How to get into Film School - PART 1: The Personal Statement

This article is in the series How to get into Film School
How to get into USC Film School

Film Schools receives thousands of applications per year. How are you going to stand out? What are film schools looking for? In this article series I've gathered some of the best advice from the past 17 years on the forums on applying to film school.

According to the Application Tracker, the USC film school acceptance rate is 26% (23 out of 90 applications in the tracker) and the NYU film school acceptance rate is 20% (36 out of 177 applications in the tracker) so you really need to put a lot of work into your film school application to stand out from the crowd. Since has been around for a long time there is certainly a lot of advice in this matter. It's not an impossible feat... but it's certainly not going to be easy.

If you've come across some gems of advice on the forums that isn't included in this article please send me a message and I'll be sure to include it.

For an extremely in depth article, check out our interview with USC Admissions:

How to get Into USC SCA: Advice from an Admissions Committee Member

How to get Into USC SCA: Advice from an Admissions Committee Member

Considered by many to be the best film school in the world, it’s no wonder why the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) is so sought after by prospective undergraduate and graduate students alike. However, the film school’s prestige can often make the application process particularly stressful and...

Here is some advice from accepted students on our forums:

1. Personal Statement - Be Yourself

It's cliche but you really need to be yourself. Don't try to mold yourself into what you think they're looking for. They can smell a fake 10 miles away and let's face it you don't want to be fake. You won't last in the business being fake. Be yourself. The personal statement is the deal breaker. If it's not right... you're not getting in.

How to get into USC Film School
Here is some words of wisdom from our forums over the years for your Personal Statement to USC: (however the same advice would apply to any film program)

1. Figure out what your application is doing in front of them. Come up with two or three d@mn good reasons why you belong at USC and make them the soul of your statement.
2. Just do it, then do it again (repeat as necessary). Be aware that it's not easy and it's not meant to be. Force yourself to get something down, go over what works, then do it again until you're happy with it.
3. Imagine yourself as a character, then tell them your story. You want them to get to know you, and hopefully to like you, so pitch yourself accordingly. If you were a protagonist, what personal qualities would you highlight? How did those things contribute to you arriving on their doorstep?
4. At the end of the day, they are looking for alumni. Your success is their success, so do everything you can to present yourself as a good bet. Have you visited? Why do you think you're a perfect fit? Be confident (though not arrogant!) and demonstrate your vision and your enthusiasm.
5. Humor is an option. My statement began with a hilarious anecdote from my days as a medical office assistant. It probably told them more about me than any bumbling attempt to summarize myself, and it set up a flow for the rest of the piece. More to the point, humor amid a sea of seriousness will make your statement readable and memorable.
6. You'll know it when you've got it. 'Nuff said.

don't tell them how awesome USC is...they already know that. Instead, show them your own voice.

I took a very narrative approach to my writing style on my narrative, mainly due to the fact that I didn't want to focus my statement on my love of film but instead wanted to tell my story, in a fashion that still kept my love for story telling. All in all, I would say, focus on what makes you you, and by the end of your statement find a way to tie that back into filmmaking, instead of focusing on filmmaking for the entirety of it. The last thing you want is to sound like every other person who loves films. Be different, be unique, and most importantly, just be you.

I would focus on what makes you unique, avoid the stereotypical comments about Steven Spielberg or George Lucas (unless they REALLY made an impact on you that is super significant), and make it sound like a story. Being a filmmaker is about telling a great story, after all.

Regarding format: USC is deliberately vague here because it wants to give you the freedom to be as creative as you wish to be. As long as you stay within the guidelines in the application (e.g. number of words, page limit, etc), anything goes. I've even heard of people who submitted a personal statement in the format of a storyboard/comic strip. Of course, it's also totally fine to submit more traditional formats, like a classic essay structure. There's no right or wrong answer here in my opinion.

I would say that trying to establish a strong voice through structure is best. Focus on answering the questions asked within the prompt and structure will emerge as you go through the characters, events, and weave the story with a beginning, middle, end. Build up your story and your world with conflict then have it lead to pay offs at the end. Don't be afraid to think of the structure of your favorite shows or films and have that inspire the structure as well. Tell your authentic story.

How can you be as undeniable as your drive, how can you get that across to people that have read 100000s of applications all spouting the same thing? It's a cliche and that's why it often goes over our head, this "be you and be unique" type of thing, but really think about it. Who are you? Why do you want this so much? What do you have to offer that no one else does? And how do all these things tie together? Look into yourself and you will find these answers, my friend.

