How to get into Film School - PART 2: Writing Samples and Portfolio Advice

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

This is Part 2 of the series with advice on how to get into film school given by the many members of over the years. The forums have been around for over 17 years so there are a ton of people who have gone what you are going through right now and lived to tell about it.

USC and other film schools receive thousands of film school applications per year. How are you going to stand out? You need to show that you are unique and that you are (or can be) a good storyteller.... filmmaking after all is storytelling. Your writing samples and portfolio are your chance to show the admissions office that you have the storytelling chops that they are looking for.

2. Writing Samples and Portfolio advice

The following is some of the best advice on your writing samples and portfolios from over the years. If you've come across a gem of advice on the site on writing samples and portfolios that is NOT below, please send it to me and I'll be sure to include it.

They're looking to identify good people that are good writers-- that's it. They're not necessarily worried about your ability to finish a feature script because they'll make sure you finish one in the program (at least three, actually). I'd submit only the work you're most proud of.

Most of your application should say: "This is what I could bring to your program in terms of character, personality, and professionalism."

The pages you send should simply say: "And, oh by the way, I'm a great writer, too."
I tried to show two things throughout the application process: diversity and potential. Not only is my background diverse, but what I submitted was diverse as well. If my personal statement was serious, then my supplementary essay was lighthearted. Regarding potential, I believe in this quote by Steve Martin: be so good that they can’t ignore you. I tried to be the best screenwriter in that application pile, or at least show the most potential to becoming the best.
My USC portfolio featured mainly comedy (although the first ten pages was more dramedy as an entire project, what I submitted definetly leaned more towards comedy for the start.) The elevator five pages was nearly straight farce, though. At the end of the day, a good story is a good story. And when crafting an application, the end goal is to be noticed. And to be remembered. And no one remembers something more than a good joke.

That being said, the other five pages in my USC portfolio was something dramatic, which I personally would recommend. If you have the chance to have multiple samples, try to make at least one different from the rest, just to show your range as a storyteller.
In my opinion, every application material you submit should provide the reviewing committee with more information about you as a filmmaker. The more data points you can produce that show how creative you are, and prove that you know how to tell a story, the better. Plus, using a different writing sample can allow you to correct for any insecurities you have about the rest of your application material. For example, I felt insecure that my video option came across a tad juvenile, so, in my project questions, I really laid it on thick about how structured/organized I am, with a very professional format and tone.

In a nutshell, your application portfolio is exactly that—a portfolio. And the common wisdom for any successful portfolio is: diversify!

It seems they leave the Statement of Purpose instructions general on purpose to allows us freedom to write how we want to write. I think whatever we wrote is fine, there's no right way. I ran into a MFA screenwriting graduate at a CAPE and WGF panel in LA. Her name is Bo Yeon Kim and she was very helpful sharing her experience at UCLA, which was great lol. She applied 3 times before she got accepted!! (which means there is no hope for me this time haha) She said the third time she changed her Statement of Purpose to be more "emotional" and "raw" and she said she had better writing samples. She was a staffed writer on Reign (Amazon) and got staffed on a new show that I forgot the name of. (it's not on IMDb yet) Moral of the story, she may not have gotten in the first 2 times, but once she did her trajectory went up! So even if we don't get in this year or maybe haven't in the past, keep fighting! And keep writing to get those samples as strong as they can be.

I don't think it'd hurt to throw in a few poems along with your application to UCLA, especially considering it's part of your undergraduate degree. If anything, it'll help set you apart a bit. I'd keep them short and sweet, though. It'll be great to show them that you're a good, well-rounded writer, but they're also focused on finding good storytellers as well. As for USC, this has been a point of contention for a while on this site. I'm on the side that suggests submitting only a screenplay excerpt for your sample because they read so little of your writing to begin with. They've got four pages of essays and up to ten pages of "Creative Challenge" writing, but that's it. I wanted to show them as much screenwriting as possible, so I chose that. I also didn't get in to USC, haha, so you'll have to decide for yourself. UCLA read 120 pages of my writing and accepted me, so who the hell knows... :)

If you have a short story that is so dang good, I would send that over a mediocre script. Plenty of people got into my program (USC MFA WST) without sending any scripts in their samples. They sent short stories, song lyrics, poetry, etc.

The writing samples, both in the portfolio and the general application, are used to determine your ability to tell stories, and to determine your voice.

If the pieces that do that best aren't written in script format, then who cares? They're gauging not only your ability to tell stories, but also the potential to learn how to tell your stories in script form...
Your creative materials are the most important part. If you do poorly on the exam or you don't have a 3.0, and your writing samples are amazing, the SCA will MAKE USC ACCEPT YOU.
Feel free to take this with a grain of salt, but I've always heard that USC prefers non-screenwriting samples. That said, 13 of my 20 pages were the opening to an original screenplay...haha. But, in hopes of not completely disregarding seemingly helpful advice, I did use the other 7 pages to showcase a wide variety of different styles - poetry, journalism, and a bit of prose.
Honestly, at the risk of sounding cheesy, just send in whatever pieces show your skill and passion as a writer. Ultimately, that's really what the admissions office wants to see. And if nothing else, the prompted "creative challenge" scenes will be in screenplay format, so the admissions office will know that you're capable of working in that form.

Here is a thread with writing sample examples:

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 to read part 1 of the series. Click here for the next part... Edit. Revise. Cut.

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 3: Edit. Revise. Cut.
Previous article in the series 'How to get into Film School': How to get into Film School - PART 1: The Personal Statement
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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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