Preparing for College

Optional Music Tape Submissions: Will They Help or Hurt Admission Decisions?

Question: I know that a good music tape may enhance the chance of admission (e.g., at a school where there is a need for a particular instrument to fill a slot on the orchestra). However, could a music tape that is rated mediocre or worse by the music department actually harm an applicant's chances of admission?

Typically, if your application blows your own horn as a musician, but the relevant faculty members at your top-choice colleges have to hold their hands over their ears as they listen to the tape you submit, then your music “hook” will quickly unfurl. You may be admitted for other qualities beyond you musical prowess, but if it was largely those talents that were keeping you in the running, then a mediocre or bad submission could knock you out of it.

Only very qualified musicians should include an optional tape with application materials, but sometimes it’s hard to gauge what “qualified” really means. Students who are considered outstanding by their music teachers may not , nonetheless, be able to hold their own with other musicians from different parts of the country. However, if your instructor is encouraging about your abilities, take a chance and submit your tape.

When sending in any sort of unsolicited audio/visual materials (tapes, slides, etc.), it’s wise to take the time to ask target colleges how these submissions will be handled. Some colleges have very specific policies about when and where to send them and about how they will be evaluated. At other schools, however, the protocol is much looser, and supplementary materials may gather dust on forgotten shelves. (One college we know of actually stored these things in the bathroom, for lack of other space!).

If the admission office cannot offer guarantees that your tape will actually be heard by a music professor, you might be wise to mail it directly to a prof yourself. Some students have had very favorable results with this approach. Begin by using a college’s Web site or catalogue to identify the best faculty match (i.e., the person who teaches classes relevant to your talents and interests). Next, send an e-mail to that prof (again, use the Web site for addresses or contact the admission office) and ask if he or she would be willing to evaluate your tape. If you get the green light, send the tape, along with a brief note asking this prof to put in a good word for you with admission officials, if your work passes muster.

Make sure your tape is clearly marked with your name, school, and a description of what it includes. Don’t expect to get it back (but if you send a stamped, addressed mailing envelope, you probably will). Don’t worry about bothering professors with your request, as long as you ask in advance (and nicely). Remember, most teachers are eager to identify students with talent and interest in their field and are happy to see them show up in September.