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Facts and Suggestions for CMU BCSA Applicant Portfolios

14 August 2008 / pedagogy

NOTICE 1: Please note that the information in this blog post does not represent the official policy of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the CMU Computer Science Department (CSD), the CMU College of Fine Arts (CFA), the CMU School of Art (SoA), or the CMU Office of Interdisciplinary Degree Programs.  Any suggestions below should be understood, instead, as an entirely personal statement of opinion.

NOTICE 2: If you wish to speak with someone about the BCSA program, please contact the Office of BXA Interdisciplinary Degree Programs at Carnegie Mellon University.

Among other responsibilities, I serve as one of the academic liaisons from the CMU School of Art to the CMU Office of Interdisciplinary Degree Programs. More specifically, I assist with the admissions of BCSA students (Bachelor of Computer Science and Art), and I help advise BCSA students once they are enrolled. Even more specifically, I help admit and advise only those BCSA students whose degrees overlap between the Computer Science Department and the School of Art. (Although this describes almost all BCSA students, it’s theoretically possible for the BCSA degree to allow combinations of Computer Science with the other disciplines within the College of Fine Arts, such as Architecture, Design, Music or Drama.) In addition to this, I also regularly serve on the Undergraduate Admissions Committee of the SoA, which means I get to see a lot of portfolios for our regular BFA program.

With the announcement of CMU’s new BCSA program, I’ve started to receive a number of questions about the portfolio requirement of the BCSA admissions/transfer process in particular. If you’re interested in pursuing the BCSA through the School of Art, here are some


  • High school seniors applying to become BCSA first-year students at Carnegie Mellon are advised to contact Dr. Stephanie Murray in the BXA office prior to submitting their application. Applications made through the School of Art should clearly indicate your interest in the BCSA program. All internal BCSA transfer applications (for CMU students already enrolled in e.g. Computer Science) also go through this office.
  • Yes, a portfolio is required for admission into the BCSA degree program.
  • A portfolio is also required if you are applying to transfer into the BCSA degree program from the Computer Science Department or another academic division within CMU.
  • If you’re applying for transfer into the BCSA, you’ll need to make an individual arrangement to have your portfolio reviewed. Contact Mark Cato, Assistant Head of the School of Art.
  • A portfolio is not required if you are applying to transfer into the BCSA from the School of Art. If this is you, you’ll need instead to meet the CSD’s admissions criteria for grades, SAT, and possibly other factors.
  • As with any competitive admissions process, there’s a possibility your portfolio may not meet the acceptance criteria for the School of Art. Unfortunately, admission into the BCSA program cannot be granted based on desire alone. If this happens, there are still other options available to you, such as pursuing a Minor in Art, for which there is no admissions process. You are also welcome to re-apply after a period of time, say a year, spent refining your portfolio.


  • The BCSA program is intended for students with a serious interest in studying and creating new forms of artistic expression that could only be made possible by computation and communications technologies. Since you are applying for a degree program dedicated to bridging arts and technology, your portfolio should include projects in both areas — or, better yet, which bridge the two disciplines. An ideal portfolio would therefore include artworks you developed using computation (scripting or coding) or other technological means, such as interactive artworks, 3D computer animations, computer games, Processing applets, web sites, electronic or mechatronic sculptures, scripted forms, etcetera.
  • Even though you are applying to the BCSA program, your portfolio is reviewed by the School of Art, and must meet the School of Art’s admissions standards. As with any other portfolio examined by the School of Art, we seek talent in the service of formally innovative work with original concepts. The conceptual dimension of your work is especially important: as a rule, the CMU School of Art places a high priority on the strength and originality of your artistic voice, as observable in your subject matter and material execution. Thus, competency in reproducing fixed, well-established idioms such as anime/manga and fantasy-art, however capable, will be valued substantially less than work which manifestly could not possibly have been made by anyone else.
  • The BCSA program is ideal for students who want to solve artistic problems by creating their own software. This is a significant departure from many “computer art” courses which emphasize mastery of common imaging applications such as Photoshop. Millions of people use Photoshop each day, and don’t need a Computer Science education to do so. Thus, although Photoshop work won’t hurt your portfolio, it may not be the core of what we’re looking for in BCSA students.
  • If coding your own software isn’t your main interest (even if it’s in the service of making art), there are still many excellent options for undergraduate study in art-and-technology at Carnegie Mellon. For example, the School of Art offers a BFA concentration in “Electronic and Time-Based Art” (ETB), which is akin to “Digital Media” degrees elsewhere; the ETB program is an Art degree with a student-directed focus in e.g. computer animation, game design, video and performance, digital imaging, etcetera. Unlike the BCSA, the ETB concentration in the School of Art does not require a separate application to the Computer Science Department; it is a “pure” BFA degree. Another option is the BFA in Art with a minor in Computer Science, which requires no application or admission to the CS department.

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