How To Get Into The Best Graphic Design Schools 

photo of a graphic design student sitting with sketch pad facing a laptop
August 28, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/2/23

Getting into a good school for graphic design can give you the tools you need for a creative career path. Read on for tips on how to get into a top graphic design school and more! 

Graphic design is a field that helps brands communicate ideas to their audience, whether it be a new product, message, logo building, or website design. To be successful in this career, you must have an excellent command of technical and creative elements to create original works for any company or organization. 

Read on to learn more about tips to get into the best graphic design schools. We’ll list top schools for graphic design, including their rank, program overview, and admissions requirements.

Tips To Get Into the Best Graphic Design Schools

Tips to get into graphic design schools

If you have a passion for graphic design, it’s in your best interest to add top graphic design schools to your college list. Applying to college can be nerve-wracking, especially if your heart is set on one school. Highlighting your candidacy and demonstrating why you should be accepted is crucial to success.

The actionable steps below can make your application stand out. If you want to give yourself the best chance of getting accepted into the right graphic design program for you, read on! 

Start Thinking About Your Application Early 

Starting your application as early as possible can give you the extra time you need to edit and polish it. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re running out of time and rushing to ensure you make a deadline. 

To avoid headaches, lack of sleep, and stress, think about your future as early as possible—your junior year of high school is a great time. Take the SAT or ACT early, start thinking about your essays way before they are due, and give yourself time to breathe and grow with your application. 

Put Work Into Your Portfolio - Show Only Your Best 

Your portfolio is arguably the most crucial part of your application. It can help secure your entry into good graphic design schools. The admissions committee wants to see that you’re a versatile creator, and you want to let your creative prowess shine through. No matter how many pieces of work a program wants to see, ensure you pull together your best or favorite pieces. 

Building a portfolio isn’t easy and takes time and dedication. However, a stellar portfolio can captivate anyone reviewing your profile, especially if your work makes a lasting impression on them. If you have a diverse set of work, it shows you’re an adaptable and multi-talented artist who would benefit from a graphic design program. 

Understand Your Projects 

If the program you apply to does interviews, you need to know all about your work when your interviewer asks a question. They may want to know details about your concept, inspiration, the work’s purpose, or why you made specific choices.

One way to make sure you’re well-prepared to talk about your art is to identify the details above and talk about them. Articulating your purpose and art concept can  show your thought process to the admissions committee. 

Think Critically About Your Essays 

Your essays are an opportunity to speak directly to the admissions committee. Ensure your essays directly address the prompt and that your narratives are thoughtful and authentic.

Your essays will likely revolve around themes like “why graphic design?” or why you want to join a program. Don’t be afraid to sprinkle your personality throughout these essays and demonstrate your love for art and passion for what you do. Your commitment to your creativity can go a long way! 

The 6 Best Graphic Design Schools 

Top 6 graphic design schools

The best way to jumpstart your career as a graphic designer is to acquire a high-quality education to hone your skills and industry knowledge. Below are the best schools for a graphic design major in the country with overviews, and what you need to know for each admissions process. 

1. Rhode Island School of Design 

According to U.S. News, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) recently ranked as the best school for graphic design. The school was founded in 1877 and is one of the country’s first art design schools. 

RISD offers a four-year Bachelor’s of Fine Arts. The program “allows students to fully absorb an informed design process that provides lifelong support as they go on to engage in real-world design opportunities. Students gain a thorough understanding of the principles of design, theories of communication and strategies for problem solving.” 

Along with standard requirements like the Common Application, transcripts, and test scores, applicants must submit a portfolio of 12 to 20 works that “reflect a full range of your ideas, curiosity, experimentation and experience in creating and making” in any medium. 

You are also required to complete an assignment demonstrating two ideas that are “in conversation” with one another. The admissions committee wants to see your thought process and experimental work in a preparatory study. The second step is to submit your final work; the assignment’s purpose is to show how you think and create.

2. Yale University 

Yale University, an Ivy League school, is ranked as the second-best graphic design school. Yale was founded in 1701 and “has been dedicated to expanding and sharing knowledge, inspiring innovation, and preserving cultural and scientific information for future generations.”

