College Planning Tips from a Pro

A Conversation with Sarah Lovely, Director of College Counseling, Walnut Hill School for the Arts, Natick, Massachusetts

Sarah Lovely

Sarah Lovely began her career in 2002 as an intern in the Drama Division at The Julliard School, where she discovered her passion for working with arts students. After a stint as the Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief at the performing arts magazine, Back Stage, Sarah worked as an advisor and admissions adjudicator in the Department of Drama at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. During her time in New York City, Sarah also stage managed a popular off-Broadway musical theater improvisation show called, The Nuclear Family. Sarah relocated to the Boston area to become the Manager of University Merit Scholars at Brandeis University  before finding her way back to her true love, the arts, at Walnut Hill. Sarah is not only the Director of College Counseling but also a Dorm Head at Walnut Hill, where she helps students find the right fit, take risks and dream big! Sarah holds a BA in English from Bowdoin College and a MA in Educational Theater from NYU.

LL: Tell us a little about your role at Walnut Hill School for the Arts.

SL: As Director of College Counseling at Walnut Hill School for the Arts I oversee the whole process of helping our students and families navigate college applications and auditions. My role extends beyond just college, and into helping students do a little soul searching. I love working with this age group because there are so many discoveries to be made!

Our student body consists of young men and women pursuing one of five art areas—theater, music, dance, visual art, and creative writing—alongside college preparatory academics. We have a big population of international students, and about 2/3 of our students live here on campus. So, we have a very diverse community, and every student has different goals and talents. It’s a very vibrant school! My husband and I also live on campus as dorm parents, meaning that I get to know the students in a variety of contexts. We love it here!

LL: How and when do students start the college application process in an arts school? Do all students pursue the arts after Walnut Hill?

SL: We begin academic planning with students as early as 9th grade, just to get them thinking about their strengths and their long- and short-term goals. We also are beginning to design a series of workshops for younger students to disseminate information about course selection, summer programs, and so on. We officially assign students to a College Counselor beginning in their junior year, and the real work begins in February of junior year. That’s when we start to generate conversations about post-high school opportunities, and discuss things like college visits, different types of programs (BFA, BA, BM, etc), standardized tests, etc. We also do a series of writing workshops to help prepare students for their college essays, and give them some projects to work on over the summer between junior and senior years.

The vast majority of our students pursue their art form in some way in college. However, the extent to which they do so really depends on the person. For example, we have students who go on to study strictly at conservatories like Juilliard, New England Conservatory, Rhode Island School of Design, and Boston Conservatory. We also have students who study at conservatories within universities, like Indiana University, New York University, Butler University, Rice University, and so on. Other students look for a more ‘typical’ college experience. We do find that most of our students end up studying their art (or a new art!) at least as an extracurricular activity, though more commonly as a major in college.

Some students take a more interdisciplinary approach. We’ve had students go on to study both theater or art and psychology, for example, because they’re interested in drama or art therapy. Or, we have students who are interested in education, so they go to a school where they can learn to become a music or dance teacher. Regardless of their chosen major or field of study, their creativity is a huge asset as they move forward in college and beyond.

Walnut Hill School for the Arts is a top performing arts school for students in grades 9-12. Students from all over the world come to study ballet, theater, visual art, music, and creative writing at their campus in Natick, Massachusetts, near Boston. Walnut Hill offers summer programs and summer intensives for ballet, opera, theater, and writing.

LL: Walnut Hill focuses on multiple arts disciplines – are there any common paths for students graduating from your school?

SL: Many of our musicians choose to study their instrument or voice after college, with aspirations to be in an orchestra, to be an opera singer, or to be a singer/songwriter. A lot of our dancers either go to conservatories or opt to do a trainee program or audition for companies all over the country and the world. Many theater students study either musical theater or acting, and desire to be on Broadway or pursue a career in television or film. The vast majority of our visual artists study their art in some way, whether it be painting, interior design, industrial design, photography, fashion, or anything in between. And, many of our writers go to liberal arts colleges, where they can take their skills to new levels in a variety of disciplines.

LL: Do you recommend using an expert or placement counselor? Why or why not?

SL: I think that depends on each family. If you do hire a private college counselor, make sure it’s someone who is well-versed in your art area. You don’t want to spend a ton of money or time on someone who isn’t familiar with the uniqueness of applying to a college for the arts. I don’t think that it’s absolutely necessary to hire an expert, mainly because it can get pricey, but I do think it can be a good idea if you’re serious about it. If you do not want to go that route, just make sure that you’re very diligent about doing your research and understanding the different programs, procedures, etc. Even if you do hire a professional counselor, remember that you’ll be doing all of the work regardless; that person will really be there as a resource and to help you navigate the process. It’s important that students take ownership over their own process, whether they’re working with a college counselor or not. This should be a fun and exciting time, and it actually can be quite stress-free if you plan well and keep all of your options open!

LL: How do parents know if the arts is something their child should pursue in college?

SL: This is a tough question, because I don’t think there’s any answer that works for everyone. I would say that if parents have a child that is serious about a certain art area, they should get involved however they can in their community. Many musicians/visual artists/dancer/actors either have private teachers or take classes in their discipline. Ask the people you know within that field what they think (but remember that not every opinion is the ‘right’ one for your child). If your son or daughter is serious about conservatories and auditioning for schools, getting a coach or teacher is a good idea for audition materials. This can just be someone at your local high school, it certainly doesn’t need to be a professional.

I am obviously biased, but I think that everyone should pursue the arts in some capacity in college and beyond. It’s important to have a creative outlet, and the extent to which you study that discipline can vary depending on what you want. There is no one path, so I would just say to get involved however you can before college and see if it’s something that calls to you. If it is, keep it up!

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