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Deciding the Future: In the Admissions Department

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On the list of Top 10 Most Traumatizing Life Experiences, puberty and wisdom teeth extraction sit low compared to the process that so many of us muscled through at some point in the past few years. For some this process is marked by sleepless nights and stressful days, while others find solace in mass quantities of comfort food. It’s true: the Juilliard admissions process is terrifying. But such is the nature of this type of thing, no? So let’s do what we can to soothe our poor souls, and take a look behind the scenes into the underground lair where little elves scurry about, tallying scores and deciding futures. 

Katie Friis (left) and Lee Cioppa pore through materials some from this year’s nearly 5,000 applicants.

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“We’ve been there, we’ve applied to schools, we’ve auditioned for things, and we know it’s a big deal,” sympathized Monia Estima, associate director of admissions, who, like five of the six Admissions staff members, has a background in performing arts. (Associate Dean Lee Cioppa, who has been the overseer of all things admission-related for more than seven years, has a master’s degree in oboe performance.) Estima handles music applications; senior assistant director Katie Friis is in charge of dance and drama applications. Along with the rest of the full-time staff, Estima and Friis work extra hours from the December 1 application deadline to the date in late March when results are posted, processing applications, organizing auditions, and making final admissions decisions. The rest of the year, they represent Juilliard at college fairs, organize tours, and generally “sell” the school to prospective students and their families. 

December 1 (the deadline) is a scary and nerve-racking day for prospective students, but for the Admissions staff, it can be quite stressful as well. In addition to receiving applications (from 4,888 would-be students this year, up from 4,258 just two years ago), the office gets boxes and boxes of prescreening CDs and endless ringing phones (often with questions, like “how should I do my daughter’s makeup for her audition?”). 

Prescreened music applications make up a majority of the musician pool—a total of about 2,200 this year—and the Admissions team must relay the recordings to the faculty, who will cut more than half of the applicants before live auditions are scheduled. Dance and drama auditions, on the other hand, can be scheduled more easily since everyone who applies to these divisions receives a live audition time.

After the application pool was culled this year, the Drama Division saw 1,100 applicants in January, about 700 of them here and the rest at regional auditions in San Francisco and Chicago. In March, some 40 of the initial callbacks will spend two full days at Juilliard with faculty and students, and 18 will get in. This year, 561 people applied to the Dance Division and will audition at Juilliard or in one of five national audition sites in late January and early February. Just 24 will be admitted. 

For the musicians, auditions are usually the first week in March unless for example, the New York Philharmonic happens to be on tour that week (à la the Asia tour of ’09). “Oy vay,” Estima said, recalling that year. Cioppa  added, “I think there are two things that we could safely say are Admissions Office’s nightmares. That was one of them: a substantial portion of our faculty just all of sudden not being available during [an] audition week that had been essentially scheduled for three years.” Thankfully, albeit stressfully, the deadlines and audition dates that year were pushed up by about a month with enough time for applicants to plan ahead. 

The second admissions nightmare? “In March, [there] is always a snowstorm,” Cioppa said. The Admissions Office does everything it can to rearrange auditions in the event of a snowpocalypse (like the one at the beginning of the 2010 audition week), though fortunately, last year a vast majority of auditioners arrived in the city with enough time to avoid the need to reschedule.

After a solid week of auditions during which some 1,700 auditioners and family members filter through the school, the Admissions team can begin to make decisions. For majors with a callback process, faculty members cut down the candidate pool by anywhere from half, to—in Drama—more than 98 percent. Following auditions, the senior Admissions administrators review the applications of those who have been recommended by faculty members based on auditions. They read every essay, review every transcript, and discuss every candidate before deciding. “It’s very intense,” Cioppa said. “All I can say is, we really like each other. It’s an amazing group of professional colleagues. We drink a lot of coffee; we eat a lot of sugar.” 

Once all applications have been reviewed and decisions have been made (and checked and rechecked about five times), the results are announced. In the past, applicants were notified by phone or snail mail, but because confusion arose when some applicants would get called days before others, all applicants can now find out online at the same time. “I have never sent the wrong acceptance letter. Ever,” Cioppa said. 

Amazingly, in an office where one small mistake can mean the world to someone, Cioppa and the rest of the Admissions team are not neurotic, as one might expect. Rather, they are incredibly warm, welcoming, and at least have the appearance of being calm. Maybe it’s because they know that if you mess with them, they’ve got your high school transcripts and essays as blackmail. But it’s probably just because they’re awesome. 

 

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