For many aspiring actors of stage and television, attending school for theatre and drama is an absolute must to gain an edge in the ultra-competitive world of entertainment.
In today’s world of acting and media, almost every major actor below the age of 40 has on his or her resume training from a prestigious school of drama or conservatory.
Finding the right school to help you become the very best actor you can be has never been more important.
The top schools in drama teach everything from Shakespeare to contemporary acting. Their alumni are performing in the world’s most vaunted stages.
Their faculty are comprised of accomplished actors and coaches who have worked with only the very best.
Today, we highlight 10 incredible colleges for drama and theatre in this article, revealing some household-name schools that “everyone” knows, as well as a few that you may not have known were among the most elite at training actors of the next generation.
How did we make this list of the top 10? You can see our methodology on the site, but basically we looked at six lists highlighting the best acting schools available online from top publications. Then we assigned an average score to each school based on their position in each list.
Here are the 10 best schools for Acting, Theatre, and Drama.
10. Columbia University School of the Arts (New York, NY)
Columbia’s acting program is for graduate students only and awards an MFA, otherwise known as a Master’s of Fine Arts.
Actors in the program are provided industry connections as well as hands-on experience. One class students take, known as Professional Practice, allows students to participate workshops and other opportunities hosted at Off-Broadway theatres.
According to Columbia’s website, agents scout shows involving Columbia University actors, making the school a good option for the serious student seeking professional contacts.
All in all, the MFA is a three-year program at Columbia designed to train actors at the highest levels.
9. Carnegie-Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA)
The Carnegie-Mellon School of Drama is among the most reputed acting programs worldwide.
Although we will later publish a separate list for musical theatre colleges, Carnegie-Mellon is perhaps the most selective musical theatre program in the country. Additionally, it is the 5th-most represented school on Broadway.
In 2017, the Hollywood Reporter named it the #2 best undergraduate drama program in the country.
Alumni of the school are some of the most famous actors working today. Just a sampling of TV/Broadway their alumni have starred in: Glee, Hamilton, Angels in America, Orange Is the New Black, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Book of Mormon, and hundreds more.
HONORABLE MENTION: Ira Brind School of Theatre Arts @ University of the Arts (Philadelphia, PA)
Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The University of the Arts is one of the oldest schools of art and music in the United States.
Dating back to the 1870’s, this school’s theatre program is among the most well-respected and established in the nation.
The Ira Brind School of Theater Arts offers students the opportunity to learn from professional, working actors and implement their studies in a few of the many theaters in the surrounding area. In fact, the campus makes up a piece of the Avenue of Arts in Philadelphia.
The Brind School values collaboration, and also choice. They encourage students to specialize in their areas of interest, and then utilize their peers to create well-rounded performances.
Lani Skelley, a 2018 BFA graduate says, “My freshman year, I did a voice-over for an animation student, sophomore year I got to direct a show…”
The opportunity to use their skills to collaborate with students in other programs, and expand creative theatrical knowledge in the process, gives Brind School graduates the confidence they need to succeed in the real world.
8. Boston University College of Fine Arts (Boston, MA)
BU’s acting program is characterized by selectivity. The entire undergraduate BFA program across all four years, at any given time, has no more than 33 students, according to their website.
One unique benefit of the program is guaranteed casting in a BU production twice a semester starting sophomore year. This level of hands-on experience students have at BU ensures excellence in acting technique over a four-year period.
Although primarily known as an acting program, BU does have a musical theatre concentration.
What we particularly like about Boston University’s acting program is its Professional Theatre Initiative. In this initiative, select students can participate inside one of the many professional venues in Boston.
Perhaps the most famous alumni of BU’s acting program are Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis as well as Seinfeld cast member Jason Alexander.
7. Northwestern University School of Communication (Evanston, IL)
Home to one of the most beloved college acting programs, alumni of this prestigious program have included David Schwimmer of Friends fame, Stephen Colbert, Zach Braff, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and countless more household names.
