Perhaps the most fascinating starting point for all musicians looking into college for music is deciding between the conservatory and university.

Making the decision between the two is exceptionally important to your future – after all, the four years you spend at college shape your future perhaps more powerfully than any other investment in your life.

I have personally known thousands of students from both types of schools, many of which have gone into successful careers in music and other fields.

What I see often in musicians and families looking into finding which type of school fits them best is that while some of them know the major differences between the two, there are many differences that are not often well-understood.

Some examples of conservatories include Juilliard, New England Conservatory, and Cleveland Institute of Music.

You could make an argument that Berklee College of Music is a conservatory as well, although it has a completely different take on that definition than the traditional, smaller classically-bent institution.

Some examples of major university music programs include USC, Michigan, and Indiana.

Today, we are going to examine 10 important factors to consider when choosing university or conservatory.

At the end of the list, we are going to determine which one is better.

10. Size

photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

Some say the size of the school they attend does not matter to them, but I would strongly suggest visiting schools that are a variety of sizes to gauge what is exactly going to fit you best.

The debate among the academic and, believe it or not, the psychology community concerning which educational experience and outcome is more positive is endless.

In my own experience working with students, I find that the answer is subjective; some students want the large university feel and to have the “classic college experience,” other students prefer the small, intimate conservatory feel, excluding some aspects of the traditional college experience in exchange for the focused feel of the conservatory.

Traditionally, if you like a smaller, more intimate feel for a school, a conservatory fits the bill better – most independent conservatories are less than 1,000 total students!

Many schools, like Indiana University, are conversely very large with over 30,000 total students.


9. High School Test Scores & GPA for Admission

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This is one aspect that does not get talked about enough; conservatories have significantly less stringent academic requirements than most universities.

Top conservatories like Juilliard, San Francisco Conservatory, and New England Conservatory do not require SAT or ACT scores as part of their admissions standards.

To my knowledge, these schools do not have a minimum GPA requirement as well, though they do look favorably on students that have academic merit and achievement in their profile.

Some university music programs are adopting the no-test policy for admission. Boston University’s School of Music, for example, is among those programs.

Many university music programs do not expect music students to have excellence in academics the way that engineering or science majors do.

One well-known example is the University of Michigan music program – although the average GPA of an incoming student at UMich is above a 3.7, you can be accepted to the Michigan music school on a 3.0 grade average.

This is not universally true; Harvard, for example, expects equal academic excellence from music and liberal arts students.

That said, for students who are not quite 3.0 overall, conservatories typically offer more flexible admissions standards.


8. Scholarships

I consistently find that the smaller the school, the better the scholarship opportunities can be for undergraduate students.

Because of this, I often recommend liberal arts colleges to be one of the best types of schools for gaining significant scholarship.

Why are liberal arts colleges so strongly correlated to excellent scholarships from my experience?

Because the schools are small and there are normally less than 50 graduate students in an entire liberal arts college.

You see, at many major universities, the graduate school comprises a large percentage of the student body.

Also, graduate students are very often considered for scholarship and assistantships before undergraduate students.

This problem does not exist at the liberal arts college, because schools don’t have to give scholarships to the graduate students as there is a negligible graduate population.

I’m not saying conservatories and universities don’t give scholarships; in fact, you can get hefty scholarships from both types of schools, and I’ve seen it happen time and time again with my own students.

Part of it simply comes down to the individual school – some universities, liberal arts colleges, and conservatories simply give more scholarship money than other ones.