From an interview with Zoe Feahr, a recent graduate of the San Francisco Institute of Esthetics and Cosmetology, a Paul Mitchell Partner School Program
Why did you attend cosmetology school?
Before enrolling in the institute, I was working full-time in the fashion industry. I decided to quit my job and jump into a full year of cosmetology school. I wanted to pursue a career path that would allow me to be creative. I've always been into makeup and hair and attracted to styling.
What are the most difficult aspects of cosmetology school?
I'm very hard on myself—sort of a perfectionist—so when it came to skill tests, I would get extremely anxious. My biggest battle during school was with my anxiety. I was held back by my fear that I would not be able to perform the techniques I was shown.
As a stylist, you have to present yourself with a certain amount of confidence on a day-to-day basis. I struggled with that. You need to walk into the salon every day with a smile on your face, ready to cater to your clients while putting your personal issues aside.
The people that come to see you expect a certain congeniality, and you have to meet their expectations. If you're not super confident as a stylist, your clients won't take you seriously. If you can't smile into the mirror while talking with your client, they'll pick up on it.
It's physically tiring as well. But you can't concentrate on that while you're on the floor. Eventually everything comes together, but it may be ten years down the road.
What are the most enjoyable aspects?
For me, getting to experience so much of the Paul Mitchell culture was the most rewarding. They're dedicated to giving back to the community and creating positive change—it's incorporated into everything they do. A percentage of their product is donated to charity. They're invested in their projects and even give partner schools opportunities to participate. Their educational seminars were focused on making people want to be their best selves and helping them achieve their goals at the same time. Ultimately, their message is that giving back is really important.
What should a prospective student consider before enrolling in cosmetology school?
They should consider where they're at in life. Many different types of people enroll in cosmetology school at all different ages. But the people that found success were sure they wanted to be there. Success isn't possible if you're feeling conflicted about what you're doing. I was older than most of the students in school and felt that I was able to take advantage of the opportunities more seriously than some other students. They just weren't as dedicated to their decision.
Also, make sure you have a stable support system. Beauty school can be an intense experience. You're potentially looking at starting a career, and that's a big decision.
Be prepared to get the most out of your educational experience. Treat each day as a rewarding opportunity. Be willing to sacrifice some things in life and dedicate yourself to being present in your studies.
It ultimately comes down to having a good work ethic and the willingness to learn.
What are some characteristics that you need to be successful at cosmetology school?
You need to be able to work in a group environment and be able to take directions from others. Students should also be open to criticism.
You should be able to learn a task quickly but realize that you're going to grow and learn from making mistakes. For some people, it's hard to make mistakes and try tasks again. It just takes time to get the technical stuff down.
It helps to be at an emotionally stable point in life too. It's a huge transition period for students—at the end of the year, you'll be a different person.
Cosmetology school requires an artistic view-point. You should be able to find inspiration in nature—in something as simple as a flower. You need to comprehend space, shape, and color theory. Math and geometry skills also help students who are interested in hair cuts. Diagramming a hair cut is like composing a map. It can be really artistic, but it's not as free form as makeup can be. You don't necessarily need to be a creative person to enter the industry, but it definitely helps.
What makes a good cosmetology school?
A really supportive, diverse staff. Having a lot of different mentors available makes the learning environment able to adapt to each student. Bringing in different people from the industry, exposing students to different role models outside the school system, and showing the student body different cutting and coloring techniques is really important.
I selected our school because it guarantees a small class size—each one maxes out at 16 students. We got a lot of one-on-one attention. For some people that makes a huge difference. I would've been lost in a huge school. In a smaller environment you're able to get more guidance.
What advice do you have for other cosmetology school students?
Stick with it. Involve yourself in different situations that will help you grow as a stylist, whether that means participating in a fashion show, taking a class external to the school, or becoming a model at a salon. Put yourself in as many different situations as possible where you'll be able to see styling. Gaining as much exposure to the styling culture will help fuel your creativity and passion for the industry.
Be willing to take opportunities—even those that may scare you. It's scary the first time you do a fashion show with people yelling at you to make the model look a certain way, but after you do it ten times, you become a much stronger stylist.
Where do you plan on working once you graduate?
I'm interested in a few salons. I'm most drawn to Chakra, an Aveda salon in downtown San Francisco, because of the manager's passion. It felt like an inspiring salon from the moment I stepped in.
Kim Vo Salon is relatively new to the city, but I was impressed with their space and their stylists. I'm interested in working there.
And also the Joseph Cozza Salon. It's really spacious and very high-end. When I visited, the clients were all being pampered. The space was calming. I would want to experience their salon as a client. I feel it would be appealing to lots of different types of people.
How long were you in cosmetology school?
One year. It was a career training program. You do 1,600 hours of school and then pass the state board licensing procedures, which include 80 perm sets. You basically have to learn everything and then it's all tested in the exam at the end.
What were your favorite classes?
Makeup classes were my favorite. We were fortunate to have a strong program, and my mentor was a huge part of why I became passionate about makeup. She was so inspiring. We learned about color theory, about eye shapes, and about contouring different face shapes. We learned a lot about what's expected of a makeup artist, and how to make the client feel special while in the chair.
What types of classes do you have to take?
Sometimes we had classes that were not hair related, where we had to look for things that inspired us. We looked at architecture to see how a building's lines could inspire a haircut.
We also had etiquette classes—I actually really liked them. We took a dining skills class where we learned how to eat soup properly and wear a name tag at a fancy function. It was pretty fun.
How do you afford cosmetology school? Are there good funding options?
There's definitely a lot of scholarship opportunities. Our school qualifies for FAFSA, but most students take out a student loan to go to cosmetology school. In my case I had to take out a personal loan. It's expensive, but it's definitely a worth-while investment.
After having gone through our program, I've realized that it's a really unique place to be. It's an awesome environment.