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 even discouraging.
If you’re currently working on a USC film school application or are thinking of applying, having access to the right advice can significantly benefit your application. Luckily, we recently had an exclusive opportunity to obtain insight into the admissions process at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
I had the privilege of interviewing a current USC film school faculty member who is on the undergraduate admissions committee for SCA. As a member of the admissions committee, their primary responsibilities are to read applications, conduct interviews, and recommend students to the film school. Although they primarily read undergraduate applications, they have worked with graduate applications in the past. They also received an MFA from the USC School of Cinematic Art’s Film & Television Production program and were a member of FilmSchool.org before attending film school. Their current username for FilmSchool.org is @USCSCAAlumni/Faculty .
For the sake of their privacy, they have asked to remain anonymous for this interview.
Many thanks to @USCSCAAlumni/Faculty for accepting our interview, illuminating the intricacies of SCA’s admissions process, and inspiring future filmmakers!
Note: this was a 2-hour interview that amounted to almost 10,000 words. For clarity, we have chosen to divide it into the following sections:
- Why the USC School of Cinematic Arts?
- The USC Film School Admissions Process
- Tips for the USC Film School Application
- GPA, Test Score, and Common Mistakes on a USC Film School Application
- The USC Film School Interview
- Final Thoughts
- Bonus Question
Click here to see the full article in one page.
Read on for the interview with @USCSCAAlumni/Faculty :
To start off, can you tell us what your official position is at USC and your role in the admissions department?
Yeah– I can tell you I'm faculty in the production department. I teach a few different classes there. I'm not going to say which ones just because I don't want people looking me up or whatever.
There's an admissions department and there's an admissions committee– they’re separate. The department handles all of the logistics, statistics, etc. The committee are the people who are reading the applications, doing the interviews, and kind of doing all the groundwork in that area. So I'm on the committee– I'm basically a reader. I'm somebody who reads the applications and recommends and helps choose the students, if that makes sense.
You said that you were a previous member of FilmSchool.org. Can you give us context on that?
It was a while ago. Like, it has basically been a decade at least since I signed on. I got on there because, when I was applying to film schools, I wanted to learn more about what everybody was going through– I just was looking for resources. I remember that, at least at the time, it was the only thing that had kind of a community in that sense. You know, when you're applying, it's so nerve-wracking and you're kind of alone in it all. I found that support base and other people who were going through the same stuff as me and that helped me get through it all.
Were you applying to a Bachelor's or Master's program?
I was applying for my MFA at the time.
Did you eventually attend USC? If so, what for?
I did attend USC. I did the production program there.
How many times did you apply to USC before you got in?
I applied a total of four times before I got in.
Can you tell us more about that process? What made you continue to apply to USC specifically?
Absolutely. So, at the time, I had this idea stuck in my mind that I now realize was false. I kind of thought that if I couldn't at least get into USC, then how would I ever make it in the film industry? Because I came from a background where film was not something people did, and I think most people in America come from that background. It seems like a silly dream. You know, like winning the lottery. And so I thought, “okay, if I can’t at least get into the best film school, well, how will I ever make it in film?” Which again, looking back is totally wrong. But that's what I had set in my mind, I always kind of had this dream of going there. I was also doing a bunch of other stuff in life that had very little to do with film.
I just kept applying and kind of hoping that I would get in and hoping that, in the first few rounds that I was denied, maybe whoever got my application didn't do a good job at reading it. Maybe they didn't connect. I remember I put a lot of effort into it-- I thought I had done a good job. I had other people tell me I had done a good job. It wasn't until I kind of stumbled upon your guys' site where somebody who had been admitted shared their application with me that I realized how much further I had to go. That was around, I believe, the third try when I figured that out.
Read more about the application that changed his perspective. **Disclaimer: This content is sensitive and may not be appropriate for younger readers**
And on that third time, after reading someone else's application, I approached mine in a very different manner and I was waitlisted. And then, between the waitlisting and the fourth time [I applied] I basically spent a bare minimum of 30 minutes a day working on that application over and over and over again. And this is after three terms of work that had already gone into it.
I remember about a week before the application was due, my computer crashed and I hadn't backed up anything. Yeah. I literally hadn't backed up anything because it was the days before Google drive and everything. But I had worked at it so many times that I literally remembered the whole thing– word for word, every single section. I was able to get it all back on paper in like half a day. It was the fourth time when I got called up. It was a big learning curve for me.
What was your experience prior to applying to USC the first time? How had you been involved in film?
I was pretty submersed in the business world at the time. I had very, very little film experience. I had started a company of my own. I had lived in a few different areas, worked a few different jobs. I really had very little experience in the film world itself. I had taken one film course over at NYU and it was just a summer thing. But besides that I had never picked up a camera in my life. I had never made anything.
What made you decide to go into film at that point then?
I'm lucky enough to have a very wonderful father. At the time I was working at a job in New York and I basically hated my life. I called him up one day and said, “You know, I don't know what I have to do to get up and want to wake up in the morning.” And he said to me, “What's one thing you've never done before in your life?” And I said I had never done anything in the arts. And he asked, “Are there any art classes near you?”.
I looked online and Tisch popped up in a Google search. He said to me, “If you go and quit your job tomorrow morning, I will pay for you to take a class there and for your expenses during that class.” And so I quit the next morning, took a month-long course there and just never looked back.
Wow… so you just immediately became enamored by film?
I hit it off really well with my professor there. I remember he even brought me on a few projects. When you're doing something you're really passionate about and meant to do, life opens doors for you. It's strange, but it's true. You have to be good at it. You have to put in the time and the work and not let people down. But opportunities arise.
From there on out, little things opened up for me in the film community and I always jumped from one to the next. Opportunities opened and I knew I wanted to be in that industry.
What was it about your first application or second application that you think you could have worked on to make better? What were they lacking in comparison to your fourth or even third one?
Well, I came at the earlier applications with the idea of selling myself. From that business background, I always focused on, “What's gonna make me look reliable?” “What's gonna make me look creative?” “What's gonna make them want me?” That was how I approached it. And I tried to basically prove myself to them. And, in the end, it didn't get a response. And it would have probably in the business world or in other areas of academia but in filmmaking, what people want is to be moved.
You go to a movie to be moved, to be entertained, to be surprised. What I learned through reading the application on your site was that the people who were succeeding were really just being the storytellers that they wanted to be in the future. But instead of doing it through film they were doing it through paper. And when I read their story, it wasn’t all about that applicant. I mean, it was, of course. But it was more about an incredible reading experience and them giving the audience something that makes them enjoy the process of reading the application. It sounds simple, but it's actually quite difficult to do. It takes a lot of time and not everybody can do it. It’s a different mindset.
After you graduated from the MFA program at USC what led you back to work at USC?
I really enjoyed my time there– I think it's an incredible environment and I didn't want to leave that behind to be honest. Some people were ready to get out and get in the real world and I was, too, in my own way. But there's also something there about that learning atmosphere, about that growing atmosphere, that always made me want to be there again.
Do you also partake in film endeavors outside of teaching and working at USC?
Oh, that's my main job. Most professors at SCA [USC School of Cinematic Arts], their main careers are not within the school. It’s outside, in the film industry. They don’t want people teaching who are just kinda hanging out. There are tenures and there are people who are no longer working as much. But yeah, the faculty are quite active in the film scene.
Could you tell me what role you typically work in in the film industry?
I've done everything. Normally I do things in directing, writing, and editing depending on the project. Mostly writing and directing.