Applying to a music and dance school such as Juilliard requires a very different competitive edge than applying to a school like Harvard, because the goal of selective art and music colleges is to admit students with extraordinary talent. It won't matter if you have a stellar academic record—if you don't stand out in the fine arts, you won't make it in.
To start, your application essay probably won't be the thing that sways the admission committee. Most professional art schools and music colleges require evidence of your talent, skill, or ability. Thus, you should expect to provide that proof via an audition or a portfolio of your best work.
Check each school's requirements carefully. Each one may have different requirements. For example, an art school may accept only a certain amount of submitted artwork. One dance school may allow you to send in a videotape in lieu of a live audition while another just down the highway may demand that you appear live on stage. Make sure you know what's expected and prepare accordingly.
Talent matters at a performing arts school
Your admission to a competitive fine arts school will be based, in part, upon review of traditional criteria such as your grade point average, level of coursework, test scores, essays, and interviews. However, for most professional colleges, whether it is a music school, dance school, or theater college, the evaluation of your portfolio or your audition will supersede the review of all other criteria for admission.
Many visual arts colleges even prescreen potential applicants by reviewing portfolios prior to application in order to determine eligibility for admission. This process usually occurs during senior year, and can give you valuable guidance early in the admission process (in other words, you'll know which schools not to apply to!) This helps colleges create a more targeted pool of applicants and is also the reason that acceptance rates at many performing and visual arts schools appear to be higher than other selective institutions.
Even if you're a little less than confident about your skill level, don't let such a practice discourage you. There are some schools that give equal weight to your talent and your academic achievement. And, as you may have noticed, artists also occasionally give in to the tendency to underestimate their talent!
Improve your odds for acceptance to art school or music school
If you think your chances of getting into a competitive fine arts school are questionable, apply to comprehensive colleges and universities that offer majors in art and music as well as a variety of other fields. Most of them will rely on academic criteria to make an admission decision and your portfolio or audition, if required, will play a secondary role.
If you have your heart set on the visual arts and a top-of-the-line art school, you should gain as much studio experience as possible to develop a strong portfolio. Take full advantage of your high school art program, enroll in extra Saturday or summer classes, and maybe even hire a private tutor. Exhibit your artwork whenever the opportunity arises, and get some background and education in art history, as well as the works of contemporary artists.
If you hope to study at a music school, remember that experience and confidence need to be clearly evident in your audition. Therefore, become involved as much as possible in your own high school's music activities as well as local, district, and state youth orchestras, choirs, and performance ensembles. The more you perform and study, the more confident you will be on stage.
Get a reality check before applying to a visual or performing arts school
Competition for admission to the best fine arts school is tough. There are many fine musicians and artists applying, but not everyone will get in. Do what you can to increase your chances, but be realistic. You might want to get feedback from teachers, family, friends, and mentors before you pin all your hopes on one particular theater college or music school. Honest feedback can help you decide on where to apply, and you may discover some options of which you weren't even aware!