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Film School MFA Application advice from Accepted Students

  1. Chris W
    I asked some members of the site who were accepted to various Film School MFA programs some questions that would provide some advice to other aspiring applicants. If you are now in the process of applying to Film School or are thinking of applying, I hope that you find their responses helpful.

    If you've also been accepted to an MFA program please feel free to write your own responses to the questions in the discussion thread.

    Below are the responses from forum member @TheArsenal1886 who was accepted to UCLA's MFA Screenwriting program.
    1. To which schools did you apply to?

      USC and UCLA (MFA Screenwriting)

    2. To which schools were you accepted?

      Just UCLA

    3. If you were not accepted to certain schools why do you think that was the case?

      I think it was mostly due to the fact that USC has a very structured (and I would say, "restrictive") application process that only allows you to submit 10 pages of your own work in addition to completing a few 3-5 page prompts that they've been using for nearly a decade. I don't have a particularly stellar resume (undergrad grades/accomplishments were relatively average-- especially compared to many of my classmates at UCLA), so I really only had around 20 pages when it was all said and done to make my case. USC also doesn't interview screenwriters unless they're worried about your ability to communicate in English. UCLA, on the other hand, just wanted a personal statement and "no more than 200 pages" of writing samples. I also had a skype interview with a professor. I think they just afforded me a lot more opportunities to prove that I had a unique voice and could bring something to their program. So in short, I think USC just is a much more traditional application process, and that didn't suit someone who didn't look as good on paper (sans writing, obviously).

    4. To what school did you decide to attend and why?

      UCLA was the only school (of two) that accepted me, but I ended up attending because of the conversation I had with the professor in the skype interview. He really sold me on the program. Their website isn't very informative as to what being a student in the program looks like.

    5. In your opinion, what did you do in your application or interview that caused you to be accepted?

      I think one thing that impressed UCLA was that I'd been working full time for three years out of undergrad and was waking up at 5am to write every morning before work for around a year before submitting my application. I think being from an underrepresented area of the country (deep south) also didn't hurt. Writing wise, I don't know-- we're always least equipped to see our own ability, but I suppose I just showed them I had something unique to bring to the table.

    6. If you submitted a portfolio what did you submit? What aspects of your portfolio do you think caused you to be accepted?

      I submitted two half-hour pilots and the first 10 pages of an otherwise unwritten feature script. I imagine it was a plus that I'd sat down and finished two different things, but honestly, I have no idea. I look back at them two years later and wonder if someone just made a horrible mistake and was too nice to tell me. They're horrible!

    7. If you were interviewed during the application process how did the interview go? What interview questions were you asked? How do you think your interview went?

      The interview went very well and I think went a long way in my ultimate acceptance. I was asked very few questions, really. Half the interview was the professor telling me about the program and my asking questions about it. They were mostly focused on determining whether or not I had a personality that would work well within the small, workshop environment of an MFA program and that I was serious enough about this to be able to finish a demanding 2 year program that utilizes the quarter system. (10 weeks to write an entire script as apposed to the 16 weeks of a traditional semester)

    8. Do you have any advice for future applicants?

      I've littered this site with about as much advice as I can muster, but I think the most simple advice is "show them you have something to contribute in a room of other writers." Demonstrate that you're not only a good writer but that you're able to communicate effectively with others. Unless you're an absolute genius (and, even then, that's usually not enough) you'll go absolutely nowhere in this business if you're toxic in a room. Maturity is probably the other aspect that's important to demonstrate, and that goes hand-in-hand with professionalism. There's a reason it's much harder to get into these MFA programs right out of undergrad. First, life experience is important, whether or not you want to admit it when you're one of those leaving undergrad looking for a grad-school parachute. Second, the easiest way to ostracize yourself in these programs is to act like a little kid. Leave your penchant for gossip and drama at the door. Give and take criticism with humility and grace. Everybody knows which classmates don't, and the same goes for your potential future in the industry. Just as it is when you're in a general meeting or an interview for a position in a writers' room, the main thing they're looking for in the application process is "can I sit in a room with this person for many hours a day for months on end?"

    9. If you are now attending the school, how do you like it? (if applicable)

      Some days I love it and some days I hate it, which means it's exactly what you'd imagine from a writing program. Some days I love writing, and some days I'll do literally anything to avoid having to sit down at the computer. I'm much more impressed with my classmates than I thought I'd be. Almost every one of them is someone I'd love to keep in touch with forever, and so many of them blow me away with their writing on a regular basis. They keep me honest and keep me working hard to prove I'm as good as they are (and ultimately worthy of a coveted spot in the industry as a writer who doesn't also work at Starbucks.)

    10. What has surprised you the most so far about the school?

      See question #9. And that's not to say that I assumed most people would be duds, I'm just impressed with UCLA's batting average in identify individuals that are both quality writers and quality people.
    @Point Break , an active forum member and a current USC attendee also responded. (Thank you!)

