How do I handle art school rejection?

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Not being accepted into art school is a massive disappointment. It’s arguably one of the biggest challenges a beginning artist can face: the institution that you dream to enter in order to deepen your artistic voice, the institution that you want to become a part of, isn’t even willing to collaborate with you – could there be anything worse?

If art is an enigma, then art schools can be fantasized to be that enigma’s initial gatekeepers. A rejection by such a gatekeeper often can’t easily be brushed off. In addition to being a real rejection, it’s also a highly symbolic one.

1. Reasons for art school rejection

The reason for art school to reject you can’t usually be known, and can be entirely different than you imagine. Most artists will interpret a rejection as their work lacking the right attitude or quality – this can’t really be known though. Consider the following alternative explanations that might cause a rejection:

  • Tunnel vision: Although art is a limitless platform for self-expression, art schools often are not. Instead, each institution usually stands for a specific formal and aesthetical view of the world: some strongly focus on theory, others on craft – with endless gradations in-between. Your work might be totally acceptable for one art school, but might simply not fit the (often unverbalized) vision of the school you got rejected from.
  • Randomness: Your portfolio might never have been seen, or it might not have been seen by the jury member most likely to understand and want it: a professor’s lack of attention in a critical moment (when your work gets shown) can be devastatingly detrimental to your acceptance. The jury members who might have wanted to work with you could have gotten sick, have a family emergency etc – and their replacement might not share their semantic and aesthetic preferences.
  • Statistics: Art schools usually have way more candidates than available places; a specific art school might accept 70 students per year, but receive 1500 applications – resulting in you only having a 4.67% chance of getting accepted. Applying to art school means that a group of people get placed first (those who are accepted), while everyone else gets no place at all: if there are 52 seats available, being ranked 53th equals rank 1500. When applying to art school, statistics always work against you.

  • Diversity: Art thrives on diversity, which begins in promoting voices that don’t usually get to be heard. As a result, a jury can favor someone whose work might be similar to yours, but whose personal background might seem more fitting to their vision of diversity: someone with a marginalized background, or from a country whose cultural background makes them seem more interesting than you do. Although potentially working against your self-interest, any push towards more diversity is to be applauded – it would be one of the better reasons for rejection: to know that it might be the result of an institution’s push to promote marginalized voices.

2. Accept loss, and increase agency

Understand that art isn’t objective, and neither are art schools or their application processes. Questioning one’s work is normative for artists, but being rejected from art school shouldn’t automatically strengthen this attitude.

Instead, take time to heal. Understand that rejection is always a form of loss: you lost the opportunity to begin your life’s next chapter. It can feel as if all agency has been taken from you. Understand that this isn’t true though: if art school is about deepening your involvement with the arts, about connecting to others and getting feedback to your work, then you can establish structures to have all of these in your life autonomously, without art school; and by doing so, your work might become more focused than it was before, which might make it more likely to get accepted the next time you apply.

Of course, this cannot lessen the ego blow of having been rejected. Considering what you aimed for, and what you got, it’s OK to see yourself as a victim (of hope, of fate, of randomness, of art world politics, etc). Transcending victimhood requires the establishing of agency – which can be achieved entirely on your own. Some might even argue that the only way to transcend is by your own proactivity.

Consider the following strategies:

  • Deepen your artistic practice
    • Show up: Continue establishing a long-term work structure that can exist in parallel to your existing life obligations – even an hour of work per day will make a difference when judged after a year. Understand that showing up (in the studio, in front of the material), is the one requirement that you can usually influence on your own. It’s the base challenge that artists have to face, entirely independently of their level of success.
    • Work: Continue focusing on your work’s multitude of quality ideals: what is your work about, and how do you manifest it physically (or virtually)? Understand that any work you create represents progress, even if the specific piece might feel like failure. You might not yet understand the many approaches to art that you have within you.
    • Collaborate: Consider connecting to others with the intention to collaborate. While shared authorship and processes create a mutual dependency, they also offer the potential for a shared, and thus lower creative burden. In addition, collaborations can lead to unexpected ideas and energies that might feed back into your core artistic practice.

  • Network
    • Connect to others: although healing can require solitude (and take time), being embedded in an atmosphere of trust and encouragement can offer advantages. A proactive step after art school rejection could be to consider joining a group studio or to self-organize meetups with fellow artists (to discuss life and art, and your artworks), or even to organize a group with which you can visit art openings. This can enable you to feel more embedded, and ultimately more at home with your work (and the industry you want to be a part of).
    • Deepen your knowledge about local galleries, art spaces and artists: Instead of focusing on your rejection, you can try to focus on art – since that is what initially made you want to make art yourself. Try to increase your knowledge about the places that show art locally: galleries, art spaces etc. You can even contact other artists and ask whether they’d have time for you to visit their studio. Connecting to the world like this can be empowering, since it enables you to form your own opinion about what you see and experience. 
  • Get feedback for your work
    • Find sparring partners: Consider connecting to others with the intention to mutually discuss your work. This can be a low-threshold strategy to get external feedback to your work. Make sure that principles of safe space are adhered to, and consider reading What’s the anatomy of art feedback? and its various subchapters.
    • Consider mentorship: Consider finding a mentor to safely discuss your work – someone with an increased understanding of art, artistic processes and art world dynamics, as well as an intimate sensitivity to your progress and potentials. Similar to a personal trainer in a gym, such a person can help you see what you yourself might not yet have the capacity to sense.
      Understand that this always comes at the risk of you trusting that external voice more than your own – art isn’t a gym. It requires the artist to become ever more sensitive to themselves, which always turns mentorship into a balancing act of the mentor’s versus the mentee’s voice.
    • Visit professors who you wanted to get accepted by: Communicate with those who rejected your work: This is a tricky one: depending on your courage and assessment of the situation, it can make sense to reach out to the specific professor(s) you hoped to get accepted from. Note that they might not be interested in this, and that contacting the institute itself usually isn’t of any help at all; the proper way to try this is to go there in person, and to see whether there’s a moment to ask about feedback: how could you improve, does this make sense, etc.
      Understand that this is as much a networking opportunity as it is a feedback opportunity – it might even be more of the prior than the latter: where the professor might only have seen the portfolio up until now, they now get to see the person behind it – which can benefit you upon reapplication. Take care to reflect sensitively about the potential feedback – it might not actually match your ideas about art (consider reading What’s the anatomy of art feedback? and its various subchapters).

Independently of the above points (working, networking and getting feedback), consider the following strategies to increase your chances:

  • Reevaluate your ideas about the school you applied to: Considering your recent experiences, how does your today’s knowledge compare to your initial projection? It might make sense to take a step back and compare your recent experiences with the potential of other art schools that you didn’t yet consider.
  • Reapply: It might feel unrealistic to consider reapplying right after a rejection, yet (a) you always lose all challenges that you don’t rise to, and (b) there’s usually no necessity to reapply right away – this usually takes close to a year. If you want to get accepted, you definitely need to reapply. In addition, you can consider applying to other art schools as well.

All the while, you need to stay sensitive to the pain caused by the rejection. Is it too strong? Does it trigger you? It can make sense to interpret art school rejection as the first step into a profession of rejections: the artist’s professional life brims with these situations: solo shows that get cancelled, residency rejection letters, dismissed project proposals, etc. If your ego is hurt too badly, it can make sense to reconsider whether your current strategy suits you. Think and discuss deeply whether art school is the right path for you. What alternative approaches are out there that might suit your expectations better? Does it make sense to deepen the various possibilities of being self-taught? There are endless ways of getting into the arts: art schools do not have to be the one for you.

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