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How To Highlight Your Passion for Art History While You’re Still in High School

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Are you a high school student whose passions have ranged from the artistic styles of famous Renaissance painters to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on 19th century European Art? Have you found yourself poring over artists’ statements at local art shows or analyzing the way a museum exhibit is presented? Have you tracked the global market for Banksy’s latest creations? If your answer to any of the above questions is yes, art history is probably a field of study that you’d find interesting.


If you’re interested in art history, your academic options to pursue this line of study in high school might seem limited. While there is an Art History AP course, your school might not offer this class, and even if it does, you’re not likely to find many outlets outside of this one option for continuing your studies. That does not mean, however, that you’ll need to wait until college to pursue your passion.


With a little initiative and some creative thinking, you can express an interest in art history, build a valuable foundation of knowledge, and learn about something that genuinely interests you, all while you’re still in high school. To learn more about art history and how you can pursue it as a high school student, keep reading.


What Do Art Historians Do?

The study of art history is multifaceted. A student of art history learns not only about various periods of art throughout history, including cultural influences and a broad variety of artistic styles and mediums, but also the curation of art collections, the global market for artwork, and the global impact of specific art collections.


Art historians are often responsible for providing the contextual analysis of art exhibits, creating presentations for art museums or galleries, and/or procuring art for private collectors or corporations. Art historians need to be strong readers, writers, and researchers. They should be familiar with presenting art in a way that’s accessible, even to those with limited exposure. Proficiency in a foreign language and some experience creating visual art are also desired skills in an art historian.


Art history majors often go on to become museum curators, art reviewers or columnists, instructors, appraisers, or art researchers. If any of these paths interest you, you might consider delving into the field more deeply to try it out, even before you begin college.


How To Pursue Art History As a High School Student


1. Join Classmates With the Same Interest

The most obvious and simplest way to pursue an interest in art history is to join an art history or art appreciation club at your school. Here, you’ll typically study various periods of art, take field trips to museums, engage in thoughtful discussions with peers, and share your own insights and ideas.


In addition, joining a club is a simple way to ensure that your interest in art history is evident on your college application. You’ll be able to include it on the Activities section of your application, and your prolonged participation and, ideally, increased leadership roles will be clear examples of your dedication.


If no such club exists at your school, don’t be deterred. You can start your own! Starting your own club will still highlight all of the qualities of joining a club on your college application, and will add extra evidence of your ability to think outside the box and take initiative. To do so, look into the formal avenues required by your school for starting a school-sanctioned club. A guidance counselor, adviser, or teacher can usually point you in the right direction. For more about starting your club, check out our post How to Start a Club in High School.


2. Take the Art History AP Exam

Taking the Art History AP course and capping it off with a great score on the AP exam is another obvious way to ensure that your interest in art history is clearly evident on your application. Even if your school does not offer the Art History AP course, the exam can be taken as a self-study, and doing so is a solid way to demonstrate your knowledge and initiative.


To take the Art History AP exam without taking the class, you’ll need to talk with your school’s AP coordinator well in advance. Plan to communicate your plans by February to allow enough time to coordinate registration. Even if your school cannot accommodate you, the College Board can often refer you to nearby local schools who might be willing to allow you to test there. See our posts The Ultimate Guide to the Art History AP Exam and The Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams to learn more.


3. Branch Out

You can also show your interest in art history by pursuing other closely related topics. In the case of art history, this can simply mean pursuing the study of both art and history as stand alone subjects.


Taking courses in the visual arts will allow you to better understand the artist’s process and the tools and materials used by artists. You’ll often develop a deeper appreciation for various styles and mediums by practicing them yourself.


You can also learn more about world history in order to better contextualize your understanding of various periods of art throughout time. Studying the Middle Ages or the Renaissance can give you a better grasp on the interplay between historical events, culture, and the characteristics of art common to that time period.


You can enroll in formal classes through your school or a nearby community college to further your knowledge, or you might opt to take online classes or self-study.


4. Write a Research Paper or Undertake an Independent Study

Writing your own in-depth research paper or undertaking an independent study is a smart way to learn more about a topic of interest and to reinforce how seriously you take your work in this subject area. You’ll need to do some general research in order to choose a topic for a research paper or independent study, since there are nearly endless topics to choose from. If you need some help getting started, consider the following:


  • Focus on a single artist or work of art and delve deeply into its analysis
  • Compare and contrast two related artists or pieces of art
  • Analyze how a particular subject has changed in its artistic representation between time periods
  • Analyze how a specific historical event shaped the art from that time period
  • Compare and contrast two mediums from the same time period
  • Analyze how and why one style of art developed from another earlier style of art


Some schools have formal avenues for pursuing your own studies. If this is the case at your school, discuss with a guidance counselor, adviser, or teacher in advance how you might go about earning credit or recognition for your final product. Even if your school does not typically recognize independent studies, you could still pursue one as a summer project and present it formally at your local library or community center.


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5. Enroll in a Summer Program

There are many summer programs or classes out there that will help you to learn more about art history and show your interest in the subject matter. The easiest way to find one local to you is to check with your closest community college or local university. Even if the program is not specific to high school students, you will often be allowed to take a college level class.


If you are looking for a summer art history program specific to high school students, consider the High School Programs at the National Gallery of Art. These programs usually need to be booked by groups, so if you can gather 15 interested peers and convince a teacher to help you, you will be able to arrange your own program. Otherwise, you might be able to participate in an existing program if you contact the NGA directly to coordinate it.


Alternatively, the three week Summer Immersion program at Columbia University also offers courses relevant to art history. These include Understanding the Arts: Art History and Architecture, Critical Focus on the Visual Arts: Arts and Architecture, and Painting: The Painted Image.


6. Curate Your Own Art Show

One last option for demonstrating an interest in art history is to curate an art show at your high school. This is particularly relevant for students who are actively involved in the visual arts or those who intend to pursue a career as a museum curator. If you’ve been taking painting or drawing classes throughout high school, curating a show of your own work and that of your peers is a great way to showcase not only your visual art, but also your understanding of how pieces of art work together to create a cohesive art show.


You will be responsible for organizing the visual presentation of the art and for conceptualizing the show itself. You might be responsible for writing a description of various elements, placing various works of art in some type of logical progression, and gathering and editing artists’ statements.


In addition, you will need to oversee the logistics of organizing an art show. You’ll need to promote it to the target audience, whether that’s your school community or the general public. This could include creating flyers, announcements, or other marketing materials. You might also need to raise funds necessary for putting on the show. Your costs could include any materials used in the display or marketing, along with any refreshments served during the show. All of these logistics are similar to what an actual curator may be expected to do, so experiencing them firsthand as a high school student will definitely give you a head start.


Your finished product, a well-designed and cohesive art show, will be something you can easily discuss in your college essays or in college interviews as a clear piece of evidence showing your commitment to the study of art history.


Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


For more information about art and extracurricular activities in high school, check out these posts:


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.