This article is in the series How to Get Into Columbia University Film School: Exclusive Advice From the Admissions and Industry and Outreach Departments
The graduate film program at Columbia University School of the Arts is highly acclaimed for its star-studded alumni roster and teaching students how to tell stories that move the masses. In 2022, FilmSchool.org ranked Columbia SOA runner-up for Best Screenwriting Program in its list of top film schools worldwide, and The Wrap ranked Columbia SOA the no. 6 in its annual list of the top film schools in America. Columbia SOA film program graduates are often heavyweights at world-renowned film festivals and award ceremonies, from screenwriter Jennifer Lee (MFA '2005, Frozen, Wreck it Ralph) to director-producer Cherien Dabis (MFA '04, Only Murders in the Building, Ozark, Ramy).

Alexa Pellegrini for FilmSchool.org spoke with the Columbia School of the Arts (Columbia SOA) Admissions and Industry and Outreach departments to break down the application process, navigating the cost of attendance, and tapping into the film school's extensive opportunities for networking and self-promotion.

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Julie Dobrow (MFA ‘00)
is the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. Dobrow has been at SOA for 14 years. Initially, she served as the Director of Academic Administration for the Theatre Department after graduating with an MFA in Theatre with an emphasis in management and producing.

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Alece Oxendine (MFA ‘11)
is the Director of Industry & Festival Outreach. Oxendine is a steward for Columbia SOA filmmakers. From helping students find the ideal film festivals to screen their work to advantageous film lab programs, she provides key supplemental support for graduate film coursework. Oxendine is also on the Columbia alumni association board.

Note: This interview took approximately 2 hours and runs a total of 13 pages. Part 2 is available to our Supporting Members, without whom in-depth articles and interviews like this one would not be possible as FilmSchool.org is 100% advertisement free. Supporting Members also enjoy full access to our application database that tracks upwards of 3,900 film school applications, the full Admissions Statistics for each film program such as our admissions data for Columbia University - Writing for Film & Television MFA, Columbia University - Screenwriting/Directing MFA, Columbia University - Creative Producing MFA, with data on accepted applicant demographics, film experience, GPAs, and more. Supporting Members are also able to access private student clubs and forums, and can even create their own blog on the site.

What makes the graduate film program at Columbia SOA exceptional?​


Julie: We call ourselves the “story school.” Ultimately, the most important ingredient in a great film is the story, so [...] our faculty are extremely focused on teaching filmmakers how to create compelling stories in this medium. They also teach filmmakers all the necessary skills to translate their ideas into various other mediums, from television writing to playwriting to [virtual reality].

Columbia SOA is unique because first-year MFA students have a combined curriculum. That means filmmakers from every concentration take the same courses. We do this intentionally to help students collaborate during and after film school. This also exposes them to working in every aspect of film and levels the playing field.

By the second year, filmmakers break out into their concentrations with in-depth courses. Looking at the success of our alumni network — and how their work consistently plays at the top film festivals in America and across the world — it’s clear that this format works.

How large is each cohort per film concentration?​


Julie: We have approximately 72 students in our incoming [film] class. The average cohort size is always around 72 — some years, we’ve had a couple more or a couple less. That average is broken down into 36 Screenwriting & Directing students, 24 Creative Producing students, and 12 Writing for Film & Television students.

Which concentration is the most competitive?​


Julie: Screenwriting & Directing.

Is Columbia SOA welcoming to unconventional storytellers and abstract filmmakers?​


Julie: The admissions committee isn’t looking for one particular storytelling style, no. They’re not trying to mold graduate film students into a particular filmmaker’s image or sway them to adopt a specific type of writing. We’ve definitely had applicants and students who have written and directed films in an experimental style versus your kitchen-sink drama — a more traditional style of film.

What’s interesting is that once film students learn how to improve their storytelling skills, they can tell them in virtually any medium. For example, we don’t specifically offer a course in writing for animation, yet we have alumni who wrote Frozen.

A phrase that one of our film professors loves to use is that we make our film school graduates future-proof. Who knows what the film industry or new media will look like in five or ten years? But Columbia SOA graduates will always be able to address the demand for excellent stories and the ability to tell them in different forms.

What do you look for in an exceptional letter of recommendation?


Julie: We require three letters of recommendation. If an applicant graduated from a BA, BS, or BFA program in the last five years, we require that at least one of them is from a professor.

Ideally, we want the additional two letters from professionals who know your writing style, your past films, but also your work ethic and collaborative skills. The students that come to Columbia [SOA] range from just leaving their undergraduate programs to older adults in their 50s and beyond. But any letter that speaks to your inherent creativity and how your unique background can inform your artistic perspective will be an asset.

And around how many graduate applicants per concentration are admitted each year?​


Julie: The percentage of students who apply to each program per application cycle varies every year. Around 10% of Screenwriting & Directing applicants are admitted, and around 30% of Creative Producing students are admitted.

As of spring 2023, we don’t have the statistics yet on Writing for Film & Television since it’s the first time it has been broken out into a separate concentration.

