Do I have to choose between academic rigor and musical theater training?

Some necessary background info on me. I’m currently a rising high school junior, ranked top of my class, though I don’t consider my high school to be very competitive academically. Despite this, my academic pursuits are important to me. Extracurricularly, I’ve experimented and have narrowed my pursuits down to musical theater alone. I’ve been dancing since I was 3, and have done musical theater productions consistently since 5th grade. I’m hoping to find a vocal coach this school year. Due to my school’s lack of interest in the arts, I am also trying to start a drama club. I’ve decided that I want to pursue musical theater as a career. My dream school right now is NYU.

My current academic schedule consists of 3 AP classes, Pre-Calc, 1 honors class, Orchestra, French III, Speech, and a period of graduation requirement classes. Looking at my schedule, I became conflicted and wondered if I was misplacing my priorities. I planned on studying and practicing vocals, dance, and acting outside of school, but with a rigorous academic schedule, would this be possible?

I find it difficult to give up my academic pursuits, but I am willing to admit that I don’t need to continue being valedictorian to achieve my musical theater college goals. I have considered dropping an AP class, however, I also understand that NYU in particular values academic rigor greatly. Does anyone have previous experience with a schedule like this? Would I have enough time after school and homework to train properly in musical theater in order to gain admittance into a musical theater program?

My son had a very similar schedule, went to precollege for instrumental music on the weekend and participated in Drama program at school. It can be done but be prepared to have very little down time. Academic rigor and excellent grades are very helpful in getting merit aid for many MT and acting programs, but except for a few programs (Northwestern, NYU and less CMU and Michigan) grades are not important for entrance, it is all about the audition and interview.

I’m willing to sacrifice, and knowing your son had a similar schedule is definitely helpful. Thank you!!

Good luck!!

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My son (also a rising junior) has a considerably more rigorous school schedule but does not get top grades. He is taking 5 dance classes a week (but he needs them) and has 2 voice coaches that he sees weekly and is in two out of school performance troupes that meet weekly and has another theater related EC. He manages to pull it all off and excel on the MT side. But, in all fairness, he does that by basically ignoring academics and having no other commitments. My best piece of advice is to do your best to give yourself a light schedule first semester senior year so that you can concentrate on auditions. My son will not be taking math or science senior year.
Good grades will help a lot with NYU. Word is that grades are 50% of admissions there. There are other schools that tend to pull a lot of high stats kids as well and grades can be the tip needed between two otherwise equal candidates. It is not unusual for MT kids to have high stats. Your schedule looks doable. Might be worth changing out orchestra or speech for choir or drama. Other than dance (which I am guessing you don’t need to put a ton of hours into learning, just keeping your skills), you definitely don’t need many hours out of school for voice and acting classes. I can’t imagine you would devote more than 4 hours a week to lessons. So that’s basically one class after school each day.

Another thing to consider is finances. MT is not a good degree to go into debt for. Keeping your grades up makes a huge difference in what schools are even possible for you if you will need merit money. Merit tends to be awarded based on unweighted GPA. If you have not done so, talk to your parents about that what you can afford. NYU is extremely expensive.


Thank you for the reply!! This is very helpful and definitely helps solidify my decision! :slight_smile:

Not sure if it’s on your radar, but our high school has Broadway-caliber musicals and many of our talented MT kids choose Ithaca College.

My neighbor attended a good private school in HS, wanted to major in MT in college, was accepted at NYU and Pace (we live 10 miles from NYC), chose Pace to save $.

Thank you for the suggestion! I’m just beginning to look into colleges seriously, so I’ll definitely look into it!

I have heard good things about Ithaca… I’ll look into it! Thank you!

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If you decide to do musical theater, be sure you have a double major also. Very very few people make it, and COVID isn’t helping your job prospects at all.

Also, keep the debt down. If you’re planning to graduate with $100k plus in student loans, that’s not a setup for success, especially if MT doesn’t happen as expected. For a bachelors degree your debt shouldn’t be more than 30k for all 4 years.

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Several people I know with your profile have chosen Northwestern. Worth a look!

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This is very important. Do you know what your budget is? Do you know whether you can afford NYU without taking on any debt?

While this is great advice, it is nearly impossible at most schools. If it is important to you to have a non theater related second major, that is going to need to be your first consideration in where you apply. It is extremely rare that this works in a standard 4 year college plan for a BFA degree. I would say in the 20 schools where we have dug deep to get information maybe only 2 even claim it is possible.


Could you pursue performing arts as EC? My daughter maintained her academic rigor completely separate from Drama Club/Rehearsals/Productions in the afternoons, plus alternating Orchestra and Chorus every school day BEFORE first period,…

Yes VERY intense/impossible schedule - just like her peers or all the student athletes.

On the plus side — all those creative ECs were the counterbalance that helped her maintain her sanity.

PS: look into small community theatres/groups that you may not even realize they exist…

The short, accurate answer to your question is “no, you don’t have to choose; you can get both.” I would look at NYU, as you suggest, and Northwestern. There are other excellent universities too but at those other universities you need to ensure there is sufficient flexibility so that it is feasible to do both; you can at NYU and Northwestern; at other schools, it may take significantly longer to accomplish both. If there are specific academic fields you become interested in, explore the departments offering them.

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No, you don’t have to chose. My D graduated #3 in her class at a college prep school She is a sophomore MT major in a BFA program at a liberal arts university (opposed to a conservatory). She took 7 AP classes and several DE courses in high school and performed in her high school’s musicals (as well continued her dance & vocal training). She just liked the challenge of the AP and DE courses. She would tell you balancing the rigorous academic schedule with everything else definitely taught her time management skills and it made the transition to college very easy. MT majors have a very full schedule, but it’s still less stressful than the 12-15 hr school and rehearsal days plus homework/studying she was doing in high school. A side benefit that we didn’t consider with her coming in with so many credits is that she gets to register ahead of her classmates for all her classes and is in one of the higher groups for dorm selections since both go by credit hours earned.

Even though the rigor didn’t end up mattering for admittance into her actual school, it helped with scholarships and there were other benefits as well. She does not regret choosing the more academic classes in high school. If you enjoy them and they won’t completely overwhelm you; it won’t hurt you.

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You’ve gotten some great advice so far. As double majors with musical theater seem quite challenging, or nearly impossible, another idea might be to major in musical theater and then have a minor in something that can help pay the bills while you’re getting your MT career off the ground. Or, you could do the reverse and major in something more pragmatic (education, business, etc) and then minor in musical theater. If you end up needing to get a job while you’re in college (during the school year or in the summer) try and find jobs that could also feasibly help you set up for interviews when you graduate. That might be working on advertising/promotional materials for the theater, or working in arts management, or teaching music/dance/theater, etc. All things that would be related to your field of study but that could help be a fall-back plan if necessary.

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