If you are interested in going into the entertainment industry in any capacity, be it directing, writing, producing, animation, editing, or otherwise, you have come to the right place. This article is to help you get into film school.
My film background and experience
I happen to have attended and graduated from the film school that was just voted #1 American film school for the 3rd year in a row by The Hollywood Reporter, University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. I majored in Film & Television Production (a program with a 3% admission rate). I studied the admissions criteria of film schools thoroughly as a high school student and focused my application on what film schools really care about.
In addition to being accepted into a top film school, as the recipient of a full-tuition merit scholarship to USC, during my senior year, I was asked to serve as the student representative in scholarship interviews for the film school, so I have experience reading and analyzing applications with other representatives of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. I was able to identify the qualities of a good and bad application and will share those below.
So, what do you need to apply to film school?
Each school has its own application process. To find the application requirements for the school you are applying to, simply search “[College Name] film program application requirements” in Google, see example below:
The conservatory style schools (such as AFI) only require one application, while film schools based at four-year universities (such as USC and NYU) typically require two applications, the standard common application to the university and a supplementary application to the film school.
I won’t go into the nitty gritty of how to write the best common application, for more on that check out our other article How Can You Build The Most Versatile College Application? The common application is very important because you will not be admitted into the film program if your scores, transcript, and common application are not acceptable to the overall university admissions committee.
In this article, I will be covering the supplementary application (or the only application for conservatory schools), and I will be using USC’s as my example because I’m sure many of you who are reading this will be applying there. Even if you aren’t, USC’s application is pretty much what the standard film school application is.
So, for USC’s film application, you need:
- Cinematic Arts Personal Statement
- Writing Sample (A or B or C)
- Visual Sample (Video or Photo Option)
- Creative Portfolio List
- Letters of Recommendation (3) - These can be the same ones submitted via the common application and are no different from letters of recommendation for any college application, so I will not go into detail on these.
I will go into detail on each of the other components below.
Cinematic Arts Personal Statement
According to USC’s website,
“The personal statement will be read by the Film & Television Production Admission Committee as a measure of creativity, self-awareness and vision. We are looking for a sense of you as a unique individual and how your distinctive experiences, characteristics, background, values and/or views of the world have shaped who you are and what you want to say as a creative filmmaker. We want to know about the kind of stories you want to tell. Bear in mind that enthusiasm for watching films, descriptions of your favorite films and the involvement in the filmmaking process is common in most candidates. As a result, we encourage that you focus on your individuality. Note that there is no standard format or correct answer. (1,000 words or less)”
So what should you write?
In layman’s terms, your personal statement should be an essay of no more than 1,000 words that captures your individuality and your passion for film. I think USC gives very, very helpful hints to what makes a great personal statement and what makes a terrible personal statement. 100% of film school applicants enjoy watching films and have favorite films (if you don’t, why would you want to go to film school?), so you probably don’t want your personal statement to be all about that (otherwise, you will seem unoriginal).
So, what distinguishes you from all of those other candidates? Your individuality, who you are. What is USC looking for in personal statements? USC is looking to see in your personal statements that you are an interesting, talented person to add to their class. They do not want average. They want to see that you are an engaging storyteller with unique stories to tell.
So does USC want you to tell them what a great storyteller you are? NO. USC and the other film schools want you to SHOW them what a great storyteller you are.
How do you show them what a great storyteller you are? By telling them a story. Let me demonstrate. Here is the introduction to my own personal statement from my actual USC film application:
“Cheerleader. A word that makes me want to hurl and is too often used to describe yours truly. I guess a bubbly, outgoing personality and attractive physique means you are a cheerleader. I sit excitedly waiting to hear my name. It’s 2006. I’m 14, and I’ve made it all the way to the Florida State Science Fair for my experiment on determining whether bacteria or fungi is more effective in cleaning up oil spills (BP could have used my help). I finally hear my name called and eagerly rush up to meet one of the judges to discuss my project. I spot him and am about to introduce myself. Before I can get a word out, he stops me, saying, “Let me guess, you’re a cheerleader.” Let me clear the air now I am not now nor have I ever been a cheerleader. Firstly, I lack the acrobatic prowess required for such a role. Secondly, I hate the label. I correct the judge, to his embarrassment. We continue on to have an intelligent discussion about bioremediation, and I end up placing third in the state and winning an award from NASA.
I’m a huge fan of complex characters. It’s too easy to jump to conclusions. “A vivacious personality, a flair for style, a good-looking appearance, she clearly has no intelligence to speak of.” I want to tell stories with surprises and characters that break the rules like Martin and John Michael McDonagh.”