Yale University has a BFA that offers art courses that “through work in a variety of media, provide an experience in the visual arts as part of a liberal education as well as preparation for graduate study and professional work.” 

Beyond core courses, you can choose to study graphic design intensively, along with other areas such as photography, painting/printmaking, and sculpture. 

If you’re interested in the Yale College Art major to get a BFA, you must apply to Yale directly. After acceptance, you must complete five terms of introductory courses and have your work evaluated in a Sophomore Review. 

3. ArtCenter College of Design 

The ArtCenter College of Design is located in sunny Pasadena, California, and is the third-best school for graphic design. Founded in 1930, the school prides itself as “a global leader in art and design education.” 

Along with high-quality academic programs, the College also serves the Greater Los Angeles region through “ArtCenter Extension programs - a highly regarded series of year-round educational programs for all ages and levels of experience.”

ArtCenter’s Graphic Design program can be completed in eight terms, where you will “learn to infuse words and images with life and meaning—whether by creating motion graphics, an interface on the latest mobile device, setting type by hand in our letterpress shop or attending a workshop in our new typography center.” 

Students in this program are encouraged to find design solutions through experimentation with a range of media. 

ArtCenter uses its own application portal and offers flexibility by allowing you to choose which term you want to begin studying: in the Fall, Spring, or Summer. You must submit one short answer and two essays that revolve around themes of what influences you, a risk you’ve taken, and why you want to study graphic design. 

A portfolio including six to ten graphic design projects “that demonstrate your ability to combine image, typography, and layout to communicate your ideas” is another application requirement. You can also choose to submit an optional video essay.

4. California College of the Arts 

The California College of the Arts (CCA) is tied for the #4 spot as the country’s best graphic design schools. Founded in 1907 and located in the bustling Bay Area, CCA is a private nonprofit college. The school offers 22 undergraduate degrees and 11 graduate programs.

CCA offers a BFA in Graphic Design that teaches students “to become leaders in the field by emphasizing craft, creativity, and collaboration, and we encourage them to engage with pressing social issues and think about how their work shows up in the world.”

Students can apply online using either the Common Application or CCA’s online application. You must submit a supplemental personal essay, portfolio, standard application requirements like transcripts and recommendation letters. 

The supplemental essay asks you to communicate how your art reflects the school’s values and contributes to one or more of the following in 500 words or less: 

  • Community engagement
  • Cultural innovation
  • Social and environmental accountability

Your portfolio should represent 10 to 15 images of your best work, and short clips or animations are also permitted. 

5. Maryland Institute College of Art 

The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore is tied with CCA as the fourth-best graphic design school. MICA is regarded as a leader in art and design education, and “is a leading contributor to the creative economy regionally and a top producer of nationally and internationally recognized professional artists and designers.” 

MICA offers a three-year BFA major in graphic design that aims to help graduates think critically and thrive in design careers. Students take many courses revolving around: 

  • Graphic design
  • Art history
  • Color and design
  • Studio electives

To apply to MICA, you must use the Common Application. You must also upload your portfolio with 12 to 20 pieces of artwork for the admissions committee’s consideration. 

Your portfolio should be a “selection of recent artwork that represents your artistic interests and demonstrates your technical skills and ability. You should include examples of artwork that reflect the full range of your ideas, interests, experience, and abilities in the arts to date.” 

6. Virginia Commonwealth University

Also tied in the fourth spot in U.S. News’ ranking is Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Founded in 1838, VCU boasts that research and creativity are two of the school's greatest strengths in any program. 

VCU offers a BFA in Graphic Design that emphasizes collaboration and “will require you to explore design methods, processes, materials and language; broaden your understanding of the diversity and scope of design practices; and customize your educational experience through an array of departmental electives aligned with active faculty research.” 

VCU accepts the Common Application with all standard requirements. You also need to submit a portfolio that has between 12 and 16 of your best works from the past two years.

This work should “show your promise in visual art and design.” Try to submit work that shows diverse skills and illustrates (pun intended) your potential. 

Graphic Design Career Outlook and Salary 

There are numerous career paths open for you after you graduate from a top graphic design school. We’ll explore some of the possible avenues of work you might pursue after graphic design school.

