The Catholic University of America

Applying to the CUA Composition Program: Some Guidelines

Cherry blossom trees along the tidal basin  

The following guidelines are intended to help you through the CUA application process as easily as successfully as possible. Although they are created with CUA in mind, the principles here can apply to many undergraduate and graduate programs.

As with all applications - whether they be for grants, fellowships, competitions, or degree programs - the earlier you are able to make contact with the institution, the better. In the majority of cases, a submitted application is the first contact which an applicant makes with a degree program. While this is clearly a successful approach for many, applicants are encouraged, for several reasons, to make contact with the institution in advance of submitting an application.


Pre-application contact

The first reason for pre-application contact is that it alerts the institution both to your existence and to your interest in them. A simple email inquiry or phone message indicating your interest in the program, or requesting a meeting during a campus visit, tells the institution that you have learned something in the program (either through word of mouth, visiting the website, or other means) which interests you, and that you are interested enough to make direct contact. This can be an extremely valuable strategy, because even a single email will, in most cases, make your name recognizable among a pile of applicant names.

The second reason for contacting an institution in advance of applying is that it tends to create an impression of you as pro-active and motivated, qualities which every degree program desires in its candidates.

A third reason is that your inquiry allows you to get a feel for the workings of the institution itself. When you make first contact with an institution - say, by email - how quickly does someone from the institution respond? Is the response personal? Does it comes from the appropriate person (in other words, someone who would be best equipped to answer a question, or someone who would normally be a professor or advisor of yours were you to attend that institution)? Does the response answer, or at least try to answer, any question which you might have? Finally, what is the tone of the response? Is it friendly? Does it address you by name? Does it invite you to contact someone (a specific person is always best to have as a contact) if you have more questions? All of these things can (although not necessarily do) give you a glimpse into the general tone and responsiveness of the institution.

Finally, there is a great benefit in seeking to know more about an institution: your inquiry is, in itself, a genuine compliment to that institution, and is usually taken as such. Degree programs are always glad to hear from potential applicants, and will normally follow up your inquiry in some way, keep in touch with you, and be anxious to have you apply to the program and visit the campus.

Campus visit

If your initial contact is promising, you might wish to schedule a campus visit. This should be done before the audition season begins if at all possible (in fact, if it can be done during the previous year, although you should avoid visits just at the end of the academic year, which is always the school's busiest time). Of course, in many cases this is impossible, and the on-campus audition/interview is your first visit to the campus. This is also fine; just be sure to see as much of the building, the institution, and the campus while there.

If you are able to visit the campus before applying, however, write your contact (if you have one) and ask about a possible range of dates which would be convenient for a campus visit at which you could meet with your contact. As faculty are prone to be gone from campus frequently, it is a good idea to check and make sure that the dates of your proposed visit fits. Propose a visit of one hour at the most (a half-hour is preferable), no matter how far you have traveled: faculty are busy people, and while they are glad to see you, they can rarely spare more than an hour even for a potential applicant. And, in any case, most of the topics which need to be covered could be covered in a brief meeting or over email.

The principal purpose of a campus visit is to conduct reconnaissance: when you visit a campus, take in as much information as possible. Observe the campus: where is it located? How are the Music Department/School facilities? Do they seem adequate to the needs of the school (remember, however, that new and impressive facilities do not a strong program make)? What about the general sense of the school? Does it seem agreeable to you? Is it active, vibrant, positive? Or is it sleepy, alienating, angry? Observe the students you see on campus, and be sure to visit the cafeteria, coffee shop, union, etc., to get a sense of student life. And, of course, ask many, many questions: ask questions of as many people as you can find. Stop students in the hallways and ask them their opinion of the school: you're likely to get as frank an answer from them as you are likely to get, and a perspective which faculty or admissions officers will not have. Ask the students both what they like or love about the school, and then some things they wish would be different: in most cases, they will have plenty to say on both counts. But, be sure to consider the answers which faculty and staff give you, as well: they also have important perspectives, and add to the overall picture from another direction.

Work samples - whether to bring them or not

You should bring work samples along on the campus visit, but do not show them to the professor unless he/she asks to see them. Many faculty do not like to see an applicant's work - and, implicitly, be expected to make comment one way or the other - in advance of a formal application. Some faculty feel that, in being presented with a potential applicant's work, they are being forced to give you an informal "straw poll" in advance: in other words, how the faculty member responds to encountering your work could have an impact on your decision to apply to that program. On the other hand, many would be interested in seeing your work: it depends upon the particular person to whom you talk.

When you meet with faculty, be sure to have a short list of questions: you may have 25 questions, but you will probably only have time for 5. Choose the 5 most important questions, and be sure to get answers to those; then, depending upon how the interview goes, you may have the opportunity to get more of your questions answered. Be sure that the questions you ask pertain directly to the program and are not of a general nature: there is usually an admissions staffer who can answer the vast majority of your general questions. Save your important program-specific questions for the person best equipped to answer them.

The campus visit is as much about personal interaction as it is exchange of information; and while you want to give the impression that you are interested and energetic, you do not want to overwhelm the faculty member with questions, either.

You should ask about performance opportunities in the program, what the curriculum is like, what master classes, lectures, and recitals have taken place on campus recently, how many faculty teach composition, how many students are in the program (and what is the balance, if applicable, between undergraduate and graduate students), where do graduates of the program end up, etc. This will give you a good sense of what the activities of the program are like.

Questions of style

Frequently, prospective composition students will ask if the faculty expect all of their students to write in a given style (e.g., usually, "atonal" or "avant-garde"). This question generally tends not to elicit effective response. First, it subtly (although unintentionally) implies that the program might stifle individual creativity. Secondly, by asking the question, you tip your own hand as to the sort of music you prefer, and state your opposition to the which you mention: the question is almost always asked in a negative way, as in, "You don't expect all of us to write only 12-tone music, do you?" Most programs will tell you - and it is generally true - that the style of music is less important than the quality, coherence, and depth of expression, and that these things are possible in any style. So, while most programs will not try to mandate an "official" style, most faculty will try to get you, as the student, to explore repertoire and techniques which you may not have tried or known about before, or have avoided. Your student years are important and valuable years in which you have the luxury, and the privilege, of full exploration: take every advantage of that.


After your visit, it is a good idea to write the faculty member to thank him/her for giving you the time, whether or not you decide to apply to the program. These small gestures create goodwill and are, after all, an important aspect of courtesy.


If you decide to apply to the program (and, of course, we hope that you do!), be sure to apply as early as possible, and submit a complete and full application.  Guidelines for submitting a strong portfolio can be accessed here, and details on portfolio submission can be found here.

During the application process

When you submit your application, pay careful attention to the timeline, and ask when you might reasonably expect to have an answer. Do not contact the institution before that deadline. If the deadline has passed with no answer, wait at least 7-10 days, then inquire courteously. Many factors influence admissions decisions, and committees are sometimes hard to assemble: generally, a lack of response does not imply lack of attention. Be sure that any message you send is polite and measured: impatience can show up easily in an email, and - even if justified - is not encouraged.