Is an MFA Acting Program Right For You?

Auditioning

If you’ve been taking acting classes for a while and have started to get cast in plays, you may start to wonder what’s next. If you are serious about wanting to become a professional actor, what is the best way of honing your craft?

One path that many professional actors take is to earn their MFA in acting. Typically, MFA acting programs last one to three years and feature a daily regimen of acting, voice, and movement classes, as well as the chance to be in multiple productions a year.

Many say that MFA acting programs are great because they are intense boot camps where you have the ability to focus entirely on your art without having to work a day job while auditioning at night. Plus, being in a program with others who are serious about acting and directing can be a great networking opportunity later on.

Others say MFA acting programs cost a lot of money without guaranteeing that you’ll end up making it.

Sommer Austin, co-founder of Green Shirt Studio, received her MFA in acting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she says the experience was invaluable.

“As an MFA actor, I was required to play big parts in plays as a fulfillment of my training, and that was so great for my acting, because in my undergrad years I hadn’t been cast regularly in mainstage plays in large roles. I also got to see people (my teachers) who were making a living in the arts,” she says. “MFA training opened up a whole new world for me in what was possible as an academic and as an artist, and I am very grateful because that experience is a large part of what has led me here.”

Austin says the biggest benefit of earning your MFA is that it gives you the ability to become an acting teacher, which can help pay the bills while you continue to work as an actor.

“If you have a terminal degree (MFA or PhD), you are qualified to teach at a college or university, which can be a great way for an artist to earn a living while they are trying to do their art which may not yield much financial gain,” she says.

So how do you know if applying to an MFA acting program is right for you? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions:

  1. Does getting an MFA help you get roles?
    While getting a graduate degree in acting doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a Tony or an Oscar, it can give you a solid foundation that will give you a leg up against the competition when you are auditioning.

    Austin says when she is auditioning people, she can always tell those who have an MFA in acting vs. those who don’t. “When I am directing a show and sitting in the audition room watching auditions, I can tell when a person who has training walks into the room,” she says. “The kind of long-term commitment and work that an MFA program demands really changes an actor.”

  1. What do you have to do to apply to an MFA program?
    Although each school has its own process, most usually require an application, then an audition and an interview and perhaps a chance to see you in a classroom setting. Austin says there is a unified audition process for the University of Resident Theatre Association, known as the URTAs. “They hold a massive audition which all of the URTA schools send reps to, and those take place once a year in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. So it’s possible to hit up a bunch of school auditions in one place that way,” Austin says. “The schools that are not URTA schools are often at the same location, but you will have to schedule a separate audition (and also a separate application fee) to be seen by them.”
  1. How much does an MFA program cost?
    You should estimate that you’ll spend about $38,000 a year, according to the Hollywood Reporter, or about $114,000 for most three-year programs. And that’s just on tuition. Don’t forget the money you’ll have to spend on housing, food, books, etc. However, just like with an undergraduate degree, you can apply for financial aid and also take out federal loans to go to school, as well. Plus, many schools offer a wide range of scholarships, and often you can work as a graduate teaching assistant or project assistant to offset your tuition. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a tuition waiver in exchange for a graduate teaching assistantship, plus a scholarship, to MFA students, making it essentially free to attend. Check with each school that you are interested in to find out what scholarship opportunities they have available.
  2. How hard are programs to get into?
    Most of the top MFA programs in the country only accept a handful of students each year. For example, DePaul University’s Theater School only accepts 14 students a year, USC School of Dramatic Arts accepts about eight, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison only takes 12 students every three years. So competition is fierce.
  3. Can you do it if you did not major in acting in undergrad?
    Yes! “The great thing about most MFA programs is that it doesn’t matter what you majored in in undergrad, because they base their criteria on your audition, an interview process, and your acting credentials,” Austin says. “So if you’ve been an actor but have a degree in biology, it doesn’t matter.”
  4. What are the best schools to apply to?
    This is a very difficult question to answer and one that is personal to each person. Before deciding, ask yourself some questions: Do you want a program that emphasizes acting for the screen, or are you more interested in acting for the stage? Do you want to move to L.A. or New York, or are you more comfortable in a smaller city? Are you all about classical plays and Shakespeare or more excited about experimental theater? Think about what’s most important to you and then find a program that fits the bill.

To get you started, here are two lists of some of the best MFA acting programs in the United States and the U.K. from the Hollywood Reporter and Backstage.

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