Now, in this introduction, I have told you a story about me from my past that reveals who I am, and I analyze it to show you what kind of storyteller I want to be. I know this is no easy task, but I will try to help you brainstorm your personal statement story.
Is there a moment in your life that you are particularly proud or ashamed of? Did you help someone? Did you win an award? Did you overcome some difficulty? Did you make a big mistake? These are all great types of stories that illustrate your character and your potential to tell a story.
If you are starting to put pen to paper, here are two topics to AVOID.
- Sports victories / challenges: Unless you have a very, very rare victory or challenge to discuss, don’t do it (i.e. you tore your ACL while scoring the winning goal in the state championship). Think about how many students across the country play a sport for their high school. These are the most common stories admissions officers read, and they hate them. (Again, this is an example of a topic that would make you be seen as unoriginal).
- Religious experiences (camp stories, mission trips): Again, there may be an exception to this, but if you are talking about a religious awakening, it is an experience many people have had. Also, it may make the admissions officer feel uncomfortable as he or she may not be religious.
Admissions officers want to see what is special about you, so don’t tell a story that will group you in with most applicants.
Simple experiences / stories are often the best.
I wrote another personal statement (for my other applications) about giving money to a homeless man. After walking away, the homeless man followed me down the street, and I tried to get away from him, thinking he was trying to harass me. Finally, he caught up with me and asked my name. I hesitated, but I told him my name. He then shouted, “God bless, Lauren!” He had followed me to thank me and shake my hand. I was horribly ashamed that I’d thought the worst of him.
Do not think your story needs to be about saving the world.
Writing Sample for Film School
Another opportunity to reveal what kind of storyteller you’d like to be. According to USC’s website, your writing sample should either be:
“A description of a four-minute film that contains no dialogue. It can be fiction or non-fiction. The story has to be communicated visually. (No more than two pages)”
“A dialogue scene between two people. Provide a one-paragraph introduction describing the two characters in screenplay format. (No more than three pages)”
“Describe a concept for a feature-length movie, fiction or documentary, which you would like to develop. (No more than two pages)”
I would recommend option 2 or 3. You can attempt option 1, but I think it is the most difficult of the 3 to write well. I chose to write option 3. I think it is the easiest option. Only submit option 2 if you feel very confident about your dialogue (that it sounds realistic and not cheesy) and scene structure (that it has a beginning, middle, and end).
TIP: Whichever of the 3 options you choose, you need to show another side of yourself that is different from your personal statement. What I mean by different is if in your personal statement you discussed watching Jurassic Park in the hospital with your grandmother and your passion for Spielberg, you should NOT write a dialogue scene about a boy and his new alien friend (for those youngins who may not get this reference, in Spielberg’s E.T. a boy befriends an alien). You need to show that you do not just want to be a Spielberg copy.
The key is to show diversity and openness in your application (specifically in the personal statement, writing sample, and video sample). USC doesn’t want fully formed artists to arrive at their doorstep who will only make documentaries about the elderly and who refuse to tell any other stories because USC wants students who will learn from everything they are taught and will be shaped into perfect storytellers by their programs.
For example, in my personal statement, I discussed wanting to be a filmmaker like Martin and John Michael McDonagh (Martin is probably the better known of the two for his movies In Bruges with Colin Farrell or Seven Psychopaths also with Colin Farrell). For my writing sample, I wrote a concept for a feature-length film set in WWII about a husband and wife. The feature idea shows a completely different side to me.
Visual Sample for Film School
According to USC’s website,
“Please submit one of the two visual samples. It is essential that you specify what role(s) you have played in your visual sample.
Video Option: Create a brief narrative video in which you had a major creative role. The video can be either live-action or animation, fiction or documentary, but it should reflect your aesthetic tastes and intellectual and emotional interests. (No longer than five minutes.) Please submit only ONE video. Multiple submissions WILL NOT be reviewed.
Photo Option: Prepare a series of eight photographs you have taken which, when viewed in a specific sequence, portray a unique and original character or which tell a simple narrative story. Also, include a one-page narrative about the character being portrayed in the photos. The images may either be black-and-white or in color. Please upload the photos in order of sequence (1-8). Please upload the required one page narrative into the online application.”
In layman’s terms, you are required to submit one visual sample, either a video or a series of photographs.
Here's my strong recommendation: DO NOT DO THE PHOTO OPTION (unless you are applying for a photography degree program)! Repeat, do not do the photo option. I have never met a person accepted to film school that did the photo option. I have met people who applied with the photo option and DIDN’T get in. So, don’t do it!
