Applying to Graduate School in Music

Consider taking the next step in your professional path as a musician – applying to graduate school in music.

First, allow me to congratulate you on all you have accomplished in reaching this point in your budding career as a musician. If you are seriously considering applying to graduate school in music, it likely means you have spent the last two to three years diligently writing papers, taking exams, preparing projects, attending rehearsals, and spending an inordinate amount of time in the practice room developing your craft. Through these trying years, you have undoubtedly grown into the capable and gifted musician to which you were called. You have much to celebrate and I join you in that joy!

As your baccalaureate degree experience nears the end, you are likely frustrated with a degree program that is not specific enough to the areas of music you have come to realize you are most passionate. You are required to take courses that, while may be interesting in the overall sense, are not specific enough and do not delve deeply enough into the very area(s) you want to spend your post-college years. The good news is you are not alone in feeling this way. The even better news is it sounds like graduate study is right for you! Graduate studies in music take the breadth of knowledge and skill sets you developed in your bachelor degree and hone them into the specific area of music you want to pursue. Graduate degrees are not for everyone, but they are for students serious about growing in their professional and artistic passions.

This guide provides an outline of components to prepare for the graduate degree application process. It does not deal with deciding to which programs to apply. You should have extensive discussions with your advisors and mentors in making those decisions.

Graduate applications in music are typically due between November and February. If you are currently a student, you know this is an incredibly stressful time of the academic calendar to be adding even more to your workload! Stress is the greatest inhibitor to creativity and the meticulous attention to detail required to present yourself well in your applications. By starting early and working at your own consistent pace, you will build the application portfolio that most effectively reflects what you bring to the table.

It’s never too early to start preparing your application. If you are a junior, use the remainder of this year and the summer months prior to your senior year to develop these materials. If you are a senior, start working on these materials today!

Every graduate school application is different, but you should plan to prepare the following most commonly requested materials:

Develop your resume or curriculum vitae (CV).

Nearly all applications will ask for a resume or curriculum vitae. Hundreds of guides can be found elsewhere online or in your local library detailing what should and should not be included in both document types. It is recommended that you prepare both versions before the application season begins. Spend serious time reflecting on all you have pursued and accomplished and keep a log of what you plan to include (continue this good habit for the rest of your life!). Then, use a practical guide to create your resume and CV. Consider ways of formatting that allow changes to be made easily in the future.

Create both video and audio recordings of your craft.

Graduate programs in a performance area will want to see you in action. You should prepare both video and audio recordings of your performing. Invest time contemplating and arranging for the means you will use to produce the highest quality of video and audio. Perhaps your baccalaureate institution provides studio recording services to students preparing audition/application materials. If not, maybe a peer or faculty member in your department can recommend someone locally. Acquiring a quality recording does not have to be overly expensive, but you should expect to invest in this critical resource. Audio recordings should include song selections in a variety of styles and tempi. If you are a singer, you should offer works in multiple languages. Whether you are a vocalist or an instrumentalist, use a capable accompanist in your recordings. It may be possible to video record at the same time you are audio recording. A live video recording of a degree recital or other performance may also be appropriate. Follow the guidelines of the program for which you are applying on whether to label your recordings with your name and/or information about the song selection. Institutions vary on these requirements as some prefer to review materials blind and some with the knowledge of the candidate they are considering. If labeling is permitted, include title slides or subtitle banners in the video itself. If a school asks you to send URLs of videos or recordings, ensure that the YouTube or Vimeo channel to which you upload your media is professional in its appearance. This includes the channel’s title and profile picture as well as all other viewable videos/recordings you have previously uploaded. It is perfectly appropriate to create a new channel from scratch just for this purpose.

If you are applying for a degree in music education or conducting performance, graduate programs may require a teaching demonstration or rehearsal video. Be strategic in camera placement when recording a teaching demonstration. The angle should show both you actively teaching and your pupils positively responding to your instruction. Ensure that you have the permission of the students/their guardians to include them in this video. For rehearsal videos of a conductor, you should place the camera directly facing the conductor. You may also use a second camera to capture the angle from behind you facing the choir, but the conductor-facing angle is critical. If you capture both angles, video-editing software will allow you to put both angles side-by-side in a movie. For all video recordings, ensure that the audio soundtrack of your video is of high quality. This may require you to record the video with one source and the audio with another and splice the two together using video-editing software.

