How to Apply to Columbia University's Screenwriting & Directing MFA for 2024 Entry

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The Screenwriting & Directing MFA program is Columbia University’s pillar program for aspiring directors. Film students learn storytelling for film, television, and emerging digital media through intensive writing and directing projects across genres. Film students attend rigorous writing workshops where they develop and refine short- and long-form script projects under the guidance of industry experts and peer-to-peer feedback.

Columbia University encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration: Creative Producing and Screenwriting & Directing students share a common first-year curriculum and second-year electives. This set-up helps film students enter the industry with an array of professional contacts and a deeper understanding of the relationship between writing and directing.

Before you apply, read the year-by-year curriculum breakdown for the Screenwriting & Directing program and application requirements taken directly from Columbia University’s website.

Year 1 (fall)

Film students begin with Columbia’s Core Curriculum. These courses emphasize essential elements of directing, narrative storytelling, and production, and they are taken by students in all graduate degree programs:
  • Directing I
  • Directing Actors I
  • Elements of Dramatic Narrative
  • Ethics & Inclusive Storytelling
  • Fundamentals of Directing
  • Practical Production I
    Screenwriting I

Year 1 (spring)​

The spring curriculum builds upon filmmaking and storytelling principles mastered in the fall semester in the following courses:
  • Directing II
  • Directing Actors II
  • Practical Production II
  • Role of the Producer
  • Screenwriting II
  • Script to Screen
  • Secrets of the Short
  • Analysis of Film Language (recommended)
    Intro to Pilot

Year 1 (summer)

Screenwriting & Directing students complete an 8-12 minute film production.

Year 2​

In the second year of the MFA program, students in the Screenwriting & Directing concentration take required courses and supplement these courses with a wide range of electives.

Screenwriting—Year 2 courses

Screenwriting III*
Screenwriting IV*
Fundamentals of Editing

(*Note: Screenwriting III/IV is a year-long course taught by the same instructor.)

Screenwriting concentrates also have priority for TV Writing: Pilot, which is required for those who plan to do television writing for their thesis. Screenwriters may take Year 2 courses in Directing and Directing Actors, and some Producing courses as electives.

Directing—Year 2 courses

Directing III
Directing IV
Directing Actors III or IV
Fundamentals of Editing

Directors may take Second Year Courses in Screenwriting and/or TV Writing, and some Producing courses as electives.

Year 2 elective classes

Business of Television
Digital Storytelling I: History and Theory of Interactivity
Digital Storytelling II: Building Storyworlds
Intro to Cinematography
First Features
Story Gym
Story Structure
TV Directing
TV Writing: Pilot
Visual Experiences

Year 2 (summer)​

D4 film production – a more ambitious short film, directed by a member of the Directing 4 class. After completion of concentration requirements and 60 credits in the first two years of study, the third year and beyond is devoted to thesis work and to special classes contributing to the completion of the thesis. There are also several advanced non-credit workshops that are open exclusively to students in their thesis years.

Year 3​

Year 3 (and beyond) I devoted to thesis work and to special classes contributing to the completion of the thesis, also known as the Research Arts years. There are also several advanced non-credit workshops that are open exclusively to students in their thesis years.

Screenwriting—Year 3

Screenwriting concentrates must take the following required courses:
  • Script Revision – (required of all Screenwriting concentrates in the third year)
  • TV Revision – (required of all Screenwriting concentrates who wish to do thesis work in TV Writing)

Directors—Year 3 required classes

Screenwriting concentrates must take the following required courses:
  • Directing Thesis Advisement

Screenwriting Electives (for thesis students

These courses are open to Directing concentrates, although priority goes to Screenwriting concentrates:
  • Advanced Feature Writing
  • Advanced Pilot Writing
  • Advanced Screenplay Revision

The thesis period allows Screenwriting & Directing students to exclusively focus on honing their creative projects; courses for credit are no longer required. However, graduate students are encouraged to attend thesis development and preparation workshops and master classes with guest filmmakers. Master classes are led by industry experts and explore TV directing, directing the first feature, writing and directing comedies, pitching, advanced editing, and film scoring.

