This is a fascinating interview. This is a much more candid and revealing perspective on the admissions process than one generally finds. (In its way, this is as revealing as Jeffrey Selingo’s Who Gets in and Why.) Kudos to the anonymous USC faculty member for offering these insightful reflections, and to filmschool.org for posting this. There are several worthwhile takeaways, and also some doubts and questions raised.
- It is great to see that members of the USC admissions committee are spending at least half an hour on each application, and that they are giving each application a balanced, qualitative assessment, looking for compelling details.
- To me, the most striking detail is the recommendation (for applicants to the BFA, at least) to opt for the series of 8 photos rather than the 5-minute film submission. This is counterintuitive and potentially enormously valuable. The rationale make sense: after the evaluator sees thousands of 5-minute films, there is little chance that the next applicant will submit a 5-minute film with an idea or approach the evaluator has never seen before. Submitting the photos raises the odds of submitting something fresh (in the perspective of the evaluator). It does make me wonder if committee members at highly selective MFA programs in Photography smile upon those who submit short poems, instead of photographs. But I suppose that is a different question. I can see the logic of this. It does allow evaluators to separate the signal of creative vision from the noise of a display of technical competence, even though it seems counterintuitive.
- I am surprised by the emphasis on the personal statement. I am a faculty member at a highly-selective liberal arts college, and I rotate on the admissions committee every 5 years or so. At my institution, we are cautious about personal statements. Our perspective is that many of the applicants get outside assistance, in some cases at the rate of $300 per hour. In some cases, this is obvious. But not in all cases. It is ultimately impossible to distinguish the striking original vision from the professionally-edited and curated vision in a personal statement. I view personal statements in much the same way this faculty member views short films. Only exceptionally rarely do I see something I have not seen before, in technique or subject matter. That said, among all the thousands of personal statements I have read, not a single one has been about fellatio technique. (And an essay on that topic probably would not win acceptance at my venerable but staid institution.)
- One thing that strikes me as consistent with my experience is the appreciation of candid and heartfelt expression, and emphasis on the personal over the professional. This may be the faculty member’s most valuable and enduring advice: giving an open and honest account of who you are and what brings you to this juncture will often make for the most compelling presentation, overall.
- Striking by its absence: any mention of letters of recommendation. Granted, every candidate comes with a similar string of superlatives in the recommendations. But it is notable that the faculty member does not apparently find letters from mentors a significant part of the process. Good to know!
- As much as I appreciate this faculty member’s candor, let’s admit that choosing film school candidates based primarily on their personal statement, while glossing over the short film submission, is idiosyncratic. I am glad it works for USC, and I know the student body is amazing. But if they changed the application next year and did away with the personal statement, and devoted all that attention in the admissions process to the short film submission, they would end up with an equally amazing student body. When your acceptance rate is lower than the interest rate on 30-year fixed-cost mortgages, you can emphasize almost any criterion in a given cycle and end up with an extraordinary cohort. This is not to dismiss the hard work of the faculty member and the admissions committee. I have no doubt they are deeply sincere and do an outstanding job. It is merely to suggest that, no matter which process they develop, they will be selecting a few from among many highly qualified candidates.
- There is inevitably an aleatory element to any hyperselective process. This is the context in which it makes sense to select the young woman who writes about fellatio over the candidate who writes about why they love Scorcese. When there are twenty highly qualified candidates for every slot, it makes sense to look for the files that are not merely stellar but are, in some striking way, unlike any of the other stellar files.
- Here is the catch: that is a highly subjective assessment. That may be why it often takes highly qualified candidates three or four attempts to win admission. Is the application getting better? Perhaps. Is the evidence of continued commitment to the goal itself part of the road to success? No doubt. Is there an element of luck? I would say yes, and I would say the same about my institution (which is not as selective as USC SCA, but has some similar dynamics in the application process).
- Will this article inspire a raft of shocking personal statements and photography submissions? It would be interesting to know. If so, the selection process will inevitably tilt towards other criteria.