The video and audio recording samples you submit are one of the most important aspects of your graduate application. Plan ahead to produce quality media samples – both in the recording product and (even more importantly) your personal artistic preparation of the material to be recorded. This is not an aspect of the application that you should throw together at the last minute.

Compile lists of repertoire you have studied and performed.

While not all graduate programs require repertoire lists, many do and creating such a list can be very time intensive. Even if graduate programs do not require it, the repertoire list will be a useful resource throughout your professional career after graduate school. Start your list by reviewing and writing down the music you studied for all of your degree recitals, semesters of private study, personal non-school performances, and summer programs. Capture the title of the work, the catalog information (opus, BWV number, etc.), whether or not the selection comes from a larger work (e.g. what opera an aria comes from), the full name of the composer, and the composer’s life dates. List the works in alphabetical order according to the composer’s last name. You should also denote music that was performed publicly as opposed to only being studied or rehearsed. This can be done by a denotation system such as asterisks and other symbols, or you can create multiple sections of your list for each category. Ask your primary teacher to review how you have formatted titles to ensure your list is scholarly and appropriate.

Craft a personal statement on your background in music and why you desire to pursue graduate studies.

Most applications will require a personal statement where you creatively explain why you want to pursue graduate study. The personal statement is an incredibly vague concept, which can lead to avoidance. This does not have to be the case. Brainstorm your reasons for wanting to pursue this degree and reflect on the experiences and people that have inspired you to do so. Detail your career aspirations and how this degree serves to fulfill those aspirations. The personal statement may be an essay on the application web form or it may be its own document to submit separately. Some institutions may even ask you to submit your personal statement as a video response, giving them an opportunity to hear and see you talking about your personal mission statement. By starting to formulate your thoughts and ideas in advance of starting the application, you will be able to use those concepts to better inform how you complete the rest of the application.

Identify (or create) a scholarly writing sample.

Many graduate programs will request a scholarly writing sample as part of your application. Some graduate programs will have specifications on the writing sample they require and some may leave the requirement open-ended. You have most likely written numerous papers already for your undergraduate degree that may fulfill this application requirement. If you do not feel you have a scholarly writing sample that represents you well, consider asking a professor for help generating a topic to research and write on. Graduate programs are looking at your writing to determine how well you present and develop ideas as well as your abilities as a researcher. The writing sample is an important indicator in whether or not they believe you will succeed in graduate coursework. If you have recently written or already have a writing sample to submit, ask someone to review your writing. Many baccalaureate institutions offer writing services that may help you refine your paper as well.

Determine and solicit your letter writers.

Graduate school programs will want to hear what others have to say about your past work and future potential. This aspect of the application is most commonly known as the recommendation or reference letter. Sometimes schools ask that formal letters be sent to them and others ask that your reference writers complete their school’s recommendation web form. Either way, you should line up your referees well in advance.

You will want to select reference writers that:

  • know you, your work, what you have to offer, and want you to succeed
  • have their own credentials in a related field
  • are individuals you can depend on to follow through with your request by the deadline you provide

You should identify at least three individuals who will write for you. Contact them, preferably in person, to ask if they will write a letter for you when the time comes. They will most likely inform you of what they need from you to fulfill your request. If they don’t, consider following the guidelines I have established for students asking for letters from me.

Organize your transcripts.