For the first two years, my SOP was something like: Garbage boring human who loves movies and can probably write goodish seeks entry into top film school please let me in.

That didn't work.

The final year, more along the lines of: Immigrant gamer girl with sad lonely outsider past seeks sense of belonging through books movies and the online world.

I realized that filmschool wasn't my actual goal. My actual goal was to tell stories in order to understand myself and others. Filmschool would help me get there.

And there are MANY wonderful schools at that, so please please do your research and apply to several choices and understand that even if you don't get into any of them there are so many paths to success it's overwhelming (and why I defaulted to filmschool). I tortured myself by being dead set on one program and wasted so much energy and time... I won't go into it.

There's not a program in the world that guarantees you success, so look around at the options!

In summ: Are you trying to tell stories so you get into film school, or are you trying to get into film school to tell stories?

Sorry! I didn't mean to make you nervous! :) Let me clarify: the reason the personal statement is so important (again just speaking from my experience!) is because it is looked at by both the admissions counselors and the faculty. When the admissions counselors look at it they are looking for things like sloppy writing, or any red flags. For example, we had an essay come in last semester that had some racist undertones to it. This person wasn't applying for an MFA, but the admissions team look for things like that in all essays that come through.
Faculty are busy, and looking over applications takes time. The job of the admissions counselors is to make things as easy as possible by cutting out any people who obviously won't make the cut. If you don't have at least a 3.0 GPA or equivalent you're out. If you're essay is sloppy, or causes concern you're out. Now sloppy essay does not mean you have two or three typos and that's it. It happens, and one typo is not going to hurt you. There is a clear difference between the writing of people who took the time on their essay and those that did not. At this level of education, there is an expectation that your writing will be at a certain level, and that you will take the responsibility to put effort into it.
The faculty use them as a way to get to know you as a person. So, it's better to have an essay that is true to who you are than something that sounds cliche and boring.

Personal statements are also important when it comes to things like institutional aid. Example: at my college, once students have been accepted, the director of graduate admissions will work with the counselors to make a list of students they recommend for scholarships, fellowship, etc. This list goes to financial aid, and things go from there. A lot of things go into determining a student's financial aid package, and this includes admissions materials. I’m not sure how this works with larger universities, but at my college we have a scholarship budget that is given to us every year by the institution. From this budget, the director decides who gets a scholarship, and how much. This amount is coming directly out of the graduate school budget, and once it's gone, it's gone.

Where does the personal statement come in? Well, like I said the director works closely with the counselors to determine who should get scholarships. Admissions is not looking at your FASFA, or any other financial documents. So, they make their recommendations based on what they know about each student from their essay, and other application materials. The sad truth is admissions counselor can and will pick favorites amongst a group of applicants. I've heard counselors in my office rave about certain students after reading their essays. Much like the faculty, they like essay that show them who you are as a person. A good essay will help you get through the rounds, but a great, truly personal essay can give you an edge throughout the whole process.

Generally for the statement of purpose the review committee is looking to get a sense of who you are as a person and what led you the the discipline that you are interested in. It's a way for them to gauge you as a individual.

People definitely can get dramatic but that's not always a good thing in my opinion since melodrama is often worse than no drama. Personally I think it's always best to be honest and forward about things. Explain to them what matters to you and why. The events in your life that really shaped you the way you are and led you to be interested in producing. If you show real character and willingness to commit I think that will be good enough.

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!

Also be sure to check out this post with personal statement examples:

Another great resource for advice on getting into film school is to check out the AMA forum with members who have been accepted or are attending film schools such as USC, NYU, and AFI. They'd love to answer any questions that you may have.

The film school forums on have been around since 2002 so this is only a SMALL SAMPLE of the great advice given over the years. The Advance Search tool is your friend. Use it and love it. :)

Click here for Part 2 - Writing Samples and Portfolio Advice...

If you've enjoyed this article please like it and share it with your friends. Again, if you've found another gem of advice on the forums that you'd love for me to include please let me know.
Next article in the series 'How to get into Film School': How to get into Film School - PART 2: Writing Samples and Portfolio Advice
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Chris W
Owner of and working as a Film & TV editor and producer in Los Angeles since 2001. Boston University College of Communication Class of 1999 for film (BS).


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