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Grad show

“What do you mean you don’t have exams?”

That is the typical question I’d get from my friends who go to regular (regular in the specific sense of non-art schools) universities. Some of my friends who are unfamiliar with art school might perceive my experience in an art school, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, as an otherworldly one. In a way, they have their point. Art schools offer a distinct setting and college life in contrast of that offered by regular universities.

However, the differences are what make an art school experience special, fun, and challenging at the same time. Let’s take a look at what art schools typically offer as opposed to other colleges.

  1. No exams
    As mentioned, there is barely any exam in art schools. The curriculum at art schools is comprised mainly of studio classes, which are core art classes that help you build portfolio. So do we have exams in our studio classes? Instead of exams, we have presentations every week as both our homework and exams. So instead of midterm and final exams, we have midterm and final presentations.
  2. No textbook required
    The benefit of going to an art school is, you won’t have to worry about carrying a 300-page textbook to classes. Instead of spending the money on textbook, art students spend their money on printing, laser cutting, and buying tools and equipment to create their projects.
  3. Portfolio building
    Portfolio plays a crucial role in a designer’s career. Namely, art schools help aspiring designers to build their portfolio. The portfolio consists of various projects (portfolio pieces) that will demonstrate the designer’s conceptual thinking and execution ability. A project is usually conceived from a class chosen by the student. For example, if a graphic design student wants to be a motion designer, then she will choose mostly motion design-focused classes to add motion graphic pieces in their portfolio. An entire semester is required to create a strong, portfolio piece. Students are expected to present the project progress weekly (or in every class meeting) before the project comes to a completion at the end of the semester – as delivered through the final presentation. Along with the graduation ceremony, students will gather their portfolio pieces they have built in their years and display them in a graduation show, where students will sometimes earn a recruitment.
  4. Learning by doing
    Art schools education focus more on the hands-on skills and less on the theory. Students learn by doing. In studio classes, professors give brief tutorials and examples of past class work as form of lectures. The examples of past class work will serve as inspirations for students to work on their projects. In addition to that, professors tend to push and challenge the students to think out of the box by throwing possible ideas or art direction.
  5. Studio: not your typical classroom
    Classrooms in art schools aren’t like those of regular colleges. Don’t expect to sit in class for hours listening to your professor’s lecture. Classrooms in art schools have an interactive studio setting, which means, most of the classroom activity involves students presenting their work (the progress of their project). But don’t fret: an art school’s studio setting and interaction in class reflects a real-life working studio. Thus, it is an effective way to prepare students for their career after the graduation. Each presentation is followed by a (constructive) feedback or known as critique session delivered by both the professor and students. The session requires students to participate by throwing ideas to the work presented by their classmate. You can compare critique to grading exams. In critique, professors and students will normally point out what works and what doesn’t work on the student’s project. All in all, the professor wants the students to succeed. Gradual improvement will build up to create a strong portfolio piece by the end of the semester.
  6. Intimate classes
    A studio class normally consists of nine to a maximum of twenty students. Having only a few people enrolled creates an engaging class, as that brings students together and strengthens the individual bonds between a student and the professor. With that said, skipping class is nearly impossible because your absence will surely be noticed! A small class also increases the competitiveness but don’t worry, along with it comes motivation and encouragement that you need.
  7. Rigorous lifestyle
    One of the popular myths about art students is that they absolutely have no life. This term refers to students lacking sleep, and even being completely occupied all the time even on the weekends. As a former art student, I can confirm that things can get a bit crazy sometimes, especially on midterms and finals week. However, rigorousness is relative as it all really depends on the class workload and how good the students are in managing their time. Some of my friends still managed to have some time off their art school life. Some enroll in a piano or yoga class. The key is, according to them, to get the work done as early as possible and avoid procrastination. Always have room for your personal time. Taking naps in between working also helps maintain your stamina.
  8. Your professors act as mentors
    One interesting fact about faculty in art schools: most of them don’t hold a degree in teaching and education. Professors in art schools are professional designers; some are even renowned in the industry. They own their own studio and actively work in the field outside of their teaching job at college. Professors act as mentors or instructors, as they are addressed in my almamater. They teach not merely by sharing their knowledge, but they will help students direct their project and give them hands-on skills.
  9. Unconventional campus life
    From my perspective, life at art school is surely as, if not even busier than regular colleges. We may not have athletics or sorority houses, but we do have clubs, activities, and all sorts of gathering. Campus activities are mostly driven towards supporting students in maintaining their well-being and relieving stress amidst the crazy rigorous schedule. An example would be at my almamater college, whereby the organization in charge of student activities would provide free food at 10 pm – dubbed as late night breakfast – a week before the finals. At that time of the semester, a lot of students tend to stay up late at school and gnawing hunger at night becomes inevitable. With the cafeteria being closed and vending machine snacks not being so nutritious, the organization provides healthy food ranging from pancake to fruits buffet style. So, students would flock to the cafeteria where the breakfast takes place and create a lively – though momentary – engagement for students before they have to get back studying for their finals.

Art school life can be tough but at the end of the day, it is meant to cultivate the best talents ready to plunge into the art industry. There is a lot of fun that you can get out of the experience. The key is just have fun with it. Carry the passion with you, work your absolute hardest, and you’ll soon sure grow to be the designer you want to be.

Content edited by Artricia Rasyid

Photo credits: authors’ collection