After Three Years of Rejection, I Got Into The Two Best Film Schools in The World. Here Are The Five Things I Learned...

AFI-USC.jpg’re applying for film school, huh?

I mean, that’s just my assumption. Not sure why you would bother reading this otherwise, especially with where we are currently in The Cycle of Applications. These next couple weeks are pretty much when all the major film school programs have their cutoff dates for applications, and so statistically there’s a high likelihood you are reading this because you are either in the process of freaking out about your in-process application, or in the process of freaking out about your just submitted application. Either way, you are probably freaking out.

And trust me - I get it. I was in your shoes, three times actually. In November 2016, November 2017, and November 2018, I too was just some desperate little punk putting all his chips into getting into a good graduate program to get where I wanted to be in my career. For the first two years, it was solely by targeting the top dawg of the film school world - the University of Southern California - and in the third year, I slightly expanded my options to the #2 film school at the time, the American Film Institute.

I didn’t get in my first two years, which was crushing at the time. But on my third time through, I finally cracked it - I got into USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. AND I got into the American Film Institute. My application journey was, essentially, over. It’s been about a year and a half since then, and I’m happy to say I am currently attending my second year of grad school, the pain and pressure of the application season indeed long behind me.

But in those three years of constant obsession, and literally thousands of exchanges on these here forums (you can check my profile, the receipts remain), I like to think I learned a thing or two about this crazy, weird, maddening, and - on the rare, lucky occasion of acceptance - euphoric process. So here they are, in no particular order, the major takeaways I had from the process that is the Film School application. Keep in mind, I was applying only for Screenwriting programs at the graduate level, but I like to think these rules apply for any application be it directing, producing, undergraduate, or what have you. Let’s start with the most essential, shall we?

Be Honest

Or, if you prefer the more Sesame Street bubblegum version - be yourself! I know it sounds so obvious and corny on the surface, but it also might be legitimately the number one thing that will get you into the program you want to get into. Like, I’m leading with this because it’s by far the most important factor for if you want to get into grad school, in literally any creative field you can think of. There’s a reason that all of them have some personal statement component, after all - the schools don’t care about anything more when it comes to applications than they care about YOU.

Not grades, not your resume, not even the abject quality of your creative portfolio per se: it's all about you proving to the person reading your application that you have the stuff to excel in their program. And here's the thing with that - the only way you can prove it to them is to know what that “stuff” is yourself. What is your voice? What do you believe in? What can you bring to the table that literally no one else in the massive stack of applications can bring, at least in the same way?

Applying for film school is, thankfully, not applying to be a rocket scientist. It's not about proving how accomplished you are, or relaying your many accolades and accomplishments to impress the panel in front of you. Those can certainly help, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the whole game by far. Every facet of filmmaking is about being creative and, even if you're not applying for a Screenwriting MFA as I was, there's no doubt in my mind that the people reading your application are first and foremost looking for that spark of creativity more than ANYTHING else that you lay down in those massive portfolios. So just go for broke. Embrace who you are as an individual, above all else.

This is not easy. And I sure as hell had to work at it in my three years of applications to really get it down (and, even then, I'm far from an expert on it.) But here's the rub: if you can't do it now, you won't be able to do it later. And if you aspire to be a writer or director or a producer or a cinematographer or an editor or any other field within the creative arts at a professional level, you will very fast have to prove you can bring something unique and memorable to the table. So you better get a head start on figuring out what that is now, because graduate school will not give you the answers to that. Only you can do that part. Now, that being said...

Perfection Is Impossible, So Don’t Fret That You Didn’t Reach It

Honestly, the best advice I can give all of you that are about to press submit on thousands of grad school applications within the next couple of weeks is this: DO. NOT. LOOK. BACK. Don’t open the files you gave them. Do not re-read what you did. Make like Paul McCartney, and just let it be. Because as every writer I know can attest, the moment you submit something - ANYTHING - is the moment you are most aware of its flaws. And since there are literal months separating your application submission and the time you hear back from all the schools you applied’s a fool’s errand to look back and have all the mistakes you made hang over your head.

The truth of the matter is, you don’t have to be perfect to get into a good film school. Lord knows I wasn’t - after I got into AFI and USC, I looked back at the application material and laughed at all the silly typos and mistakes I made. Don’t get me wrong - if you don’t proofread your work, and it comes out sloppy or half-assed, your chances are of course going to plummet. But don’t believe for a second that the people who get into top film programs have the “perfect” reel or the most incredible samples. If you were perfect, you wouldn’t have anything to learn now, would you? And that’s what these film schools are looking for, at the end of the day. So once more - try your best, and don’t freak out whether that is “enough.” Because, well -

Once You Submit…You Have No Control

This is a tough one, because so much of life on this very forum and, to be honest, a big reason for coming here in the first place is to get these post-submission updates. I would argue it's far from the only reason - there's a ton of good resources here, obviously - but there's a reason that so many of the individualized school forums explode in activity around February/March: that's the antsy season. It's the time when after months of stress and self-doubt you wanna get some answers...and you want them fast.

But the truth of the matter is, once you press that submission button, your fate is no longer in your hand. It might feel better mentally to call up the USC admissions department or send emails to AFI asking when exactly you will hear back, or what stage of the process they are in, or any line of questioning of that sort. Hell, I did it myself. But looking back that was clearly a defense mechanism to calm my own nerves, and in hindsight, I would very much recommend against engaging too much in that kind of speculation. It just adds more anxiety, frankly, to think you have any control in when or how you hear about what happens to your application. Read this forum, sure, and share with others when you hear back (it’s one of the best parts about this website, you aren’t just circulating in the dark without a support system in this very stressful time.) But don’t make it your job to refresh your application status 24/7. When you know, you will know. To quote the great Mark Rylance in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies: will it help? Will knowing you’re gonna find out if you got into your dream school on next Tuesday vs. next Monday REALLY gonna make a difference? The answer to all the obsessing is no, so I would really suggest using the time to do literally anything else.

