A lot of aspiring actors are confused about the difference between a drama school and a university. Is an acting degree from a reputable drama school the same as the one from a university?
In this quick article, I’ll take a look at the difference between studying acting at a drama school vs university. Hopefully this will give you a better understanding which path to take if you’re still considering to get formal training in theater.
Note that this isn’t a comparison of group acting classes vs drama school training (because we previously covered this here). In the UK, accredited drama schools and universities both provide formal/academic education in the form of Bachelors of Arts degree. However, some drama schools may not provide any recognized degrees (more on this in an upcoming article).
So is there a difference between studying acting at drama schools vs universities in the UK? Yes, and the difference is quite significant, too. I’ll elaborate.
Should You Go to Drama School vs University for Acting?
First, let’s briefly take a look at what drama schools and universities are.
What’s a Drama School?
Drama school could be either an independent institution or a drama-based department of a school, college or university. Either one has equal value if they maintain the status of a “drama school” and have their higher education validated by universities.
Drama schools can be a part of a university. This isn’t common, but a good example of a reputable and highly regarded UK drama school that’s part of the university is Drama Centre London. It is associated with Central Saint Martins college which is a constituent college of the University of the Arts London.
In the US, a good example would be the Yale college (university by European standards) that has a Yale Drama School department. It’s a reputable drama school that has also produced a lot of great and famous actors.
An example of “independent” drama schools (which isn’t a very accurate description anyway) would be most accredited drama schools in the UK, such as Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). All this means is that they may have their own buildings and operate on almost their own terms.
What does that mean?
It means that regardless of whether any of those drama schools are part of a university or not, all drama schools must have their higher education validated by universities. Otherwise, they cannot provide a student with a degree. For example, RADA has their degrees validated by King’s College London and they are also an affiliate institution of Conservatoire for Dance and Drama.
To make this less complicated, let me put it this way: in an academic and higher education setting, drama schools are below universities. But when it comes to the actual value of a theater degree, the situation is the opposite (more on this later).
Normally, drama schools have both graduate and undergraduate programs. Students can acquire Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Fine Arts and various Masters degrees in Arts and Science through a drama school.
Here are a few lists with accredited drama schools for you peruse:
- 15 Best Drama Schools in the UK
- 20 Best Drama Schools in the World
- 7 Top Drama Schools in London
- 10 Best Drama Schools in New York
What’s a University for Acting?
University is an institution for higher education that provides students with all types of degrees that aren’t limited to theatre or even arts. Basically, we all know what a university is and what’s it for, so I’m not going to expand any further than this.
Many, if not most, universities will have some type of acting or theatre programs. Those programs entail the usual 3 year study (4 years in the US) and provide students with BA/BFA degrees upon completion. This is where the word independent would apply better, since they actually stand on their own.
In a lot of US colleges, drama departments have been “transformed” into drama schools, which makes it more difficult for students to find actually great programs besides the famous ones. What’s the reason for this? Because everybody knows that a “drama school” is more appealing to students, therefore more will apply, and that means more money for colleges. Capitalism at its finest.
That is not the case with universities in the UK where majority of higher education institutions have some kind of Performing Arts degrees on offer for their students. Those degrees are not, and cannot be labeled as “drama school training,” since there’s a strict policy on what can be labeled as an actual drama school. They’re usually simply named BA Acting.
Moreover, in the UK there’s also a government-backed official accreditation of drama schools governed by Drama UK. This makes it a lot more difficult for any institution to call themselves drama schools (although still possible), and illegal to pose themselves as an “accredited” drama school. Read more on accreditation here.
Here’s a huge list of UK universities that have some type of acting related performing arts degrees on offer.
Unlike drama schools, these performing arts degrees from universities, while carrying the same or similar degree titles, are not as valuable in eyes of the industry.
Why is that the case? The reason is simple: acting training in a reputable drama school is far more rigorous as compared to university education. This relates to everything from general acting training (movement, voice, acting, speech, etc.) to academic training (theory, playwrights, etc.) Drama schools beat out university education on all of those parameters.
Drama schools also have a lot less students and are far more difficult to get into, have a very strict multi-step auditioning process, receive more applications from aspiring actors and decline majority of them. Universities are likely to accept most students as long as they satisfy most of their general criteria.
As a result, an actor with a degree from a drama school will appear more professional, dedicated and better trained to people from the industry, specifically agents and casting directors.
So is there a reason to even apply to a university instead of a drama schools, besides the fact that you may not be able to get accepted into a drama school? Yes, there is. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of drama school training vs university for acting degrees, which should give you a better idea of what you get from either place.
Pros & Cons of Drama Schools Training
Advantages of applying to/training in drama schools:
- The most valuable degree in performing arts one can possibly get;
- Great training for all types of performers, particularly actors;
- Opportunities to meet important industry people and create strong connections;
- Final year graduate showcases attract a lot of good talent agents;
- Agents and casting directors value actors with drama school training more.
Disadvantages of applying to/training in drama schools:
- Extremely busy class schedule and a lot of homework;
- No time to audition for acting jobs or work to support yourself;
Very high cost of trainingSince 2013, universities hiked their prices to cost the same;
- No preparation on the business and marketing side of acting;
- Very difficult to get accepted;
- Some additional training (acting classes) is still recommended after graduation.
Note on the busy schedule: normally, classes in drama schools take place strictly from 8am to 5pm Monday through Friday. Students are expected to do their homework – research and written assignments – during their free time for monthly exams. Weekends are reserved for rehearsals among students themselves for exam-productions.
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Pros & Cons of University’s Acting Training
Advantages of applying to/training in universities:
- The schedule isn’t very packed, not a lot of homework;
- Enough time to audition for an occasional acting job and work part-time;
- A chance to enjoy a real student’s life;
- Might be a good (although not time-effective) introduction into an acting world;
- Much easier to get accepted.
Disadvantages of applying to/training in universities:
- Poor acting training, both hands-on and theory;
- The degrees are pretty much worthless within the industry;
- Little chance to connect with important industry people;
- Final year showcases are usually small and attract minimum attention;
- No preparation on the business and marketing side of acting;
- Same cost of training as drama schools;
- A significant amount of additional training is required after graduation.
The key takeaway here is that drama school training is more valuable, but more difficult to achieve. University acting training is easier to go through, but is pretty much a total waste of time if you want to leverage your degree after graduation.
There is an endless debate going around among actors and other professionals in the industry on whether it’s worth getting formal training and degree for an actor, or not. More about this you can read here, here and here. Some industry folk say that even drama school training is worthless for an actor.
However, there’s no question as to what’s better for an actor. Drama School > University.
Universities that offer acting programs hold almost zero value for actors who want to dedicate their lives to this field. In our pros & cons section everything was covered very succinctly, but hopefully it gives you an idea on why spending your money and time on a degree from a university would be a huge mistake.
Not only most universities with acting programs provide very poor, inattentive and short training, but some of them might even stir you in a wrong directions, provide bad advice and make a worse actor out of you. Bad tutors will teach you some poor habits that will take years to fix.
If you really feel like degree for you as an actor is very important, then do your best to get accepted into one of the reputable drama schools. If you don’t, either go the alternative route of acting classes or wait another year and try again.
My advice will always be to not lower your standards and opt for a university’s degree simply because you couldn’t get accepted into a drama school. You are much, much better off taking a break from studying for a year, going to travel, work to save up money or – which would be the best option – sign up for acting classes and polish your craft there in the meantime.
For more and some different perspective, take a look at these articles:
- The university vs drama school debate is far from cut and dried
- Becoming an Actor: Drama School or University
- Drama School vs University
- Drama degree or Drama School? For students it’s the degree