What Are They Looking For? The Inside Story on What Undergraduate Programs Want


by Scott Hayes

This might be you [at an upcoming SETC Convention]: a well-dressed, number-wearing, nervous high school student or potential transfer student pacing outside a ballroom, awaiting your audition. Or perhaps this is closer to you: an equally well-dressed design-tech hopeful, standing in front of your carefully-prepared display outside the auditions room, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to show your design or technical work to university recruiters. No matter if you are an actor or a designer/technician, you know this process is the best way to find the perfect training program that will propel you into your professional career. If you only knew precisely what the programs wanted from you!

Southern Theatre is here to help. We surveyed the programs that audition and interview potential undergraduate theatre students at the SETC Convention to find out what they are looking for, and we’re sharing the most popular answers with you. Our respondents make up a diverse group, coming from the Southeast, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Texas and even Italy. They represent acting and design/technical programs at conservatories and public and private universities, including all types of non-degree, associate, bachelor of arts (BA), and bachelor of fine arts (BFA) programs. All of the respondents were asked to name the top three things they look for in an applicant – and to share their best advice for prospective students. Here are the nuggets they have for you.

Undergraduate recruiters watch an audition at the 2016 SETC Undergraduate Auditions.


Everyone Wants to See You – And See You Succeed

An easy misconception about these processes is that the recruiters are sitting in judgment of you. That is simply not true. Yes, they are evaluating to see if you may be a good fit for their program, but they have chosen to attend SETC Undergraduate Auditions & Interviews and Education Expo for one reason – to recruit students. Read the encouragement from the recruiters themselves – first, from Kevin Murray at George Mason University in Virginia: “Know that we want you to do well. We don’t expect experts.” Others expressed similar support. From Reis Myers McCormick at KD Conservatory College of Film & Dramatic Arts in Texas: “It’s our goal to showcase each and every performer.” Wm. Perry Morgan at Greensboro College in North Carolina gives great advice: “Visit and speak with all the programs at the conference. You never know what you may discover and where the right place for you really is. We all are on your side and want you to succeed. If our program is not the right fit for you, we could be able to suggest one that is. All the college representatives respect each other.” “Fine,” you may think, “but how can I know if I’m a ‘right fit’ if I don’t know what they want?” Read on.

Your Personality and Interests Matter – A Lot

It may surprise you to learn that fewer than half of the respondents mentioned audition pieces or portfolio, or even broader terms such as talent or experience as top qualities. What was listed by every single respondent? Positive personality traits. A combination of the following were mentioned 10 times as frequently as talent or experience: curious, eager, listens, open, positive, passionate, energetic, sense of humor, confident, self-aware, authentic and humble. These qualities are so important that David Balthrop, from Murray State University in Kentucky, paired “a great smile and personality” with “a willingness to work hard and no fear of new experiences.” This perspective is echoed by Bob Shryock, from the Accademia dell’Arte in Tuscany, Italy, who looks for students who have a “desire to learn and grow” with an “openness to new and nontraditional approaches to actor training and creating new work.” Mike Murphy, from Marshall University in West Virginia, added that he looks for an “ability to set realistic goals and make progress for both personal and group efforts.”

At the same time, the recruiters – all past candidates themselves – understood that candidates may worry about how they come across in the audition and interview process. David Young, from Western Kentucky University, observed: “It’s very easy for young performers to get caught up in comparing themselves to each other. Especially at big recruiting events.” Words of advice to deal with this issue came from Justin Reed at Middle Tennessee State University: “Ask questions. When a candidate asks good, directly related questions, it lets us know you are serious about your education.” An even more proactive thought came from David Haugen at Ohio University: “Reach out to [schools] if they don’t reach out to you.” Finally, from Dick Block at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania: “Be yourself in the interview, and help the schools and yourself determine if you will be a good match. Not everyone is right for every program.”

Show Your Passion for Theatre

Many respondents also encouraged prospective students who are interested in the whole process of theatre creation, not just acting or a specific technical area. Matt Huff, from Oglethorpe University in Georgia, looks for “previous theatre experience in a variety of areas.” Kitty Clarke, from Florida School of the Arts, wrote: “I want to see a love of the theatre, a respect for all its many disciplines, and an evident passion to explore one or more of them in depth.” Paul B. Crook, from Louisiana Tech University, noted that his students “study and work in ALL areas of theatre – from management to performance to design to direction to technical theatre. The students who fit best in our program are those who have a strong desire to explore every facet of theatre.” “And not just learning about theatre,” said Carl Lefko, from Radford University in Virginia, “but have a thirst for knowledge about all things, since theatre is an art form that encompasses the world we live in.” Dan Backlund from the University of the South in Tennessee even wrote, “Learn about everything.”

Preparation Is the Key

What often seems most paralyzing to students is the idea that so much of their future rides on the audition/interview process. The only effective antidote to this paralysis is effective preparation. From Auburn University in Alabama: “Preparation is really important. If you want to be seen as a promising young professional in an industry already chock-full of polished, poised, talented and highly communicative artists, preparing for every aspect of the recruitment process is vital to your success.” Preparation is a bit different for acting vs. design/tech students, but the interview preparation is of primary importance for both. Maegan McNerney Azar, from Furman University in South Carolina, gave great advice for any interview: “Come in with questions, and show that you have done a little research on a school’s program. There is nothing worse than a prospective student saying, ‘Tell me a little about your program.’ That’s what the website is for! We want to tell you how you can make our program a home – that’s what you can’t find on the website!”

