The Best Top-Tier Schools for the Performing Arts

Any student who has been on stage and experienced the adrenaline rush of performing may wish to consider singing, dancing, or acting as a career. As in any other profession, success in the performing arts calls for intensive training. A number of top-tier institutions combine first-rate training in the performing arts with an excellent foundation in liberal arts.

Along with basic liberal arts requirements, performing arts programs require course work in all or most of the field’s disciplines before a student can concentrate on a specialty. Institutions often offer degrees in the three primary types of performing arts — music, dance, and drama. A four-year degree program can culminate in the award of a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA), or, less commonly, a Bachelor of Performing Arts (BPA).

Students who elect to major in drama, acting, or theater usually take classes in theater history, acting, costume design, lighting, stage movement, voice, directing, and scene design to learn the range of aspects of stage production. Each student participates in performances while learning these skills. After core requirements are met, some students enjoy taking classes focusing on drama while others choose to concentrate on Set Design, Theatre Technology, Playwriting, Screenwriting, Theater Literature, Directing, Theatrical Production, and Costume Design.

Among top-tier colleges and universities in the U.S. with undergraduate programs in the performing arts, there are many schools that have earned outstanding reputations in the field. Some of these are described below in no particular order, mixing universities, liberal arts colleges, and institutions dedicated solely to the performing arts.

The Juilliard School –New York, NY

Always considered among the best for drama and dance, the Juilliard School has a long list of notable alumni who have earned 105 Grammy Awards, 62 Tony Awards, 47 Emmy Awards, 24 Academy Awards, 16 Pulitzer Prizes, and 12 National Medals for the Arts. It’s a very exclusive school, selecting only 20 students for enrollment in the BFA Acting Program, 20 in the MFA Acting Program, and 40 in the BFA Dance ProgramThe dance program holds 15 public performances each year, and the drama program puts on many plays. There are showcases in New York and Los Angeles. Alumni who have excelled as actors include Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, William Hurt, Adam Driver, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney, and Val Kilmer.

Northwestern University –Evanston, IL

Northwestern is one of the few drama schools that doesn’t require an audition for admission. However, acceptance is still difficult to attain as indicated by its admission rate of only 15%. Students have many opportunities to perform in both school-sponsored and student-run shows. Seniors are invited to participate in showcases in New York and Chicago for an audience of industry professionals. The school has many famous alumni including Warren Beatty, Stephen Colbert, Charlton Heston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jerry Orbach, Ann-Magret, and Tony Randall.

Carnegie Mellon University –Pittsburgh, PA

The oldest acting conservatory in the U.S., Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is focused on ensuring that students understand and embody their characters through thorough analysis. The school has a faculty of working theater professionals. Well-known alumni include Holly Hunter, Ted Danson, Albert Brooks, Ethan Hawke, Jack Klugman, George Peppard, Joe Manganiello, and Rene Auberjonois. There are 20 shows per year providing many performance opportunities.  Additionally, the school cancels classes for a week during the year to enable students to perform their original works or adaptations. Seniors have an opportunity to perform in showcases in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh for industry professionals.

University of Michigan –Ann Arbor, MI

Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance has a top reputation in the performing arts. While pursuing a BFA in acting, students are trained for the physical and mental demands of theater by a faculty of working professionals that includes actors, directors, designers, technicians, and published scholars. The school has a low student-to-faculty ratio and a core curriculum that includes acting, voice, dialects, movement, and stage combat courses. Students have many opportunities to perform for international audiences. Famous alumni include Selma Blair, Christine Lahti, Lucy Liu, James Earl Jones, Margo Martindale, and Gilda Radnor.

Smith College –Northampton, MA

Smith is one of the best small colleges for theater majors. Students attending Smith aren’t limited to the resources of their college alone because Smith is part of the Five Colleges Consortium. Theater and dance majors at Smith enjoy the combined capabilities of four other nearby schools: Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. This collaborative program affords performing arts students at Smith all the benefits of an institution many times its size while maintaining the intimate culture that draws students to Smith. Graduates of the Five Colleges Consortium who have earned fame in the performing arts include Bill Pullman, Richard Gere, Wendy Wasserstein, Ken Burns, Liev Schreiber, Lupita Nyong’o, Shelley Hack, and Barry Sonnenfeld.

New York University –New York, NY

Upon acceptance into the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, students are placed into one of eight primary studios where they receive intensive training leading to a strong foundation in technique. Students remain in their studio for four consecutive semesters. The eight primary studios are the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, Atlantic Acting School, Experimental Theatre Wing, Meisner Studio, New Studio on Broadway, Playwrights Horizons Theater School, Production & Design Studio, and Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. Once primary training is completed, students choose from many options for advanced training in a specialty. NYU is a leader in the number of BFA graduates who have gone on to earn fame as actors. Examples include Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Bell, Oliver Stone, M. Night Shyamalan, Lady Gaga, and Bryce Dallas Howard.

California Institute of the Arts –Santa Clarita, CA

CalArts is considered by many to be the best dance school on the West Coast and one of the top drama schools. The School of Dance has a distinguished faculty and renowned guest artists. It offers many dance performance opportunities in its American College Dance Festival. The School of Drama is a great choice for actors who wish to pursue a screen-acting career. All seniors must enroll in the Acting Studio for the Camera course, which trains students for auditioning and performing for cinema and TV. In their final semester, students perform in industry showcases in Los Angeles and New York. The drama department’s famous alumni include Don Cheadle, Ed Harris, Dustin Hoffman, and Alison Brie.

University Of North Carolina –Chapel Hill, NC

The UNC School of the Arts offers exceptional drama and dance programs. Alumni of the dance program have gone on to perform with the American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Martha Graham Ensemble. Notable drama alumni include Mary-Louise Parker, Andy Griffith, John Forsythe, and Jack Palance. Drama and dance students have many performance opportunities including senior showcases for industry professionals in New York and Los Angeles. 

Wesleyan University –Middletown, CT

Wesleyan’s undergraduate theater program is one of the most widely known and highly regarded in the country. The school has an impressive faculty and visiting artists. Its notable alumni include Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michael Bay, Dana Delany, Mike White, Bradley Whitford, and Joss Whedon. Wesleyan’s theater program also provides an honors track for top performing students, as well as two awards, the Rachel Henderson Theater Prize and the Outreach and Community Service Prize, to recognize excellence in the work of its students.

Brown University –Providence, RI

Among Ivy League schools, Yale is most well known for its Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program, but Brown’s School of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies (TAPS) is well known for its undergraduate BFA program. Brown places a high value on its students having a well-rounded understanding of drama as a discipline. Along with acting classes, students take theory and history courses. Students may then choose one of the program’s tracks, which include Theatre Arts, Performance Studies, or Writing for Performance. The program offers an optimal setting for activities such as crewing mainstage plays, participating in student-run production workshops, participating a Shakespeare on the Green performance, and viewing world premiers at the Trinity Repertory Company. Famous graduates include John Krasinski, Emma Watson, and Bess Armstrong.

IvySelect, as a private college admissions consulting firm specializing in top-tier institutions, has guided students to acceptance at all of the institutions covered above except Julliard and CalArts, which are excellent schools but do not offer a broader education in the liberal arts. Our talented and experienced college counselors are consummate professionals with unrivaled credentials, making IvySelect one of the best college counseling firms in the world.

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