In the undergraduate program at Northwestern, students have a showcase opportunity their senior year to perform in New York City as well as nearby Chicago.
One unique advantage of Northwestern is actually musical theatre; indeed, students can opt into a musical theatre certificate while studying acting at the school. The power of an acting background combined with music and dance study allows them to become a true triple threat when auditioning for roles.
In addition to stage acting, students can opt into class specifically designed to teach film and television acting.
6. Yale School of Drama (New Haven, CT)
A graduate-only program, Yale’s School of Drama is as prestigious as it gets in the world of acting.
One of the unique characteristics of Yale’s Drama program is that it teaches nearly every important aspect of drama. Besides acting, there are classes in directing, dramaturgy, scenic design, playwriting, stage management, and more.
A valuable partnership exists between Yale’s School of Drama and the Yale Repertoiry Theatre, an acclaimed regional theatre where students get pre-professional acting experience while pursuing a Master’s degree.
The student:teacher ratio is unusually small at just 2.7:1 – such a small ratio ensures students get significant one-on-one instruction with faculty in the program.
Some of the most well-known alumni include Paul Newman, Frances McDormand, Dan Ackroyd, and Paul Giamatti.
HONORABLE MENTION: Cornish College of the Arts (Seattle, WA)
The Theatre Program at Cornish College of the Arts is known for its focus on storytelling.
From the ground up, students at Cornish bring works of art to life in their very own theaters, of which they have three dedicated facilities.
Starting in the classroom, students study 30-plus original works, and then take to the stage to collaborate on bringing them to life.
Students gain experience through direct, practical application, even at the freshman level. Each year is structured in a way that builds the students up to their final year, where they showcase their skills in a senior thesis project.
Cornish also has an impressive scholarship program, stemming from their annual Scholarship Gala.
The 2018 Gala was a sold-out event, and they raised a record breaking $1 million dollars for current and future students. One graduate donated $200,000, showing her passion and appreciation for the school.
5. UCLA School of Film, Theatre, and Television (Los Angeles, CA)
TFT’s mission is to “enlighten, engage, and inspire change for a better world.”
Their proactive approach to the study of theater is both inspiring and intriguing for incoming students.
It’s one thing to state this as a mission, and another to deliver. UCLA gives their TFT students the opportunity to perform their work at festivals and research conferences around the world.
This not only gives students tremendous exposure, but also gives them the chance to inspire and influence communities.
If you’re looking to make a difference in the industry, then TFT is a great program for you. The projects and programs that they offer all come with the purpose to serve the greater good.
For example, Elevate is a student run organization that focuses on inclusion of different cultures in the film and theatre industry.
Founding co-chair, Sam Sheppard, reflected on her educational experience stating, “you want to see all these different kinds of people and that was not happening in certain respects”.
Elevate not only promotes change in the industry, but also in the fundamental education that students are receiving.
4. California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, CA)
The Theatre program at the California Institute of the Arts offers a focus in all aspects of Theatre, from performance, to scene design, to directing. The variety is impressive, and gives students the opportunity to truly hone in on their specific talents.
In addition to covering all aspects of theatre, they also encourage students to move past the basics and take their respective areas of study to the next level.
Because of their progressive view on the arts, CalArts has churned out some notable and innovative alumni. Notable alumni include David Hasselhoff, Alison Brie, and Don Cheadle.
Another noted alum, Ed Harris, who graduated from CalArts in 1975, started out in local theatre. After earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre from the CalArts, he went on to perform in successful movies and TV series, such as The Truman Show and HBO’s Westworld.
If you know these examples, you know that they’re creative and innovative, which is exactly the kind of work that CalArts inspires.
CalArts has a direct connection with Walt Disney, who was one of the founding staff of this historic institution.
3. USC School of Dramatic Arts (Los Angeles, CA)
The University of Southern California has a Theatre program that is unmatched.
USC seems to have it all: cutting-edge program, hands on experience, impressive faculty who are mainstays of Los Angeles acting, and notable alumni.