How to Apply​

Prepare to submit the following materials (from Columbia University School of the Arts's website):
  1. Autobiographical essay: Four to six double-spaced pages. (Tell us something about yourself and your background, artistic experiences, creative influences, and professional objectives.)
  2. Dramatic Writing Sample: A log line must be included. No more than 10 pages. Must be in screenplay format and must contain dialogue. This can be a complete short screenplay or the first ten pages of a screenplay. It must be original; it may not be an adaptation, except of your own work in another form. Please do not submit writing in prose form and no theater plays. The story cannot be the same as the one in your feature film treatment or your optional video submission.
  3. Film prompt:Read the following openings, choose one and imagine the scene that might follow it. The scene you write must include both dialogue and description. It should be no less than two and no more than three pages long. It should be written in screenplay format. These prompts change every year. The prompts listed below correspond to the Fall 2023 application. You may change the gender of any character in these prompts, but do not change ages or relationships:
    1. INT. APARTMENT - NEW YEARS EVE: With a smile plastered firmly into place, the woman begins backing away from the chaotic party down a darkened hallway. Intending to make a hasty exit, she locates her coat on a bed – but is shocked to discover just who is underneath it.
    2. INT. DORM ROOM - LATE NIGHT: The two students sit side by side admiring their handiwork: a pail of water sitting atop the bedroom door, rigged to fall on whoever enters next. They peer at a wall clock and then lean forward, straining to hear any approaching footsteps.
    3. INT. HIGH SCHOOL LOCKER ROOM - DAY: Long after the other students have left for home, one student remains in the locker room, frozen in place, staring into the grimy mirror. Just then, a janitor enters with a mop and pail – startled to find anyone still at school.
  4. Feature film treatment: On one double-spaced page for a film you might wish to write, direct or produce based on your application concentration. The treatment must concisely relate a complete dramatic story sufficient to sustain a feature-length film, including major characters and plot developments and a clear statement of the resolution. The story cannot be the same as the one in your dramatic writing sample or your optional video submission. You must state the genre of your treatment and a log line. On a separate page, please state the genre, major characters and a log line for the film. On a separate page, please state the genre, major characters and a log line for the film. A log line is one or two sentences that describe the protagonist(s) and the story of the film.
  5. Visual Submission (not required, but strongly suggested for Screenwriting & Directing Film Concentration applicants): Your visual submission should be uploaded to the Video Upload section of the online application and cannot be linked to a third-party such as YouTube or Vimeo. Submit one of the following:
    1. Film/Video Work: All Film MFA applicants may submit up to 30 minutes of film/video work. This material should be uploaded to the Video Upload section of the online application. It is advisable to put the best work at the beginning of your visual submission.
    2. Visual Exercise: Applicants for Directing who have not shot prior visual material are encouraged to shoot and submit the following OPTIONAL VISUAL EXERCISE: Write and shoot a 2-person SILENT SCENE (no dialogue), between one and two minutes long, which deals with the idea of "COMING TOGETHER." It could be two strangers who make a connection, a fighting couple who then make amends, or two people who 'come together' in anger, physicality or any other dramatic situation you choose.
    3. You may use subjects of any genders or ages, and any locations and props, etc. that you have available to you. Elaborate production expense is NOT the goal of this part of the application. You may shoot in any format. admitted student perspective member@cms9607 says of the application process:

“Columbia's application was [interesting] compared to the other schools, because it felt like the most bare bones. The other applications required varying degrees of extra [materials] outside of writing prompts. Columbia's… seemed more focused on just the writing. That made me worried, at first. I thought I needed all the extra fluff to make me look like a better candidate. In the end, I think it was my style in writing that got me admitted.”

Read about their film background and scholarship award amount.

Ready to apply?​

The Columbia graduate application for film students opens on October 1, 2023. Click here to start your application before the deadline (see “Columbia University Application Deadlines and What to Expect After Applying”).