So You Want to Go to Film School
If you’re reading this, you probably love movies. I mean, everyone enjoys watching movies, but not everyone can monologize entire scenes from every Tarantino film or wax rhapsodic about the cinematography of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. While others are spending their weekends going to the mall, you and your friends are setting up shots for your next Youtube webisode. You’ve decided you want to take your passion for storytelling to the next level by going to film school. So what do you need to do to prepare? We’ll go over the 5 most important things every film school applicant needs to do.
Tell Your Story
To be a great visual storyteller, you need to have a story to tell. Film schools aren’t just interested in how much you know about movies or how cool your application film looks; what they want to know is, who are you and what’s the story you have to tell? Take a look at just a few essay prompts from several of the top film programs:
The Cinematic Arts Personal Statement will be read by the admissions 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.
USC School of Cinematic Arts
In 500 words or fewer, tell us what about your distinct experiences/background/values makes you a unique candidate for the program for which you are applying. Please focus on what makes you unique as a person beyond any direct experience you may have in your intended field of study. Use this prompt to talk about aspects of yourself that are not already covered in other parts of your application.
Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts
The personal essay should include a summary of your background, creative interests, academic and professional goals. The personal essay may include unusual life experiences, important influences in your life, your motivation to study film and television, and the kind of creative work you hope to pursue. Do not use the personal essay to flatter us; use these few pages to create a very personal and vivid picture of yourself, what is most important to you, and your creative and professional goals.
UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television
Tell us something about your own unique story. What shaped you? What is important to you about the stories you want to tell? The goal is to get to know you as a storyteller outside of your resume.
American Film Institute
Please choose one of the following prompts to write a thoughtful 1-2 page response. We are looking for applicants who can write well and clearly communicate their ideas.
Option 1: Untangle a knot you see in the world.
Option 2: If you had a time machine and could go back in time or into the future for a day, where/when would you go, what would you do, and why?
NYU Tisch School of the Arts
As you can see from these prompts, while they are all different, the fundamental question is the same: who are you and what’s your story? This does not mean that you need to have the most impressive story that’ll wow your audience. Sure, it doesn’t hurt if James Cameron is your uncle and you can write about your amazing time on the set of Avatar 2, but most seventeen and eighteen year olds will not be able to write about such experiences, and that is completely fine! What’s important is not so much what your topic is about but what it shows about a distinct quality about you and how you’re able to express that. Your old tennis shoes can represent the journey that only you can talk about, or your passion for scuba diving can invite readers to get a glimpse into your unique world. As great writers and directors will tell you, write what you know. Don’t go chasing an experience just so that you can write about it in your application. It’ll reek of inauthenticity and won’t impress anyone.
If you’re passionate about filmmaking, that’s exactly what you should be doing – making films! Many students are more enamored with the idea of making films than they are about actually making films. If you aren’t doing so already, start writing, shooting, and editing films at nights, weekends, and any chance you are able to, by yourself and with friends. Those are developmentally important times when you are learning about the craft of storytelling and discovering your unique voice. Many film schools require a visual sample as part of their portfolio requirements, so get comfortable with the process and learn how to make ideas into visual stories. Be prolific and don’t be afraid of making bad films. In fact, most of your films will be bad! That’s part of growing as an artist. Experiment and see what works and what doesn’t work, but always be creating. So many filmmakers are afraid to finish a project if it’s not the next Shawshank Redemption. Get that bad movie out of your system, and you’ll be one step closer to making your masterpiece.
Filmmaking is a highly collaborative process. As you can see from the closing credits of any work, it takes an entire village to make a movie or TV show. The easiest and most immediate way to collaborate is with your friends. Make movies together and work on each other’s projects. A key thing to remember is that it’s not just about your vision and your movies. Most people want to immediately hop into the director’s chair, but it’s vital to learn how to work towards creating someone else’s vision as well, whether that’s acting in a particular way or capturing a specific shot that serves their story.
To expand your horizons, find opportunities that you can contribute to and will get you to work with people you may otherwise not get the chance to. This will get you out of your comfort zone, expose you to new perspectives, and help you grow as an artist. Some ideas include getting involved with your high school theater production, volunteering at a local non-profit film organization, and taking filmmaking workshops during summers. Applications to collegiate film programs often require a creative portfolio in which you need to list the projects you’ve contributed to and the specific roles you played, so getting involved with various creative avenues will showcase your diverse experiences and your willingness to try new things.
Be Open to Feedback
Unless you are planning on making movies to watch just by yourself, the point of making films and TV shows is to showcase your work to other people. As a filmmaker, it’s your job to convey a story using visuals, sounds, and dialogue, and if the message isn’t getting across effectively in the way you intended, you have to see and hear why that is. Don’t assume that your audience is as invested in the movie as you are (they’re not) or that they can read your mind and know what you actually meant (they can’t). Start off by showing your work to people who you trust and have your best intentions in mind like your friends and family, and ask for honest feedback. A key thing to remember: don’t just fish for compliments and don’t get defensive. Neither of these will help you grow as a storyteller. Receiving criticism and negative feedback for something you’ve put blood, sweat, and tears into is hard. But rather than getting angry and saying, “You just don’t get it!”, try to see things from their perspective and use those comments to improve your work. Get used to critiques, and use them to build you up rather than tear you down. It will prepare you for film school and the entertainment industry. Remember, major films like Star Wars, Back to the Future, Toy Story, and Pulp Fiction almost didn’t get made because Hollywood executives did not like these ideas and thought they would be big flops.
The college application process is a long, arduous journey and not one that you should leave until the night before the deadlines. Generally, students apply to about 10-15 schools, and each of these programs require specific application materials such as writing samples, visual samples, artist statements, creative portfolios, and personal statements. While you will be able to reuse many of the materials, creating a strong application package that will give you the best opportunity to get into your top choices requires a lot of time and effort and multiple revisions. Get ahead of this process by researching potential colleges and universities, taking virtual or in-person tours, and talking to admissions representatives to see what types of students they are looking for and whether you can see yourself at these programs for the next four or five years. Most application requirements stay the same for several years, so if the school hasn’t released the requirements for the year for which you are applying, just look at what’s currently on their website. In addition, read personal statements and watch visual samples from applicants who have been accepted to these schools so that you have an idea of how you should craft your own.
Applying to film school (or any other college and university) can be a stressful, confusing process, so we are here to support you! Please reach out to us and we’d be happy to help!