Nine Top Drama Schools in the United States

Broadway performance
Jersey Boys Broadway performance. Rob Kim / Getty Images

Students planning to pursue the acting profession don't look for just any college or grad school—they look for conservatories and universities with top-ranked drama programs and legendary alumni.

The process of applying to drama programs involves some unique challenges, from picking your audition monologues to answering the university vs. conservatory question. For students who consider theater one of several potential majors, a conservatory is not a good choice. Instead, those students should pursue a university with a strong drama program and strong overall academics. On the other hand, drama conservatories are ideal for the most focused theater students—the ones who cannot imagine doing anything else.

In this article, you'll find a guide to nine of the best theater conservatories and university programs in the United States. Whether you envision yourself acting on a Shakespearean stage, under the bright lights of Broadway, or on a movie set, these top drama programs offer training and resources that will help you get there.

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The Juilliard School

Lincoln Center
New York City's Lincoln Center is home to the Metropolitan Opera, Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School.

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One of the world's most highly regarded conservatories for music, dance and drama, this New York City-based school is also one of the most competitive, both during admissions and after enrollment. Live auditions, typically held in January and February, are required and include four memorized monologues and a singing audition as well. Juilliard is known for its stringent requirements, incredibly high expectations and high stress.

The school offers BFA and MFA programs in acting, and a very selective, one- to two-year playwriting program. Here's the big caveat: This school is extremely difficult to get into. Your child will be competing against stellar performers from around the world. And you can erase any ideas inspired by TV's "Glee" and Rachel Berry's freshman triumphs at the fictional NYADA. It does not matter how great you think your kid is. At Juilliard, fourth years get the performance spotlight. The first two years as an undergraduate focus on developing skills; any performances are rehearsal workshops. The third, Shakespeare-centric year includes limited performances on a small stage.

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American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T)

This San Francisco theater offers a small, highly competitive MFA program, accepting eight to 12 graduate students per year. Among the former students: Elizabeth Banks, Annette Bening and Benjamin Bratt. It's an unusual program, though. You do not need to have a bachelor's degree in order to apply, and there are two other training options for younger students (up to age 19) and actors considering graduate work. The Summer Training Congress offers intensive two- and five-week summer courses to students and professionals, ages 19 and up. The Young Conservatory is open to students ages 8-19, and its alumni include Milo Ventimiglia, Winona Ryder, Nicolas Cage and Darren Criss.

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California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)

CalArts, Valencia, California

By Bobak Ha'Eri (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Founded by Walt and Roy Disney in 1961 as the California Institute of the Arts — and promptly nicknamed CalArts — this school specializes in the visual and performing arts. It's ranked among the top 10 arts schools by U.S. News & World Report and its location 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles, its top-notch faculty and its performance spaces and facilities make it a must-see. CalArts offers both BFA and MFA program in acting, as well as programs in writing, directing and design.

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Tisch School of the Arts

NYU's Tisch School of the Arts
By atp_tyreseus [ CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Every theater and musical theater student know about NYU - or they should. New York University is renowned for its undergraduate and graduate performing arts programs, especially its programs in drama. Its alumni are a who's who of Oscar and Emmy winners, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese. Woody Allen, Anne Hathaway and Angelina Jolie took courses here, Felicity Huffman got her BFA here and Tony Kushner his MFA. And its location in New York City cannot be beat. Admission at this private university is highly competitive and requires stellar GPA and test scores - to gain admission to the university as a whole - as well as auditions and recommendations to get into the arts school.

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The Actors Studio Drama School

Yes, that one - the one affiliated with James Lipton. The Actors Studio at New York's Pace University offers an MFA program in drama that focuses on the Stanislavski system and method acting, with a curriculum whose creators include Ellen Burstyn, Harvey Keitel and Al Pacino. Taking dance classes? Those are taught by members of Alvin Ailey. Needless to say, competition is fierce to get in. Auditions are held in New York City each winter and Los Angeles in April.

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Yale School of Drama

Yale University campus
Enzo Figueres / Contributor / Getty Images

Another graduate program only school of theater, Yale University offers an MFA degree in acting, design, directing and other theater production disciplines, and it works with the Tony award-winning Yale Repertory Theatre in much the same way a medical school and teaching hospital work in partnership. Live auditions are required.

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USC School of Dramatic Arts

USC campus
David McNew / Getty Images

You don't have to look far to see USC alumni: They're onscreen at the local cineplex and onstage at the Oscars, collecting statuettes for, among other things, "Argo." USC's theater program offers a great mix of conservatory intensity in a larger university setting - guest lectures by renowned film directors and football games too. The school's five theaters present more than 20 theatrical productions per year, and there are both undergraduate and graduate programs. In addition to weathering a competitive audition process, applicants must get into the highly competitive university too.

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UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television

As you might have guessed, this fellow Los Angeles university also tops the rankings, with similar industry connections, renowned alumni (Beau Bridges, Elizabeth McGovern, Carol Burnett, the list is endless) and an interdisciplinary curriculum that melds the entertainment and performing arts worlds. Don't get too thrilled by the size of the program — with more than 300 undergrads and graduate students, it's one of the larger theater schools, but its acceptance rate is a highly competitive 8.2%. Students must be accepted to both the incredibly competitive university and the theater program.

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University of Washington School of Drama

This huge (50,000+ students) public university in Seattle boasts an impressive theater program that dates back to 1919. Today, more than 300 drama undergrads and graduate students study here, and its alumni go on to perform in local theater companies as well as in film. Kyle MacLachlan and Jean Smart are among the many graduates of this program. The Drama major is open admission—any UW student in good standing can declare an Drama major.

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Burrell, Jackie. "Nine Top Drama Schools in the United States." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Burrell, Jackie. (2020, August 27). Nine Top Drama Schools in the United States. Retrieved from Burrell, Jackie. "Nine Top Drama Schools in the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 3, 2023).