The College Audition: What Every Prospective Undergraduate Drama Student Should Know

college drama auditions
by Nicole Pacent-Lindquist

As we all know, the college application process is a doozy no matter what schools/majors you’re considering. There are college visits to make, standardized tests to take, essays upon essays to write, and applications themselves to fill out and submit — all while balancing a full high school course load. It goes without saying that starting this process in your junior year is highly advisable, but that holds even more true if you’re applying to theater programs. The vast majority of the theater departments you’ll want to apply to will require you to not only audition in person with multiple monologues and/or songs, but they will also require you to audition via video before you are granted an in-person audition. This first step is called a “pre-screen,” and many of the preeminent theater programs require it of prospective students as a way to weed out those who the faculty do not feel are ready to compete in a talent pool of their peers. Prospective applicants must find out what specific pre-screen material is required for each school by visiting each school’s respective website. Then, after much preparation, they must perform this material on tape and submit the video to the school per the pre-screen instructions.

Pre-screens for Acting majors usually consist of two contrasting monologues from plays (monologues from TV/film are not allowed); for Musical Theater majors, a monologue from a play, at least one song, and a short choreographed dance are usually required. (Several schools have also recently begun encouraging students to include clips of themselves performing special/unique skills — i.e. circus tricks, playing musical instruments, doing puppetry, etc. — whatever makes them “unique.”) Specific genre and length requirements for each monologue and/or song vary from school to school, as do the deadlines by which pre-screen videos must be submitted. The cutoff for submissions is between October 15 and December 1 for most schools, so creating an organized spreadsheet of pre-screen and in-person audition requirements/deadlines early on in your process is definitely in your best interest.

When it comes right down to it, the audition is an enormous deciding factor in whether a student is admitted to any of the major drama schools in the country. Schools that are highly academically competitive (i.e. NYU, Carnegie Mellon, and Michigan) will also put considerable weight on a student’s grades, test scores, and college essays, but at the end of the day, if a student’s audition is not up to snuff, they will not receive admission to the country’s premier programs. For this reason, choosing pre-screen/audition material and beginning to work on it (ideally with an acting teacher or coach) during the summer going into a student’s senior year is the way to go.

For those local to Los Angeles, the Samuel French Film & Theatre Bookshop has a fabulous selection of plays that students can look through for potential monologues. When choosing material to work on, students should look for characters/monologues that are within their age range (usually anywhere between 14 and early 20s, depending on the student). Students should also ask their high school/local drama teachers for monologues that are typically overdone at college auditions so that they know which pieces to avoid. All Drama departments that require auditions will ask for at least one, usually two Contemporary monologues, which, depending on the school, means the monologue must have been written post-1900, or post-WWI. Some schools will also require students to perform a Classical monologue — most often Shakespeare, but sometimes they will expand this definition to include Greek Tragedies, classical farce (i.e. Moliere), etc. Length requirements for monologues also vary from school to school, with some programs asking for two-minute, 90 second, or one-minute monologues. For this reason, students should plan on learning at least 5 monologues for college auditions: 2 Contemporary Dramatic monologues (one longer, one shorter), 2 Contemporary Comic monologues (one longer, one shorter), and 1 classical/Shakespearean monologue. Preparing at least 5 monologues is an enormous undertaking and requires a lot of hours spent in the workshop, so to speak, so it is for this reason (among others) that students should pick material they love. Rule of thumb: If you don’t enjoy performing your monologue, chances are your auditioner isn’t going to enjoy watching it.

Similar to the requirements for Acting majors, Musical Theater students will be asked to pick audition songs of differing styles and time periods. Most often, schools will require one up-tempo song and one ballad, but requirements around whether these pieces must be from the Contemporary or Classical (Standard/Legit) musical theater canons vary depending on the school. As with monologues, length requirements for audition songs are also program-specific, so Musical Theater students must prepare multiple songs, and plan to have different cuts ready (i.e. a 16-bar cut, a 32-bar cut, a one-minute cut, and/or a two-minute cut) in order to tailor their songs to each program’s guidelines. At the end of the day, Musical Theater students should expect to have to learn at least 6 songs for college auditions, since audition requirements vary so much from program to program. Musical Theater students should also be aware that they are not permitted to sing a cappella, and in most cases will be required to sing with live piano accompaniment at their auditions, so they must rehearse accordingly.

As you are undoubtedly aware by this point, preparing for college auditions is an involved process, and starting early is of paramount importance. Finding and narrowing down material that you love is usually very time consuming in and of itself, so be sure to give yourself plenty of lead time to pick your audition pieces before you need to begin rehearsing. And above all, though this process will inevitably feel daunting, remember to HAVE FUN! Presumably, you want to go into this field because you love to perform, so remember that auditions are just a chance to play. College auditioners are not expecting perfection, but rather looking for potential. They know you’ve got a lot to learn (otherwise why would you be applying to Drama school in the first place?), so prepare the best you can, and then go in there and just have fun! If you’re enjoying what you’re doing, chances are they will enjoy it, too.

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