Drama: Diploma vs. MFA

By: Carolyn Michelle Smith, First-Year Drama Student

Just last year, I was right where you are, trying to decide if I wanted to apply to an acting MFA program or to Juilliard. And I’ll have to admit: It can be quite a difficult decision!

My name is Carolyn Michelle Smith and I’m in my first year in the Drama Division here at Juilliard. I applied to the school as a Diploma student. Originally, I thought to myself: “How do I go back to school for acting for four years and not get an MFA!?” I received my BA from Fordham University at Lincoln Center some years back, graduated and thought to myself: “Yeah, I’m think I’m done with school for a while.” In my mind, as an actor in New York City, it was all about getting work. I completed an Acting Apprenticeship at Actors Theatre of Louisville, took classes at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C….and I worked! Then one day in the middle of a rehearsal I found myself stuck. There were certain tools in my “Actor’s Toolbox” that I needed to access. It was then that I realized…I didn’t have them! I could no longer simply rely on instinct, I needed technique.

It was at that moment that I decided to take matters into my own hands. I figured, now was the time: I was going to apply to grad school.

I began applying to schools, and quite honestly, found the process to be a bit dizzying! Deadlines, and essays, and fees…Oh my! When I looked into Juilliard, I found myself a bit hesitant about applying to a program that offered a Diploma instead of an MFA. My first thought was: “Ummm, not so sure about that!” The financial investment, plus the extra year (Juilliard’s Drama Division is a 4 year program) left me feeling a bit apprehensive. I sought advice about it, and then decided it was definitely worth a shot. Always good to have options, right?

I applied, auditioned and was accepted! It was the best phone call I think I’ve ever received! I accepted the offer after further research, a campus visit and many conversations with my actor friends over coffee. I realized it was an offer I couldn’t refuse! More than anything, it was really my visit to the school that cemented my decision. When I came, I saw a performance, and spoke to several current students in the Division. It just felt right… like the perfect fit.

My decision in choosing Juilliard instead of an MFA program was based on a few key factors. First off, I felt that the Drama Division demanded a level of focus and training that I’d been searching for in a program. Having worked in the industry for a few years, I was familiar with the type of actor that walked out of Juilliard. There was a level of professionalism they were equipped with, that was unmatched. Also, I saw the “extra year” as an added benefit. As I mentioned earlier, while some MFA programs are only three years, that additional year after graduation is all about getting your feet wet in the industry. While this may be an option for some, I’ve found that the shows, classes, and exposure offered in your fourth year at Juilliard can provide just as many opportunities as a year of “making the rounds” in the New York Theatre scene. Not to mention the fact that many of the directors, designers and playwrights that you collaborate with here are the same professionals you’ll be working with when you’re out in the real world. Receiving an MFA seemed to be a great idea because it would give me the option to teach. However, in my heart of hearts, I know that I got into this industry with a love for performance. Fortunately, Juilliard does offer several education outreach programs (both in the U.S. and abroad) that will allow you the opportunity to give back as an educator. Finally, when it came down to money, I was wondering what to expect in terms of loans. As a Diploma student, getting funding is hard but not impossible. Look for scholarships, Grants and Fellowships. Anything you can do to make the cost of tuition a bit easier to handle.

Above all else, when looking at schools and deciding, just remember whether it’s 3 or 4 years, you want to be in a place that feels like home. Too often we make decisions, based on reputation alone. Trust your gut. With every school that you’re applying to, remember that you are interviewing the school as much as they are interviewing you. Take your time, ask questions, speak to alumni, do everything possible to get the assistance you need. Go where you can grow.

Juilliard is exactly what I was looking for during this phase of my artistic development. Everyday in class, I look back, and remember where I was a year ago…I smile and then realize, I’m exactly where I was meant to be!

Note from Tina Gonzalez, Director of Financial Aid: It’s important to note that the diploma program is considered an undergraduate program, not graduate, which may affect students’ eligibility for federal aid.  Contact the financial aid office for more information.