Because even if you get that letter on Distribution Day (D-Day, obviously) and it has the absolute last answer you were expecting about your admission status, do not view it as the end of the world. Because of one simple, all-important edict.

Try, Try Again (And When That Doesn’t Work...Try Again)

Nearly 1100 days. That’s how long it took me to get accepted into USC’s MFA screenwriting program, if you do the rough math. That’s a lot of days. Imagine how much you have changed in the last 1100 days. For a wide majority of applicants, you were probably in a completely different place in your life and career 1100 days ago. I certainly was at the time of my first application, to the moment I was accepted - I hadn’t even graduated from my undergraduate program when I first applied to USC. By the time I got in, I was many years out, working a desk job and doing screenwriting on the side.

1100 days is just so much time, so much of which is going to contribute to your own personal growth as an applicant in ways you can’t even predict. And I like to think I grew as a writer and (perhaps more importantly) as a person quite a bit in that gap between applications. Which is why I can’t stress enough that you shouldn’t take the initial no as a forever no.

USC famously includes a segment in their rejection letter about how most people don’t get into the program on their first try, and how you should keep trying year after year, and how that reflects positively on your application moving forward. The cynic in me read that the first couple of times and thought “yeah sure, you’re just trying to make us feel better so we keep applying every year and give you more application fee money.” Which...there might be some truth to, sure. But ultimately, it’s important to remember that a rejection, as contradictory as it seems, does not symbolize a failure.

After all, how could you really know if you failed? There are just too many other factors that go into all this - you could be an excellent applicant, the panel could have LOVED you...just not as much as the other 30 or so applicants they let in. Or maybe they felt like your particular voice - as great as it was - did not have a place amongst the other students that year. I know for a fact that both USC and AFI put a ton of focus not just on individual students, but what their OVERALL class would look like. And once again, you can’t control that. All you can do is pick yourself up and keep making yourself the best applicant you can be. Because if you are meant for the program you apply for, and you truly have the skills you think you do to excel within it, you will get in. It just might take like a thousand more days than you may have expected. But it’s not like having make-or-break expectations like that are the smart thing to do in this process in the first place. Because -

Ultimately, You Can’t Predict Where This - And You - Are Going

I think there’s a certain level of strategizing that all of us who approach going to Film School engage in. We’re not the type of people who (for better or worse) can just jump into the industry with little to no safety net. Or if you were, for one reason or another, you realized that was no longer the path you could take to achieve what you want, and that the more step-based, developmental aspect of film school was going to be a significant help for you. At least I hope that’s the mental math you made, because otherwise you really shouldn’t be applying to film school in the first place if you ask me.

But in any case, that kind of calculating angle is for the most part good...but it certainly has its limitations. In being a long-term planner, it’s easy to kind of trick yourself into being a little too rigid in your life plan - it becomes “I have to get into this program exactly, or I’ll never make it.” Or “I have to get in this year, or it was never meant to be and I shouldn’t even try.” Sometimes, having those goals can put a fire under you to achieve them, which is great. Other times, it makes you unadaptable and rigid. Which, frankly, is the absolute last thing you need to be not just for getting into a film school, but working in the film industry overall.,

I in a lot of ways was that kind of rigid. I thought that I had to go to USC, since it was always what I saw for myself, and any deviation from that plan represents failure. But it absolutely didn’t. Even after finally getting into USC, after a three-year journey -

I didn’t go.

Because the other application I did, the one that I kind of did off of a whim, the one that I put less effort into and subsequently I kind of had more fun with, was for AFI. And not only did they accept me on my first-time at-bat, but they did it with a massive scholarship that covered the entire cost of tuition. I never planned for that. USC was the plan. But plans change, obviously, when such a substantial amount of money is on the table. But now having gone to AFI for nearly a year and a half, and sitting right now a little over half a year from getting my degree...I am so very glad that I made the choice I did. I was glad I put aside the planned path I had for myself, once a new variable was presented. Because I couldn’t imagine my life anywhere else.

BUT to move away from things that just apply to me, I hope the lesson there is clear - after three years of applying to grad school, laser-focused on one thing, it wasn’t to be. And that will happen - if this garbage year is any lesson to all of us, unknown variables can and will devastate any plans you might have had. Personally, I hope they don’t! I hope you reading this (yes, you!) get into your preferred program next year, and that it’s all according to your personal life plan, and also Covid-19 is a long thing of the past come Fall 2021, and you have the best time ever at film school, and also it accomplishes the thing it’s supposed to (i.e. lets you weasel your way into this weird little industry.). If that happens, great! But if it doesn’ There’s always next year.

And in my case...the year after that too.
About author
Septopus is a second-year Screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute. He's here to avoid doing his classwork.

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This was super helpful as I'm starting the process of applying to graduate schools. Your advice made me feel a little more relaxed about the whole process. Thank you!
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ahhh I’m currently in the middle of working on my usc screenwriting apps, and I’ve been stressing out so so much! I really needed to hear this! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!
Hey, since you're already studying at AFI, I was wondering if you could help me connect with a fellow from the Production Design department? that's the dept. I'm very interested in applying at and I could really, really use some help. I'm confused right now about many things and speaking to someone could really help me.. I will wait for your response.
Just stumbled upon this article, even though it's already been over a year back. Still a very nice & inspiring article to read!
Hope your studies are going/went well so far.

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