Requesting transcripts can be an incredibly tedious part of the application process. Graduate schools will want transcripts from every institution you have received college credit. If you took classes over the summer at a local community college and transferred them to your alma mater, you will need to send transcripts from those local schools. Investigate ahead of time what your current school requires to send a transcript on your behalf. Some colleges/universities provide this service for free (or cheap) through your institution’s Academic Records/Registrar’s Office. Other schools may outsource this process to a third-party service that charges fees. Either way, bookmark any URLs of transcript request web forms for later. It may be easier if you submitted requests for all schools to which you are applying at the same time. While you are investigating how to request transcripts, submit a request that the school(s) send you an unofficial copy. Scan the copy you receive for your records. It is important that you have a copy on hand to send yourself in the case of an emergency such as the school’s server being down or a deadline falling around a holiday weekend. An institution may accept an unofficial copy of your transcript with the understanding that an official copy from your school is on the way.

Identify any additional application requirements of schools to which you will apply.

Each institution will have unique application requirements that call for additional materials. This is a common means of discouraging applicants who are not devoted to the idea of actually attending that specific school and are simply putting out blanket grad school applications. I know of one school that provides a specific essay prompt that is literally equivalent to writing an annotated research paper as part of the application (as opposed to asking for a writing sample). Because you are serious about applying to a program, you should be eager to complete all the necessary aspects of the application.

Some schools may have testing requirements like the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) even though this is less common for graduate programs in the arts. Investigate what is required for each application well in advance.

Complete the actual application form thoroughly.

This is often a part of the process applicants rush through. You may feel that graduate programs make the requirements of the application form as tedious as possible. It will often seem as though you are re-typing your entire resume, which they also ask you to submit separately! Stay the course and complete the application form thoroughly, triple-checking for errors and inconsistencies in spelling, formatting, capitalization, etc. Application forms may include essay questions you were not expecting – essays that take considerable time to compose that you cannot see until you actually begin the application form. This is why it is critical that you start the application process early. Compile all the other components listed above weeks and months in advance so you have one-two weeks before the application deadline to complete the actual application form itself. Fortunately, most web applications allow you to save your work and return later. Bring your best writing to these in-application essays including having others proofread your writing.

If the school does not ask for an application, include a cover letter with the materials you submit.

Some institutions’ application process may be more informal. Rather than completing a web application through their admissions department, the program may ask that you simply email or postal mail your materials to a specific music faculty member. If this is the case, you should include a cover letter with your materials. Like resumes and CVs, hundreds of guides to writing a cover letter exist online. Use such a guide to format your letter properly. Beyond that, keep your letter brief noting the specific degree program for which you are applying, thank them for reviewing your materials, and offering to provide additional materials for their consideration is necessary.


Get some updated, quality headshots.

There’s no need to spend an inordinate amount of money on headshots for the purposes of grad school applications. Simply coordinate with a friend who has an eye for photography and take a few headshots in both formal and casual attire. These may be especially helpful for those applying for performance degree programs.

Digitize your handwritten signature.

Using a quality blue or black-ink pen and a piece of blank, bright, white paper, sign your name as you would a document. Scan the paper at a setting of 600 dpi (dots per inch) or higher. In photo or PDF editing software, crop the scan as tightly as you can and convert the scan to either a JPEG or PNG file format. Insert the signature image into cover letters or PDF forms where your signature is required. This is a very handy resource to have on hand for both grad school applications and your professional life in general.

Vocal Performers – adopt your materials to OPERA America standards.

The formatting guidelines published by OPERA America are considered to be the industry standard for cover letters and resumes in the area of vocal and opera performance. If you are pursuing graduate studies and/or professional performance activities in voice, presenting yourself within these parameters identifies you as someone well-acquainted with industry expectations.


What is the running theme of this guide? Start early! Plan ahead!

Graduate studies can be an incredibly rewarding and invigorating life experience. This is when you will dive deeply into your strengths zone – the area(s) in which you are most passionate! As you are developing your plan of attack for preparing and submitting your graduate program applications, include time to run everything you create past the eyes of a trusted proofreader. You should also continually seek the insights and advice of your current teachers and mentors. If you plan to apply to multiple institutions, make your first step be creating a spreadsheet to record all of your application deadlines and requirements. Use this document to stay on top of your progress in fulfilling those requirements.

While the thought of preparing your application(s) may seem daunting, tackling one component at a time will get you to the finish line. I wish you all the best in pursuing the graduate degree experience of your dreams!

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