The students in this program are close-knit, which creates a supportive network for them both during school and in the future.
Although the program is competitive, the students of USC thrive on collaboration not only with others in the Film program, but also with students in the other creative degree programs at USC
The University’s Dean, David Bridel, says that USC School of Dramatic Arts “draw(s) upon the traditions of the past, create(s) in the present, and build(s) towards the vivid future of our disciplines with passion and rigor.”
Located in the drama center of California, USC is in sync with LA’s culture. Students are drawn to the traditional aspect of this program, which also comes with the opportunity to innovate.
Following in the steps of the alumni before them, students learn the fundamentals from USC and build on them through their hands-on course work.
In Troian Belisario’s 2014 commencement speech, she said, “Studying at this school has given you the time, space, and permission to learn how you want to tell a story.”
The emphasis is on you because once accepted, this University gives you the freedom and resources you need to conceive and design, but ultimately the creation is left up to the talented students of USC School of Dramatic Arts.
HONORABLE MENTION: University of North Carolina School of the Arts (Winston-Salem, NC)
UNCSA, perhaps the most impressive institution in the country for acting and drama, is a unique program granting degrees not just at the undergraduate level, but also at the high school and graduate school level.
The high school drama program is an intensive one-year program for high-school seniors. This lauded program gives students the technical skills they need, while also encouraging creative development.
Some of the most noted professors teach at UNCSA.
An Acting professor, Tanya Belov, was the first woman in USSR to receive a prize for her work in comedy. This was a historical accomplishment opening the doors for other women in the arts field.
Krisha Marcano, a Musical Theater Dance instructor, starred as ‘Squeak’ in the original Broadway production of The Color Purple.
In fact, many alumni of UNCSA are currently on Broadway in shows such as The Book of Mormon, Chicago, and even the Spongebob Squarepants musical.
The school itself is stacked with incredible opportunity for students. Eleven performance and screening spaces comprise this program, the most noted being the Stevens Center, a 10 story venue seating nearly 1,400 people designed for large scale symphonic and theatrical productions.
Alumni of the school are integral part of the world’s greatest companies and casts.
2. New York University Tisch School of the Arts (New York, NY)
The Tisch School of The Arts at NYU prides themselves on an empowering academic curriculum, combined with the cultural resources of the surrounding area.
The location alone is a huge draw for students; interdisciplinary curriculum is the icing on the cake.
Tisch places an equal emphasis on theater studies and general education courses, so theater students select this program for the well-rounded college experience.
The drama department at NYU Tisch believes that courses in the humanities and sciences are essential to the student’s development and success.
Students come into their freshman year already possessing the creative ability, and Tisch Drama trains them to engage with the industry in a way that is intellectual and professional.
For this reason, the alumni of Tisch have been successful not only as actors, but also as writers, designers, and directors. Students are given a strong foundation of knowledge of the field during time at NYU, but also given substantial support to build their futures.
The Drama Department regularly hosts internship fairs, which gave students direct access to casting offices, production and theatre companies, and more.
1. Juilliard School (New York, NY)
What can be said of Juilliard’s acting program that has not been covered in mainstream media countless times before?
The program is consistently and indisputably ranked at the top of lists for acting as well as any of the performing arts, including dance and music.
Many of the world’s most beloved actors started their careers at Juilliard, including Robin Williams, Kelsey Grammar, Kevin Kline, Jessica Chastain, Val Kilmer, Marcia Cross, and countless more.
The audition process for Juilliard is among the most rigorous and selective in the country. To even be considered for an audition, students must submit a prescreen recording to the school.
Once Juilliard has determined your prescreen is audition-worthy, you will be invited to present four memorized monologues as well as possibly singing, though, according to their website, a trained voice is not essential for admission to Juilliard Acting.
Based in the most important arts capital of America, accepted students get to work alongside the brightest talent as well as the world’s leading teachers and faculty.
For this article, we assigned a score to each school based on their position on other lists. These are the lists we sourced to make this ranking:
Rankings sourced in the first week of August 2019.