Top US Undergraduate Acting Programs

by Chad Gracia

College age kids

A list of the best undergraduate acting programs in the United States.

"What are the best acting schools?"

You're right that if you truly want to succeed as an actor, you'll need to get excellent training. There's nothing wrong with getting a good liberal arts education at a school that also offers acting classes, but if you really want to immerse yourself in training, then you'll want to attend one of the leading drama programs in the country.

I asked my acting coaches and some professional actors what they think are the best schools. The results of this non-scientific poll are below.

Top Undergraduate Acting Programs:

1. SUNY - Purchase
The Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film at Purchase College is a highly competitive and intensive program. The campus also contains a great liberal arts and design program and is only 40 minutes from New York City.

But you won't have much time to explore Manhattan: Classes generally start at 8am and you'll be busy with rehearsals until 11 at night. Your first two years are considered a "trial" period. If you don't have the required skills and professionalism, you won't be asked back. This is a tough school - but it also has one of the finest acting programs in the country.

2. Juilliard
Juilliard is one of the world-class acting schools in New York City (the other is at NYU). Its Drama Division was founded in 1968 by the American director and producer John Houseman and the French director, teacher, and actor Michel Saint-Denis.

Over 1,000 candidates apply each year for just 20 freshman spots. Like SUNY-Purchase, Rutgers and NYU, Julliard employs a "conservatory training" approach. This means that you will work closely over four years with the same students and professors, deeply immersed within a rigorously prepared program.

3. Rutgers
Many of my coaches recommended the BFA at Rutger's Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Jersey. This program, according to its brochure, "offers a BFA designed for those students who are seeking to integrate both a rigorous professional training program in a liberal arts setting. The curricula of the school gives such students a thorough and rigorous education as artists and, through the required liberal arts courses, humanistic perspectives on both their art and themselves. Junior students in Acting spend a year abroad at the Rutgers Conservatory at Shakespeare's Globe in London. This is the only BFA program which offers sequential conservatory training in London."

A chance to study at the Globe alone makes this a program to celebrate.

4. Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh offers a four-year undergraduate acting program as well as the possibility of double-majoring in musical theater. Both programs train actors by immersing them in "sophisticated, verbally complex material with a focus on the works of Chekhov and Shakespeare." Sounds fascinating.

In the junior year, the focus switches to Greek and Restoration drama. In the senior year, students participate in public performances on the school's main stage. Finally, for those students "in good standing," showcase performances in New York City and Los Angeles are arranged.

5. New York University - The Tisch School of Drama
NYU's Tisch School has given birth to scores of great theater professionals. The undergraduate program in acting includes standard conservatory training and theater study, and is complemented with other liberal arts classes from New York University.

According to Arthur Bartow, the Artistic Director of the Department of Drama, "The extraordinary synergism created by placing committed students with our professional conservatory faculty propels students forward, formulating their own unique way of working.... We are preparing people for a lifetime of creative output."

6. North Carolina School of the Arts
The School of Drama at the North Carolina School of the Arts boasts such alumni as Mary-Louise Parker (Proof), Jada Pinkett Smith (The Matrix), and Terrence Mann (Beauty and the Beast). The school emphasizes "classical values in its training process to meet a well-recognized demand for actors to be technically skilled and, at the same time, creatively inspired."

7. Northwestern
Northwestern offers a versatile drama program that is good for students who want flexibility in constructing their own curriculum. It is an interdepartmental program, and students take courses in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Speech. "The goal of the curriculum is to provide both historical breadth and particular insight into the relationship between dramatic texts and the performative dimensions and skills that have brought them to life."

8. California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts)
The Los Angeles based CalArts School of Theater's mission is to "expose students to theater traditions from a global cultural perspective nurture non-mainstream voices and promote a cultural and aesthetic diversity of viewpoint, experience and expression."

A few things set the school apart (besides its great location for people wanting to work in film or television). That includes a requirement to take up to 40% of your classes in the School of Critical Studies. These courses (some of which may be theater related) are intended to provide "broad knowledge and cultural sophistication needed for successful arts careers in today's world."

CalArts also has a great center for the study of puppetry and a new theater (the REDCAT) in downtown Los Angeles. Alumni include Bill Irwin, David Hasselhoff, and Ed Harris.

9. Yale
Yale is one of the world's great institutions of learning. It offers an undergraduate Theater Studies major within the department of humanities. This program differs from others in that it focuses less on performance than on theory and the history of theater and in immersing the student in liberal arts curricula.

Or, as their website puts it: "Students who major in Theater Studies are encouraged to use the theater with a more fully developed sense of context and purpose than is usual in a purely technical course of study. Courses are distributed to help ensure that students understand the theater as part of the intellectual life of the culture it interprets and reflects." A degree from Yale definitely opens doors in the theater world.

10. UC San Diego
The UCSD Department of Theatre and Dance offers both a major and minor. You do not need to apply specifically to the Department of Theatre and Dance or audition for the program - any student accepted to UCSD can claim a theater major.

While it is mainly known for its graduate program (with ties to La Jolla Playhouse), the UCSD undergraduate program provides a broad base of knowledge in the fine arts, supplemented with practical experience on the stage. Another advantage of studying at UCSD is that it also has a noteworthy film studies center.

Honorable Mentions:
The following schools have strong acting programs: University of Miami (FL), University of Indiana at Evansville, University of Minnesota (with ties to the Guthrie Theater), UT - Austin, Hofstra University, UC Irvine, Boston University, DePaul University, and Emerson College. I also know several excellent actors who attended the theater arts program at UC-Santa Cruz.
Chad Gracia is a writer and director. His articles are copyright by Chad Gracia and, Inc. All rights reserved. For more articles on acting, as well as free monologues and acting supplies, visit
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