Can you break down the application process for Columbia SOA's graduate film program?​


Julie: There are three separate concentrations: Screenwriting & Directing, Writing for Film & Television, and Creative Producing.

The application is fairly standard: We ask for transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a lot of biographical information. The two most important components are the writing samples and creative materials. We require an autobiographical essay and a dramatic writing sample to get a sense of your writing style. We also have a film prompt where we ask you to react to [a film], and a feature film treatment. Finally, there’s the optional visual submission.

All applications for our graduate film program are reviewed by faculty in our admissions committee. We have [screenwriting and directing] professors who review Screenwriting & Directing applications, Creative Producing professors who review [Creative Producing] applications, and so on.

How much weight does a graduate applicant's GPA have?


Julie: The GPA is one of the less important parts. The admissions committee is most interested in your writing and visual submissions. They want to understand your unique voice as a filmmaker and the types of ideas you have to bring to the table. If you got a C in undergraduate Biology, nobody cares! We want to understand you as an artist.

What are common mistakes you see people make in the application process?​


Julie: The one thing that always jumps out at me: Make sure you’re not copying someone else’s work or outright plagiarizing. We have seen creative materials written by bots, or by people who clearly have a fluency in the English language that the applicant hasn’t shown in other ways. We also check to ensure that creative materials aren’t taken from sources on the Internet.

The admissions committee has done this for so many years; they know what to look for. We work closely with them and they’ll flag something that doesn’t look quite right, or reminds them of an article they read a few months earlier, and so on. All your portfolio materials should be entirely your own, and speak to your own goals and artistic aspirations as well.

Do graduate applicants have an advantage in developing their portfolio using advanced film equipment?​


Julie: Absolutely not — some of our strongest video submissions were filmed on iPhones. It’s not about having fancy equipment or the perfect shot — it’s about their creative vision. So, if you have a great story, share it on whatever equipment is accessible to you.

What are the chances of being selected off the waitlist?


Julie: The waitlist at Columbia SOA is interesting because it really fluctuates from year to year. There are some years where we’ve accepted zero MFA film applicants off the waitlist. But if our yield is down — meaning that percentage of students who accept their admissions offers is low — we turn to the waitlist.

Being waitlisted is never a definite “No.” You shouldn’t say “Oh, there’s no way I’ll ever get in.” We try to take at least a few applicants off of it every year, and we have a good pool to choose from. But we’re not able to let applicants know their position, and it’s not a guarantee.

What tips do you have for rejected graduate applicants who wish to reapply?​


Julie: Letters of recommendation can roll over into the second year if you apply during the next cycle. If I were reapplying, I would definitely try to update my creative materials — if there’s anything new you created since your submission the previous year, be sure to include it. Focus on spicing up your portfolio.

And if you aren’t selected from the waitlist, just know that the faculty saw something in your writing that piqued their interest. So, we always encourage students who don’t get in to reapply during the next cycle.

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Can you share a Columbia SOA graduate film student success story?


Alece: Most recently, our biggest success story is the Muslim-Pakistani film Joyland by Saim Sadiq. He graduated in 2019 and completed the [feature film] in 2021.

Joyland was actually Sadiq's feature film debut. It premiered at Cannes and just played at Sundance 2023. It was his student short film, Darling, that inspired the now-hit feature film; there are some elements from his award-winning short that were applied to his feature.

I feel Joyland is our biggest recent success story by far because [the entire crew] was made of Columbia SOA film school alumni from the last three to five years. They became friends and collaborated amazingly to make this project happen.

To be able to leave film school only within a few years of graduating, and at this level — it’s so incredible and inspiring. And all of the people who worked on this film got different film jobs, whether it was an internship or working at a film lab.


Do alumni come back to work at Columbia SOA?​


Julie: Yes. It’s interesting how many [alumni] come back to work at Columbia [SOA] in administrative positions or teaching as faculty. And I think a big factor is that we have such a strong community and a really nurturing environment. Columbia SOA has a whole network in place to help people get positions after they graduate.

We’ve hired alumni to film admissions videos for us and other marketing and communications projects. We’ve hired alumni to create promotional materials [for Columbia SOA]; many others have taught as adjunct faculty or full-time faculty and even tenured positions.

I think a lot of film schools can be extremely cutthroat. My understanding is that the Columbia SOA film program as a whole is very much not that way – our students root for each other. Everyone supports one another. That leads to future collaborations for filmmakers and other majors, but also for students to help each other find jobs.

In your experience, who should submit the optional visual materials?


Julie: It’s most important for Screenwriting & Directing applicants since it strongly mirrors all the work you need to do to graduate. It’s less important for applicants who are more producing or just writing-focused.

Is there an ideal Columbia SOA graduate film student?​


Julie: No, I don’t think there is an ideal Columbia candidate. We don’t have a list of boxes that you need to check off. I think [we] are always going to prioritize filmmakers with a strong and individualistic vision. We look for applicants across a wide range of backgrounds, both culturally and geographically. You don’t need to have majored in film as an undergraduate. The faculty admissions committee gravitates toward people who want to tell fascinating stories and actively participate in the collaborative spirit of the school.

