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3 Ways Music Theory Makes College Applications Stand Out

Parents often describe the rigors of a highly competitive college admission process. I fear the pressure parents and students feel has resulted in an unhealthy pursuit of endless activities and testing at the expense of important growth opportunities. For example, unstructured play, which doesn't look like much when it's happening, can easily be mistaken as useless. According to the CDC, all of this is being accompanied by increasing levels of anxiety in K-12 students.

In a sea of college applicants who all:

  • have high test scores

  • play 'sportsball'

  • have the right extra circulars

  • take music lessons

it's easy to get lost. But, there's no reason to sacrifice a student's well-being at the cost of scheduling activities out of anxiety.

The solution in a highly competitive landscape like this isn't to join more sports teams, take every test, add more extracurriculars, or play more instruments.

An application needs some kind of “hook” to stand out. Unique work in specialized areas stands out. Especially when you are the only one doing that work. Looking at you music theory!


Based in London, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music delivers over 650,000 assessments annually in 93 countries. Around for 100 years, the exam allows students to objectively demonstrate music theory achievement through a series of 8 tests. It's unusual to see a student from the US take these exams.

A high score, called a distinction, on an ABRSM test is a unique way to look good on a college application in the US. Scoring distinctions on a few ABRSM tests establishes an attractive and unique pattern.

"Shaun, you just said don't add more testing!"

Yes. I've made some assumptions about you, dear reader. If you're on this blog, you or your child are already involved in music lessons. Many music students already study music theory in some form.

My students study music theory in the context of their existing private lesson. This is one way I differentiate myself from other private teachers.

A high school student of mine received a Distinction on the ABRSM Level 5 theory test recently. (Names omitted to protect the innocent.) They were the only person at their school to earn that score in 3 years. Now that’s unique!

ABRSM exams are also a great way to prepare for the AP Music Theory Test, administered by the College Board in the US.

2. AP Music Theory Exam

Universities around the world take Advanced Placement test scores into consideration for admissions. 85% of selective schools say a student's experience with AP testing favorable impacts admission decisions.

In 2018 approximately 19,000 students took the AP Music Theory Exam versus 300,000 students who took the AP Calculus exam. The AP Music Theory Exam is extremely challenging, just like the AP Calculus exam. Though the Music exam is more unique by about 281,000 students every year!

3. Write Music

Writing music is unique and versatile. Music composition can easily be related to the STEM fields, which people flock to like a 'BOGO on Hand Sanitizer' sale.


Lots of music (including Western) is based on the overtone series, which occurs in nature. Acoustics is a branch of science you've probably heard of- physics!

Technology & Engineering

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that music education is how we train future generations for a job. Rather, music education is so amazing that it intersects with many aspects of our lives.

Reducing education to mere job training is woefully short sighted. There is no guarantee that the jobs of today will exist in their current form after college. Technology and engineering require the ability to think creatively and deal with changes.

Music is good at helping people develop the executive function needed to direct innovation and adapt. A music composition signals to a college admission panel that you have the creative and analytical powers to succeed in an uncertain future. Those are certainly skills needed for a career in technology and engineering.


Music is highly mathematical! There are so many ways to link math and music composition. Here's Eugenia Cheng talking about math in music in her signature way. Don’t blink. Cheng's videos are dense and move quickly:

My favorite reasons to make and study music are the humanistic ones. College applicants do not exist in a vacuum. They are members of society. Music is a tool we can use to make connections.

An exploration inward, music can help individuals connect with themselves. Music connects us with our past, present, future, and with each other.

There is this glowing image in my mind of music students; not as a bundle of grades and extracurriculars, but as connected, thoughtful, feeling, passionate individuals.

Put that on your application.

Looking to hone your music theory skills? Click here to learn about a trial lesson.

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