Graphic Designer

The graphic designer career path is an obvious choice after graphic design school. A graphic designer creates visual concepts to inspire, inform, or persuade consumers and viewers. 

Art Director

Art directors make big decisions on what design elements to use in various industries, like publication, film, and advertising. Art directors manage projects from start to finish and ensure their team works efficiently toward goals and targets. 

UX Designer

A UX designer ensures that all aspects of a product’s design run smoothly and is easy to navigate. They focus on how the product feels and ensure the product flows logically in a way users and consumers can understand. 

Digital Designer

Digital designers can take on numerous projects. A digital designer’s purpose is “to create digital assets for multimedia and graphics projects, including websites, mobile apps, advertising, animation, emails, social media, video games, and interactive displays.”

Multimedia Designer

Multimedia designers create design elements for use in numerous ways. They may create multimedia pieces for websites, television, video games, and more. This job requires high technical and creative skill levels. 

Advertising Designer

Advertising designers typically work underneath an art or creative director. They must research their target audience for a product and create advertisements that appeal to them. 

Take a look at this table comparing the average salaries for these positions:

Job Title Average Annual Salary
Graphic Designer $50,710
Art Director $100,890
User Experience (UX) Designer $89,250
Digital Designer $79,890
Multimedia Designer $57,645
Advertising Designer $62,930

When considering which graphic design school to attend, it's important to keep in mind the potential earning opportunities for different positions. 

FAQs: Best Graphic Design Schools

If you still have questions about getting into the best graphic design schools in the U.S., these FAQs can provide more clarity. 

1. What Top Colleges Have Graphic Design Programs? 

Yes, other top colleges do offer specializations in graphic design. Some other good schools for graphic design include the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University. 

2. What Should I Include in My Graphic Design Portfolio?

You can include many mediums in your portfolio, but you should aim to present a well-rounded selection. Graphic design portfolios can include web graphics and print work, font design, video graphics, drawings, paintings, interactive media, and any other type of art or design work. 

3. What Art Courses Should I Take to Get Into Graphic Design School?

If your high school offers AP classes or the IB program you should consider enrolling in these to demonstrate your commitment and passion for art and learning. Not only can you gain valuable new skills to apply to your future art pieces, but these classes can strengthen any college application. 

4. Who Should I Ask For Recommendations for a Graphic Design Program? 

Your letter(s) of recommendation should ideally come from a teacher that you’ve established a strong relationship with. The recommendation that would make the most sense for an application to graphic design would be an art teacher. 

Think about which teachers you’ve spent the most time with, who has encouraged or inspired your art, or if you’ve committed yourself to a club or extracurricular run by that person. Any of your teachers that meet these criteria can be a great recommender. 

5. What Skills Do I Need to Become a Graphic Designer? 

Graphic designers are creative and can convey a non-physical concept into a tangible piece of art. They communicate ideas, emotions, and messages and have the technical skills to produce well-constructed pieces. 

When you put your portfolio together, don’t be discouraged if your work isn’t up to the standard you want it to be. Remember that the purpose of going to school is to enhance your work, build your skills and talent, and learn more to help you further your career after graduation. 

6. What Do I Do If I Get Rejected at the Best Graphic Design Colleges? 

Getting rejected is hard, but it doesn’t mean it has to be the end of your graphic design story. You can accept an offer from another school, or you can take a year off and try again in the next admissions cycle. A year off can give you time to improve all facets of your candidacy, including adding more complex and diverse work to your portfolio. 

7. Which College Has the Best Graphic Design Program? 

The Rhode Island School of Design is ranked as the nation’s best graphic design school. However, ensure you check program websites and courses to determine what's best for you.

Build Your Career with the Best Graphic Design Schools

Graphic design is a great career path if you’re a creative soul looking to make art and expression your full-time job. An education at top-rated graphic design schools can help propel your artistic career and help you succeed after graduation in numerous roles. 

Remember to start your application as early as possible, ensure your portfolio is diverse, and take care in crafting your application essays. Using these tips, you can confidently apply to the best graphic design schools in the country and launch yourself into a fulfilling creative career. 

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