As I mentioned, Columbia SOA is a highly collaborative film school. This is not the kind of film school where only a certain number of films are funded each year. The curriculum really lends itself to that. That’s why we look for students who want to jump in and play well with others.

Alece: I had a conversation with a fairly big-time producer before I came back to work at Columbia SOA in the film program. We were talking about what the film program is like. And through this conversation, I reflected on my own experiences and realized that a Columbia SOA filmmaker isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty in the storytelling process.

Across the board, Columbia SOA film students have so much care and love for cinema as a storytelling medium. But they’re also humble and subtle. Their films may not always sell on a commercial basis, but filmmakers are here to tell stories that need to be told. If you genuinely care about your work and have a passion for telling stories for the sake of sharing your vision above everything else, then Columbia SOA will be a great fit.

How does Columbia SOA provide a diverse learning experience?


Alece: The faculty members in the film program are very diverse. In fact, our program is the most diverse throughout Columbia SOA. We have safe spaces that students need.

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Are Columbia SOA graduate students allowed to work at any point during the film program?


Julie: It’s amazing to go to film school in New York City — all the rising films of the moment are playing somewhere. We also have many students who have worked at various film-producing organizations throughout the city. Columbia MFA film students can really get themselves out there and start working — typically after their second year — to leave with even more experience.

During their studies, we have film students who work in our digital media center, help mount film festivals, and assist in the film office. No matter which role they choose, they gain highly valuable administrative skills. We do occasionally see MFA film students work in their first year, but for the most part, our jobs are geared toward second and third years students.

Alece: I know that on the surface, it seems like a lot of people bring unlimited cash. We understand that graduate students typically need to make money. But we don’t offer part-time MFA programs. You are technically allowed to work a full-time job, although it’s extremely difficult to take on two full-time positions at the same time. But our work-study positions are great! They don’t offer full-time pay, but Columbia SOA does offer graduate student health insurance.

The Research Arts year is ideal to work at least part-time or take on an internship — anything that leads to full-time work after graduation. The Research Arts year is designed to help students transition into the workplace.

Is work-study open to all Columbia SOA graduate students?​


Julie: We offer federal work-study to domestic students and permanent residents who are below a certain income level.

However, all of the positions at Columbia SOA, which we call our “service positions,” such as assisting faculty members in the film department and marketing our film festivals, are open to all students including international students. In addition to “service positions,” we have Teaching Assistant roles in undergraduate classes.

How much is the average financial aid award?


Julie: For the 2021-2022 academic year, the average financial aid award was between $25,000 and $30,000.

Does Columbia SOA offer grants and scholarships?​


Julie: Graduate film students typically receive scholarships between $10,000 and $35,000 per year. We have a few full scholarships as well — they’re highly competitive, but we do award them.

How does the university determine who receives these scholarships?​


Julie: Institutional scholarships are determined by a combination of financial need and merit. We acknowledge that it’s an expensive program in an expensive city, so we work with students who demonstrate significant financial need in their supporting documents.

Is access to film equipment included in the annual tuition?​


Julie: Yes. Graduate film students use Columbia’s equipment at no additional cost. A large portion of the tuition also goes toward the instruction component. Part of the tuition that comes in also goes right back out to provide institutional scholarships.

A good portion of our annual budget goes to ensuring that we have film equipment that is extensive and up to current industry standards. We’re focused on having enough to go around to accommodate both coursework and thesis films.

Thank you for reading! The interview continues exclusively for our Supporting Members here:


How to Get Into Columbia University Film School: Exclusive Advice From the Admissions and Industry and Outreach Departments (Part 2)

How to Get Into Columbia University Film School: Exclusive Advice From the Admissions and Industry and Outreach Departments (Part 2)

Exclusively for our Supporting Members, this is the second part of our 2 hour interview with the Columbia SOA film school admissions team. FilmSchool.org is 100% advertisement free so without our Supporting Members, in-depth articles and interviews like this one would not be possible...

To access the final installment (6 pages long) and find out the truth behind the notorious 'The Wall Street Journal' article about Columbia SOA's cost of attendance, the forthcoming Direct Connect program, and more, click here to become a Supporting Member.

Thinking about attending Columbia University for film? Find out important dates and deadlines, application materials you need for your concentration, and more in FilmSchool.org's guide to applying to Columbia SOA.

FilmSchool.org is 100% advertisement free and Supporting Memberships make articles and interviews like this one possible. Supporting Members also enjoy FULL access to the application database (GPAs, test scores, portfolios...), our full Acceptance Data statistics, private student clubs and forums, and other perks.
Next article in the series 'How to Get Into Columbia University Film School: Exclusive Advice From the Admissions and Industry and Outreach Departments': How to Get Into Columbia University Film School: Exclusive Advice From the Admissions and Industry and Outreach Departments (Part 2)
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Alexa P.
Alexa Pellegrini (she/her) is a freelance copywriter, editor, poet, and essayist. Keep up with her latest musings on Twitter.

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