art school events to help you get your foot in the door.

You’re not jumping into your major right away

For most art schools, you must complete a mandatory foundation year. Foundations involve learning the basics of art and design before you can move on to taking classes in your desired major. This typically includes intro classes for drawing, color theory, and both 3D and graphic design. Many students who aren’t artistically inclined upon entering art school may find the foundation year particularly challenging. It’s typically expected that you have most of the basics already in your wheelhouse. If you don’t, you may have to work a bit harder to get through it.

Put your wallet down

When you receive your syllabi for your art courses, there's a chance you’ll be hit with a ton of “required” materials and supply lists. If I can give one piece of advice to any art student, it would be this: do not purchase everything your professor tells you to. I know from personal experience, and from many unopened boxes of supplies, that you can save a lot of money by being wise with what you purchase. Art supplies are expensive, and you likely won’t touch half of the things they tell you to buy. My suggestion would be to wait until your professor tells you what you’ll absolutely need for the next class before purchasing anything. A friend might have something you can borrow. Maybe do what I did and use an old cigar box to hold your drawing materials rather than buy a pricy art supply carrier. And in the spirit of openness, don’t buy or rent textbooks for your art courses unless your professor absolutely requires it—most of the time, you won’t even open them, and professors are often required by the university to put a textbook on the syllabus regardless of whether it will be used. See if you can find a textbook online.

There are countless loopholes to making sure you have what you need for these courses while staying on a budget. And I can confidently say I graduated summa cum laude without purchasing a single textbook for one of my art courses… but not everyone is as stubborn as me.

Choose your own adventure

If there’s one thing to know about art school, it’s that there are more majors and career paths than you can imagine. I shared hallways and classrooms with students pursuing careers in sound design, industrial design, architecture, copywriting, fibers, museum preservation, archival studies, aquatic design, and countless other unique paths we don’t typically associate with traditional art.

Being someone who gravitates toward drawing and visual design, I majored in illustration. My major was a tad closer to what we’d typically associate with “art,” but many of my professors had enjoyed careers involving everything from the design of board games, food advertisements, and toy packaging, and many of my peers went on to take jobs in stop-motion animation, clothing pattern design, and even moss design. Initially, I wanted to be a storyboard illustrator for television and film. After taking one course on the subject, I quickly transitioned to publication design and animated illustration, focusing more on branding and visual design. After graduating, I began the daunting search for my first career gig… which proved to be a lot harder than all the steps that came before.

Good things come to those who wait… right?

I’m here to tell you that no, you are not the one person in the world that can’t seem to get a job after graduating. Only after eight months of constant applying, interviewing, refining my portfolio and networking did I finally find a position that was the right fit for me. I learned a lot about searching for jobs in the creative industry during that harrowing journey. Everyone and their mother will give you their two cents on job searching after graduating, but no one’s experience is going to be the same.

The best advice I can give is for you to have a solid portfolio, resume, and website, and to apply excessively—even to jobs you don’t think you’re a perfect fit for. Some of my peers found gigs before they even graduated, and some people like me would go on to have countless conversations, email exchanges, and interviews before finding the right thing. One company even interviewed me six times before I was rejected. It’d be an understatement to say that I felt burnt out along the journey, but nonetheless, I opened my laptop each morning and applied for every creative job listing under the sun before waiting tables at night. Once I found the right position and team, I was finally able to take a deep breath.

If you’re zealous enough, the right opportunity will present itself. Patience, determination, and hard work are what will get you there. I know that I hated hearing that during the process, but it’s true.

Do you

Art school can be a fantastic choice for those who wish to work creatively. But choosing to take this alternate path is not without its trials and tribulations. The haters are going to tell you that you aren’t good enough, you’re doing it all wrong, or that you should just give up, but only you know what’s best for you.

Life is full of regret, so don’t let not pursuing your dreams be one of them. Art school is what you make of it, and you never know—maybe you’ll hate it and try out something else, or maybe you’ll end up with one of those creative jobs people will ask a million questions about because it’s so unique, just like you.

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