An Open Letter to the High School Girl Who’s Passed Her Auditions

Dear friend,

Congratulations on making it through your auditions! I hope you traveled to as many schools as you were able and met as many professors and students as you could. Audition season is an incredibly stressful time, and I’m sure you felt the pressure, but you did it! The worst of the application process is behind you.

In the coming weeks, you’ll start receiving your decision letters, if you haven’t already. You might have your heart set on one school, or you might be choosing from a field of many. You may have musician parents, or you could be trying to figure out for yourself which program is the right fit for you. If you’re in need of an extra perspective, consider the following:

Some schools are better than others. That said, a “good school” for one person might be a nightmare for another. Consider overall campus culture when making your decision, but focus specifically on the music program (and any others you’re considering spending time in). A great school can still have crappy departments.

If you can, talk to current students. Make sure female students (and non-binary folks, and people of color, if each is possible) are part of that—people in the thick of things can tell you more about how they’re treated by their peers and faculty than any alum or recruiter. If most or all of the women in your program are miserable, that tells you a lot. If they don’t have any female faculty, that might tell you something, too.

Actively manage your expectations. You might have a band director who encouraged you to shoot for the moon, or you might come from a program you had to claw your way up. Particularly if the first option applies to you, be careful. You might not see that again for awhile. Yes, things in the professional music world are “better” for women. That is not the same thing as saying they are good.

Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. If a school is giving you no scholarship and pennies in work study when you have a great offer on the table somewhere else, bring that up. Though they may not have made a strong initial statement, if the school is important to you, give them an opportunity to level the playing field. Sometimes students higher up on their priority list choose to go elsewhere, freeing up scholarship money. (A good thing to note: some schools start at the top of the food chain for financial aid. Doctoral students might get full rides; undergrads might not get anything.) The same goes for talking to faculty—even if you’ve already visited, don’t be afraid to send emails with follow-up questions. Does a program have a history of women changing majors or leaving music instead of graduating? Press them on that. Ask what they’re doing to make their classrooms more welcoming and accepting of people like you.

Consider graduate school. Do you know you’re going to be looking at graduate study? That may or may not impact your financial decisions for undergrad. Ultimately, you want to enroll at the school that’s right for you as an artist, so prioritize that. Just be clear on your financial picture going in. If you understand how much you will or will not need in loans for your bachelor’s, that will better prepare you for your future endeavors.

When you decide, give your other schools a moment of thought. Most recruiters really appreciate a short note about why you won’t be joining their program. For instance, when considering grad programs, my #2 school was someplace I really wanted to attend, but ultimately I wasn’t given the financial aid options to make it feasible. I sent my recruiter an email telling her where I would be attending (they like knowing that, too) and the bullet points of why I decided the way I did. It certainly won’t change anything for you, but it will help them better pursue priority students in the future.

Hit the ground running. Once you commit to a program, find out what your options are as a freshman. Your composition department holds two concerts a semester? Have a score ready when you start your school year, so all you have to do is find performers. You have to audition for ensembles? Get the excerpts when they’re released. Your instructors want you to succeed; they wouldn’t have accepted you otherwise. Ask them questions and use them as the valuable resource they are.

Listen to your gut. Throughout your college experience, this is perhaps the most important thing. Trust your instinct, especially that little voice in the back of your head—you know, the one that goes “I’m not sure I’m comfortable right now?” True, college is about pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone in an academic and pre-professional sense. That does not mean subjecting yourself to people and behaviors who make you feel unsafe. If you had any of these moments on your visits, use your student and faculty contacts to ask questions. Research the school’s Title IX history. Find out if their student affairs/diversity offices or their police department follows up, or if they have a history of leaving concerns and complaints completely ignored. Your physical safety is important, and approximately one in five women are sexually assaulted by the time they graduate college. Do not go to school someplace you don’t feel safe.

I know this isn’t exactly the list you were hoping for, and it isn’t the one I wanted to write. But we live in turbulent times, and as you enter this complicated, still-rather-backwards world of music-making that we aspire to change, it’s important to remember that your health and safety during your studies should still be priority one. High-achieving women are encouraged to pursue the rafters of success at all costs; I’m just giving you a reminder that it’s okay to remember yourself while you’re going for it.

Welcome to the sisterhood. Good luck.


[Eris] ♦