    1. To which schools did you apply to?

      USC, UCLA, Columbia, NYU

    2. To which schools were you accepted?

      USC

    3. If you were not accepted to certain schools why do you think that was the case?

      I'm probably not the best candidate to compete with graduate production students. As a director, I loved developing stories and working with actors. I later came to realize that I'm probably a writer, not a writer-director (but we'll see). If you can team up with a kickass DP and a dope editor, you may have a better chance getting into the production programs. But that's just the opinion of a production reject.

    4. To what school did you decide to attend and why?

      USC, because it was the only one that accepted me and it's the best. Not a tough decision at all.

    5. In your opinion, what did you do in your application or interview that caused you to be accepted?

      I had strong, personal, and creative narrative samples. I told stories that were unique to me and my sentimentality. Staying true to that will help to project your unique voice as a writer.

    6. If you submitted a portfolio what did you submit? What aspects of your portfolio do you think caused you to be accepted?

      My creative samples. USC has the same creative portfolio questions each year to see how creative you can be with the same parameters as all of the previous students. Once you figure out how freeing this can be (instead of limiting), you're able to tap into something that hopefully will surprise yourself. This should be the goal with everything you submit, from the biography to your updated resume. Just try to tell a story.

    7. If you were interviewed during the application process how did the interview go? What interview questions were you asked? How do you think your interview went?

      N/A

    8. Do you have any advice for future applicants?

      Be honest, tell your stories, and stay busy. Film school is only one route. If you love what you're doing and stay at it, you'll be able to find the right circles to make great content with. Even film school graduates struggle to break in after they graduate - some even fail at their first choices and find different careers in entertainment.

    9. If you are now attending the school, how do you like it? (if applicable)

      I love the opportunities that are available. I'm definitely in a better place than I was on my own. But nothing is guaranteed. You have to be just as persistent in school, because the competition is thick. The program seems to be academic first and professional second. Know that you'll have to do a lot of networking no matter what.

    10. What has surprised you the most so far about the school?

      The necessity of networking was the biggest surprise. When to say "no" (getting notes, networking too much, etc.) was the second. Since there's no guaranteed path, USC tries to expose you to everything. They also dispel a lot of what doesn't work these days (query letters, unsolicited spec submissions). But it's hard figuring out what will work for you. Hopefully, something strikes you, but it's best to apply to everything you qualify for and always reach beyond the hallowed halls of SCA. They can get you far, but there's still work to be done after.


    @Mike_V , who attended Chapman and is a Moderator on this site also responded.
    1. To which schools did you apply to?

      Just Chapman

    2. To which schools were you accepted?

      Chapman

    3. If you were not accepted to certain schools why do you think that was the case?

      I never applied to any other school because by the time I decided to apply to grad school, all the deadlines have passed except for Chapman and Loyola Marymount. Loyola Marymount was FCP only at that time (I don't know if that has changed over the years) so I knew it would have been a dead end for me if I tried Loyola.

    4. To what school did you decide to attend and why?

      I ended up at Chapman and mostly because of the reviews and also that they're Avid exclusive.

    5. In your opinion, what did you do in your application or interview that caused you to be accepted?

      I believe it was because I worked as an editor for the Obama Campaign in 2008 in the Georgia HQ.

    6. If you submitted a portfolio what did you submit? What aspects of your portfolio do you think caused you to be accepted?

      I submitted the specific links to all the videos I made for the ga.barackobama.com site.

    7. If you were interviewed during the application process how did the interview go? What interview questions were you asked? How do you think your interview went?

      Interestingly enough, I never got an interview, they just checked my reference (from the New Media Director of the GA HQ)

    8. Do you have any advice for future applicants?

      Really show that you are serious about the discipline you want to go into. You should have something to show that you want to do that specific discipline, either with a resume that shows that you are already working on building your experience or that you have a diverse skill set that will complement your discipline of choice, be in philosophy, science, or even classical art. If there is anything they look at, it's how serious you are to go into your discipline of choice and/or if you can bring something new/different to the team. I hate to say this but for a lot of jobs, undergrad degrees barely mean much to most employers. Even if you're going for a medical degree, they care about the latest 4 years of your academic medical degree over your undergrad years. Your decision to go to grad school is essentially a way to show your resolve in really making a career decision.

    9. If you are now attending the school, how do you like it? (if applicable)

      The 3 years I spent at Chapman was very fun. I gain friends, knowledge, experience, and mentors. I learned from my mistakes as well as other's mistake. While it costs a lot of money to go to grad school, it also saved me from doing many other costly mistakes that will either financially or chronologically hurt me from money wasted or time lost to my mistakes.

    10. What has surprised you the most so far about the school?

      The open ended structure that allows students to branch out beyond their chosen discipline (if there is space) as well as the amount of extracurricular classes that can be taken to supplement your skill set as well as the amount of equipment available for students to work on things on their own.
    @YMK just sent me his responses (thank you!) and here they are. He was accepted into UCLA.
    • In your opinion, what did you do in your application or interview that caused you to be accepted?

      I wrote from personal experiences in my essay and I think that played a large part in the acceptance. I wrote, like I'm sure many other people did, about my roots and where I come from. I din't try to make it a sob story nor did I try to embellish it. I did however, write it in a narrative style that I found personally appealing. I also stated my ambitions clearly and made no apologies about why and how I wanted to achieve them. This was a gamble on my part, I was worried that they might find both my application and my interview to be brash and abrasive, thankfully they din't! :)
    • If you submitted a portfolio what did you submit? What aspects of your portfolio do you think caused you to be accepted?