Many respondents encouraged prospective students to understand the differences between programs. This comment by Linda Brennan, from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, was typical: “Educate yourself on the various options available (conservatory, BA, BFA).” Shelly Elman, from the University of West Georgia, urged students to “really examine the difference between the BA and the BFA. Check with professional theatre people who run apprentice programs: which type of graduate better suits their needs?” Kelly Allison, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, noted that decisions shouldn’t be made quickly at the convention: “Choose a program based on the curriculum, faculty and the quality of the work in the program. Don’t select a program without seeing a production, attending a class and speaking privately with current students.”

Preparation means that if you are a design/technical student, your display, portfolio and related materials matter. Karen Berman, from Georgia College and State University, reminded candidates to “have a resume and/or portfolio on hand,” which indicates how many prospective students forget these crucial items. The materials should be “well-prepared and organized,” according to John O’Connor, from Fairmont State University in West Virginia. He urged students to use the materials to “tell your story … make it interesting. Give it a clear beginning, middle and end.”

If you are auditioning as an acting student, you need to “rehearse and prepare for the audition/interview as if it were a performance,” according to Lee Crouse, from the Mississippi University for Women. All respondents reminded auditionees that this should be their process going forward. “Get into the habit of investigating and researching your characters, the plays, the playwrights, the industry, the business, trends, etc. … The more you do it, the better you become,” said Ryan Chittaphong, from the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York. Jon Fraser, from Long Island University Post, reminded students that character analysis is just as important for auditions: “Show me that you can do something other than memorize lines or lyrics; show me that you have an understanding of what the character you’re playing wants and who/what is his/her obstacle in getting what they want; have a physical life for your character.” Paul Bawek, from Florida Southern College, spoke for many: “Find a piece that is close to your type at this moment in time and live in it fully.” Ed Cheetham, from the Powerhouse Theater Training Program at Vassar College in New York, reinforced this perspective: “Be brave, truthful. Be yourself.”

Auditionees: Be Open to Suggestions

In describing ways to improve auditions, many respondents seemed to indicate that some candidates are too focused on themselves during their post-audition interviews. For example, Anne Towns, from Young Harris College in Georgia, described the qualities she’d like from auditionees, as opposed to what she must have received: “positive attitude…ensemble thinking, not self-thinking … Understand that acting is a form of giving to others, not taking for yourself.” Candidates may be asked to try their pieces again with adjustments, because, as Pia Wyatt, from Northwestern State University in Louisiana, wrote, universities look for students who have the “ability to take correction and really learn.” Michele A. Pagen, from California University of Pennsylvania, advised: “Be yourself, be open to suggestion and criticism. Listen.” Perhaps the most succinct response came from a recruiter from Wake Forest University in North Carolina: “Be someone you’d want to work with.”

Technical Interviewees: Don’t Panic

Recruiters with specific comments for design and technical students advised them not to become overly stressed about the interview process – encouraging them to focus on what they want in a program as opposed to trying to be what a particular program wants.

Jane Childs, from the Stagecraft Institute of Las Vegas, advised: “Relax and breathe and be yourself. Nobody wants the pretend version of you.” Brian Smallwood, from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, wrote, “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Try to find the right program for you rather than the most prestigious. Interview the school as much as they interview you.” Thomas Salzman, from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, suggested that design and technical students consider this question as they evaluate schools: “Is this the place that you want to spend the next four years, and will you have a lot of hands-on opportunities to work on productions to meet your goals?”

GPA and Test Scores Matter

Some schools, such as East Tennessee State University and Georgia College and State University, ranked a high GPA and a strong scholastic record as very important. According to Karen Brewster at East Tennessee, strong letters of reference are also necessary, as they indicate “not only talent, but a record of responsible behavior and participation.” Mississippi University for Women listed solid ACT/SAT scores as one of its top items. Auburn looked for “a strong record of academic and artistic accomplishment,” and George Mason University expected “a reasonably good GPA.” George Mason represented many schools with this comment: “If your grades are poor, it doesn’t matter how talented you are. We won’t be able to accept you into our theatre major if our university does not admit you as a student.”

Final Recommendations

So, if you are that well-dressed high school or transfer student preparing to audition or interview at the SETC Convention, heed these words of wisdom from the recruiters.

Prepare in advance:

  • Research the differences between degrees offered by educational programs.
  • Know specifics of the programs – courses, productions, faculty and opportunities.
  • Prepare your audition or display/portfolio as if it were a job, and tell a story.

Be present in the moment:

  • Bring your well-organized materials (and your well-organized self).
  • Be interested, not just interesting. Ask questions that show your research.
  • Finally, remember that the recruiters are on your side.
Kevin Murray
Reis McCormick
Wm. Perry Morgan
David Balthrop
Bob Shryock
Headshot of Mike Murphy
Mike Murphy
David Young
Justin Reed
David Haugen
Dick Block
Matt Huff
Kitty Clarke
Paul B. Crook
Carl Lefko
Dan Backlund
Headshot of Maegan McNerney Azar
Maegan Azar
Linda Brennan
Shelly Elman
Kelly Allison
Karen Berman
John O’Connor
Ryan Chittaphong
Paul Bawek
Pia Wyatt
Karen Brewster
Brian Smallwood
Jane Childs
Michele A. Pagen


Scott Hayes is dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts at Liberty University in Virginia and a member of the Southern Theatre Editorial Board.


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