Welcome to ThinkTank Learning’s “The Inside Scoop” (TiSc) blog series in which admissions officials from colleges and universities across the USA share their perspectives on the admissions process at their school.
School: Rhode Island School of Design (RISD, “Riz-Dee”)
Rhode Island School of Design is a fine arts and design college located in Providence, in the U.S. state of Rhode Island. It has been ranked among the best art and design universities in the United States, with notable alumni such as James Franco and Seth MacFarlane.
1. What are the key features that you seek in an undergraduate candidate?
Students who apply to RISD as freshmen are applying to our Experimental and Foundation Studies Program. This is a rigorous year-long program that emphasizes the creative process, experimentation, and rigorous hands-on studio work. With this in mind, visual art skill, risk taking, experimentation, point of view, and work ethic are critical attributes that we’re looking for in our applicants. Transfer students are additionally considered for their fit to their major.
2. What would be the biggest or most common mistake that students make on their application?
Because we’re considering students for their fit to our foundation program, we recommend that their portfolio is broadly focused rather than specifically career focused. Students who limit themselves to one type of work or one style are not typically our strongest applicants. Also, writing is more important than most of our applicants believe. Many students write about how much they want to be an artist – but we assume this fact about all of our applicants, so we encourage them to write about other things. Writing in-depth about one thing is better than trying to write about everything. Authenticity is crucial, and can take many forms – humorous, serious, scholarly, etc.
3. What advice do you have for high school students who plan to apply in the future?
Immerse yourself in all kinds of visual expression and maintain grades in the B+ range.
4. What is the most common misconception that people have about your admissions process?
Many people think there’s a formula for being admitted to RISD: If they submit a certain type of portfolio they will be admitted. The truth is that there is no formula. We admit many different kinds of artists and designers with a broad range of studio work. It’s much more important that the student follows their interests and talents than working towards that “right” portfolio.
5. There is a trend of rebellion against standardized testing. Some say that standardized tests help make the process faster/easier, but adds bias and inaccuracy when assessing a student’s future potential. What are your thoughts on this subject?
The SAT or ACT don’t tend to be the single deciding factor in our admissions process. I’m fond of telling students that if they have to choose between taking an SAT prep course and taking a figure drawing course, they should take the figure drawing course – it will help them much more in their application to RISD.
6. How much weight does the art portfolio count in the admissions decision?
The portfolio is the most important part of our application followed by academic GPA. The portfolio shows us the student’s creative potential. The grades show us their work ethic. Both things are important at RISD.
7. Is there any specific thing/factor you are looking for in a student’s art pieces?
Most of what we’re looking for in a portfolio is intangible things like risk taking and point of view, thinking and creative problem solving. Students should try to show us a broad range of work, and emphasize basic foundation skills like life drawing, design, and/or possibly three-dimensional work.
8. What are some of the more popular/selective majors at your college?
Our most populous major is Illustration. About a quarter of our freshmen choose Illustration each year. Other large majors are Graphic Design, Industrial Design, and Painting.
9. How does major selection impact your assessment of an applicant?
We ask our freshmen their major interest mostly as a way of putting their artwork in context, but we don’t use it as a selection criterion. Freshmen don’t declare their major until the middle of their second semester, and only about two thirds end up choosing the major that they indicated on their application. Transfer applicants, on the other hand, apply directly to their departments and their portfolios should be geared towards that department.
10. How “transfer friendly” is your school?
Our school admits transfers on a space availability basis by department. Some departments are very transfer friendly, and others are more competitive. This also varies a bit from year to year. We do like to talk to any transfers who are interested in applying so we can help them figure out their direction and which department is best for them.
11. Tell us a fun fact, unique story, or piece of insider information most people don’t know about your school.
Insider Admissions Tip: I run the RISD Admissions Facebook page. This is the best place for students to get their admissions questions answered. I’m on the group all the time, and every question a student asks answers the question for another student. I try not to answer questions on Christmas, but usually lose my resolve at about 4pm.
Fun fact about RISD: We have over 70 student-generated clubs and organizations – everything from sports teams to community engagement to things like The Cheese Society and The Pigeon Club.
Unique Story: RISD has a visual resource called the Nature Lab that has over 80,000 specimens – everything from mineral formations to taxidermy animals. There’s an entire room dedicated to skeletons, and another room, called Tiny Town, filled with microscopes. The idea is that a lot of symmetry, structure, texture and pattern exist in nature, and by studying this, artists can develop their visual vocabulary.
About The Author
Lucy King is Associate Director of Admissions for Recruitment at RISD and also a RISD Alum. She has worked in the RISD Admissions Office for over 20 years. What she loves most about her career is the students and families she’s worked with over the years. “Helping young artists and designers navigate towards their future is very rewarding. They continuously inspire and amaze me.”
Editors: David H. Nguyen, Ph.D., Ruoying Han, M.S.Ed., Kate Foster, B.A.