I do not know the reason that the photo option does not work, but I have a couple of theories. You are applying to film school to be a storyteller. In your application, USC and other film schools want to see the types of stories you'd like to tell. From 8 photographs, it is very difficult to tell a complete story (and one that fits into a film genre like comedy). Telling a simple narrative or portraying a unique character is extremely difficult to do through photos.
By doing the photo option, you disadvantage yourself, when other applicants can tell a full story (and really reveal their storytelling skills) in a 5-minute video. If you care at all about getting into film school, take the time to throw some video together.
Again, like with the writing sample, the video sample should show yet ANOTHER side or genre of storytelling that you are interested in. Also, USC allows you to submit any video that you had a major role in (wrote, directed, edited, produced). Note: I would only submit something you did not write or direct if you have no interest in being a writer or director (and mention in your personal statement that you want to be an editor, not a director).
USC wants to see your storytelling style, and if you did not have a major role like writer or director, it can be hard to see your influence on the final video. I had no video to submit for film school, so I wrote and directed something. My friends acted in it, and a friend with a camera filmed and edited it. It doesn’t look like a feature film, but it tells a cute, unique story. Here it is for your viewing pleasure:
Objectively, it is amateurish, but I told a unique, sweet story and showed an interest in comedy. While I wrote about the McDonagh brothers in my personal statement and wrote a WWII period piece for my writing sample, my video sample was a comedy about trekkies trying online dating.
Bottom line: Show an interest in multiple aspects of storytelling in your application! Now that we have that covered, on to the final piece of your application:
Creative Portfolio for Film School
According to USC’s website, “The portfolio list is a written record of the applicant's creative materials. It should include a concise description of each project, the month and year the project was completed, the applicant's creative role and the purpose of the project. The material, which does not need to be film- or television-related, should give an idea of the range and depth of the applicant's creative ability. Formal recognition - such as awards, publications, jobs and exhibitions - should be noted. The name of the institution or publication should be included when listing creative materials prepared for a class or publication.”
In layman’s terms, this is an artistic resume. USC gave the below example for formatting purposes:
July 2008, A Day in the Life, digital video, 12 minutes. Position: writer/director. A documentary on a homeless Iraq vet who has lived on the streets since his return from the military. Created for senior-year multimedia term project, San Raphael High School, Miami, Florida.
March 2008, Doorways, a series of 5 black-and-white photographs. Position: photographer. "Second Prize Winner" in the Des Moines Sunday Journal photo contest.
February 2007, Cellomorphosis, short story. Position: writer. A variation on the novella by Franz Kafka; published in Writing, vol. IV, 2007, at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Do not worry too much about your portfolio. You do not need to have won awards to get into film school. I had won 0 awards for my artwork. Your portfolio just simply needs to show that you have some interest in art. This includes any acting you’ve done, art projects (including for school), music you’ve written or performed (including school talent shows). Really, anything artistic can and should be included.
TIP:Do not include any artwork that was profane or inappropriate. I know this should go without saying, but one application I read a student had included something inappropriate on their portfolio list, so I want to make sure you don’t! Their high school art teacher put an end to this project, but they decided to mention it in their application. If your teacher did not approve of the project, it is very likely an admissions committee won’t.
Completing Your Film School Application
Now that we have covered what you need to apply, I want to give you a few pointers on completing your application.
Make sure you know the application deadline for the film schools you are applying to and that you submit your application well before the deadline. If you are unsure of a school's deadline, you can find it by searching "[College Name] film school application deadline" in Google. Most schools have a December 1st deadline.
Create a timeline for yourself to make sure you finish your application on time. Your best creative work will not be done in one week. I suggest spending the summer between your junior and senior year of high school working on your application. If you do not have a video to submit, plan on writing, filming, and editing a video over the summer, so that you have it done and do not have to worry about it while you are focused on school work. Also, prepare the personal statement and written sample during the summer, so that you have the appropriate time to dedicate to each. You will likely work through several drafts. This way you have plenty of time and do not rush the process.
The only part of the application you should not complete during the summer is the portfolio. You can write a draft, but you should add all of your artistic involvements in the fall of your senior year to your portfolio.
Points to Remember
- Show diversity / multiple interests in your application. For example, show that you are interested in comedies, period pieces, and sci-fi!
- Show your individuality and that you are unique from all other candidates. Do not write about something in your personal statement that most students have experienced like playing sports or going to religious camp.
- Simple stories are often the best ones!
- DO NOT do the photo option for the visual sample. Always do the video option!
- Do not write about anything inappropriate on your application.
Learn more about film school:
- The Best Film Schools in the US (Coming Soon!)
Learn more about acing the SAT and ACT to help you get into film school:
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