      I submitted a short film and a couple of short sketches that I had directed. My short film was very very different from the funny sketches that I had filmed. I think the diversity in the kind of content I submitted might have helped. Really not sure about this though.
    • If you were interviewed during the application process how did the interview go? What interview questions were you asked? How do you think your interview went?

      When the interview began I was very nervous and I'm sure I did not make a good first impression. Let me tell how bad a first impression I made - I had spent so much time preparing myself to answer all the regular questions that when they asked something as simple as 'introduce yourself' I stammered! However, after that disastrous answer, I quickly regrouped and made myself relax. In my opinion that was one of the better moves I made during the interview. It was because I was relaxed, that I was more open to the interview going into uncharted territory. I was more communicative and more articulate suddenly the interview did not seem so formal or scary anymore.

      The days before the interview I did two things religiously. I practiced pitching the short story that we were supposed to pitch and I spent time mentally preparing myself. While practicing the story pitch, I timed myself so that I wouldn’t overshoot the two minute mark that the school had specified. The mental preparation also helped. I had repeatedly told myself that the interview wasn't the 'be all and end all' of my life. Reminding myself of this fact mid-interview helped me relax. Relax enough to paradoxically, put my best foot forward.
    • Do you have any advice for future applicants?

      Yes, its a cliche and lord knows, whenever I saw this statement online I got mad. But, 'be yourself'. It works. This is not to mean that you can chill out and expect miracles to happen. After doing everything in your power to prepare yourself, I would suggest that you take time to remind yourself of whats most important to you. I think, one way or another who you are tends to bleed over into both the application and the interview. So If you take time to remind yourself of whats important in life, it will reflect in your work and any school worth its salt will see through that immediately.

      The reason I haven't tackled the first four questions is because they don't really apply to me. I only applied to one film school. This had nothing to do with strategy or method in madness. It was due to necessity and grim reality. There was a scholarship that I was eligible for and I decided to give it a shot and see if I could get it, even knowing that competition was going to be fierce. Without this particular scholarship, I just can't afford to go to film school. So, when I received the acceptance phone call, I felt vindicated. Happy and excited sure, (over the moon actually!) but it was a great feeling to realise the 'be honest to yourself' policy actually works. Now, I'm confident that they gave me the admission and not some persona that I was trying to imitate. So, my most crucial insight to give to prospective applicants would be just that. Be Honest. This might seem cliche but its a cliche for a very good reason.

    @moni4liberty was also kind enough to share her responses to the questions:

    1. To which schools did you apply to?

      I applied to USC, NYU, UCLA, and Brooklyn College for a screenwriting MFA.

    2. To which schools were you accepted?

      I was accepted to USC and Brooklyn, denied from UCLA, and accepted off the waitlist for NYU.

    3. If you were not accepted to certain schools why do you think that was the case?

      UCLA requests a writing portfolio of up to 200 pages, and I submitted about 70 pages worth of shorts and one pilot. I think a better option would have been to submit a feature in addition to the other things I submitted.

    4. To what school did you decide to attend and why?

      I decided on USC over NYU and Brooklyn College. It was a tough choice because I've always wanted to live in New York, but I'm interested in writing for television, and USC was definitely the best program for that.

    5. In your opinion, what did you do in your application or interview that caused you to be accepted?

      The only rule I tried to follow during the application process was "don't show them anything they've seen before." So, for my personal statements, I completely avoided all talk about why I like filmmaking and what's special about it. I didn't even mention film until the last quarter of my statement. I focused on things that were totally unique to me, that no one else would say. Same for the writing samples. Just don't be cliche. Be as uniquely you as possible!

    6. If you submitted a portfolio what did you submit? What aspects of your portfolio do you think caused you to be accepted?

      For USC, they require specifics. My goal there was to not be cliche about it all. For UCLA, I submitted my USC samples (I don't recommend doing that, probably not a good idea), a pilot, and a handful of shorts. For NYU, I submitted the same pilot and a spec of Another Period. I think it comes down to having something unique to say, and trying as much as you can to avoid sounding generic.

    7. If you were interviewed during the application process how did the interview go? What interview questions were you asked? How do you think your interview went?

      I was interviewed by NYU via Facetime and it was very short and informal. Got waitlisted after that, and then accepted in May off the waitlist. For Brooklyn, the interview was much more formal and serious. They asked about what screenplays I was reading, what I've been doing other than film stuff. Generic interview questions.

    8. Do you have any advice for future applicants?

      Try your hardest to be unlike other applicants. Your experience in the industry doesn't seem to matter, why you're passionate about film doesn't seem to matter (as much as you think it does). What seems matters is your unique voice.
    A big thank you to everyone who responded and please be sure to add your own responses in the discussion thread.

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    About Author

    Chris W
    BU COM 1999 Graduate. Currently working as a Film & TV editor in Los Angeles. Founded Studentfilms.com in 1998 (from which the film school forums were spun off into FilmSchool.org in 2014).