by Heather Strauss
When a student tells me that they want to study Theatre in college, my first question is, “Do you want to get a BA or BFA?” The answer to that question will dramatically change their admissions process, yet I have found that many students do not know the difference and are unsure which is right for them. So, let’s start with the name; a BA is a Bachelor of Arts while a BFA is a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Though they may sound the same, in practice they offer two distinct experiences.
The first significant difference is the percentage of class-time you are required to devote to theatre. At a BFA program, you are typically required to spend at least fifty percent of your class-time within your specific program and that percentage can be much higher depending on the school. For example, BFA Musical Theatre students at the University of Michigan take 75% of their classes within the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance and only 25% of their classes in the liberal arts. This is great for students who are excited to work on their craft as much as possible during college. The required theatre-focused class-time at a BA program, on the other hand, is usually much smaller. For example, BA Theatre majors at Northwestern University are only required to take about 30% of their classes within the department, though they can elect to take more if they wish. This is ideal for students who wish to pursue double majors or minors outside of Theatre or simply want the freedom to take whatever non-theatre classes pique their interest. However, it is important to keep in mind that with that available time, students in BA programs are often also required to complete more general education requirements, such as math/science courses or language requirements.
Another important difference between the two kinds of programs is the focus. When you pursue a BFA, you are commonly required to choose a “concentration” or “track” from the beginning, such as Acting or Directing. From then on, you take certain classes based on which track you chose. If you are pursuing a BFA in Acting, the majority of your classes will be focused on that specific part of theatre, but you may have some electives where you can explore other areas (typically during junior or senior year). This is perfect for a student who is very confident that they want to be an actor or a director and doesn’t need time to figure it out. Conversely, at a BA program, all theatre students are more or less on the same track and do not need to specify a concentration. Therefore, students can sample classes in acting, directing, stage management, and/or set design all while completing their Theatre major. This is a good fit for students who want the opportunity to gain experience in multiple branches of theatre.
Because the experience in each type of program is different, it makes sense that they have different admissions requirements. The vast majority of your time at a BFA program will be dedicated to your craft, therefore schools typically require auditions (or another form of artistic review for non-performance-based concentrations) and place a significant amount of weight on that portion of your application. You can find more information on the actual audition process here. On the other hand, since you will have the freedom to take more classes outside of theatre at a BA program, they evaluate you as a fit for the entire school, not just for the theatre program. Therefore, they typically do not have auditions. You may send a resume or additional letter of recommendation from a drama teacher, but you are primarily judged on your academic record and essays.
While these are good guidelines to keep in mind, it is important to note that there are many nuances and exceptions to these rules. For example, although UCLA has a BA Theatre program, they do offer auditions for some students -- which is why it is always important to research the specific requirements and programs at each school you are considering. Additionally, it is important to remember that there is no “right” choice here: top BA and BFA programs both offer incredible training and can prepare you for the future. It is merely a question of fit and what you want out of your four years. And of course, you can always apply to a mix of both if that is right for you.