Live Design

Don’t Rush Into Anything When Applying for Graduate School

by Susan Hilferty on October 1, 2000

Dear Reader: In this, our annual education issue, Susan Hilferty, the chair of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Design for Stage and Film, offers a daring suggestion for undergrad students contemplating grad school: Don’t rush into anything.

After seeing numerous applicants coming in for interviews woefully unprepared artistically and mentally for the rigors of grad school, she realized the problem was not that these students weren’t potentially good designers, but that they weren’t adequately prepared to think and work like designers. Some had no real drawing skills, many hadn’t even bothered to go to the theatre. In essence, they weren’t living the life of a designer. Hilferty’s advice to these undergrad students can be found on page 36, and the title says it all: “Take a Year Off.”

My question is this: Where the hell was Hilferty when I was a senior in high school? Looking back, I was woefully unprepared for just about everything except getting out of my small town as quickly as possible. I went to a big city university in my home state without a clear idea of what I wanted to do, and I graduated four years later only slightly less fuzzy. My high school guidance counselor, Mr. Hanlin, offered nothing in the way of guidance, and though my various college professors provided some help, I never had a clear idea of what I wanted to do until I was much older and wiser. Taking a year off between high school and college may have given me a chance to collect my thoughts, explore the world, and figure out what it was I wanted to do with my life a bit sooner. Turns out I’m very happy with the path my life has taken, but there are many others out there who are less fortunate. Having someone say, “Yes, education is important – in fact it’s vital – but it’s always going to be there, and there is something to be said for getting some real-world experience before settling on your life’s path,” could help make the difference for untold gifted students not quite clear as to what they want to do with their young lives. Whether they take that advice or not is their choice, but just knowing it’s an option is possibly the best guidance of all.

Of course, there are many paths to success, and formal education is but one. Take a look at the other part of our special report on education, “Who’s Next,” and you’ll see what I mean. Five young designers, all making their marks in the fields of costume, lighting, projection, set, and sound design, all with very different backgrounds. Sage Carter dropped out of college after two years and designed jewelry before becoming one of the hottest young projection designers in that burgeoning field. Klara Zieglerova studied in her native Czech Republic before coming to America and studying at Yale; she’ll be making her Broadway debut as a set designer in Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe this fall.