usc03.jpg

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:
These sections are listed on the right under “Table of contents”. In order to jump to a specific section, just click on the section that you are interested in reading!


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.
About author
Svaja Paka
Svaja is a content creator with an affinity for written content and video, and has been creating films and writing stories ever since she was in elementary school. Her passion for the two subjects led her to specialize in creative writing during college, where she quickly became infatuated by Creative Nonfiction. Shortly after graduation, she began to excel as a content writer and video editor in various professional settings. Although Svaja has been passionate about filmmaking since she was a child, she has recently begun to pursue it seriously and hopes to attend an MFA program in 2021.

Latest reviews

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.
Takeaways:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
Doubts and Questions
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
Again, this is a fantastic interview, and I learned a great deal from it. Thanks for posting it and my apologies if my reflections seem ill-considered in any way.
a MUST READ for any film school application
LOVE. so informative and enlightening

More in Admissions Dept. Interviews

More from Svaja Paka

Comments

Such an inspiring conversation!
Questions are thoughtful for those who are applying, and the answers are informative!
1 month left for USC Production MFA deadline, good luck everyone :)
 
It’s interviews like this that truly inspire me to put myself out there. It makes me feel like there’s a place in film industry for me. It makes me feel a little less nervous about the fact that I painted fireworks on my autobiographical character sketch because it “felt right.”
 
Loved how personal and relatable this was. The kind of stuff that reminds you you're not alone and how to see rejection as yet another form of motivation.
 

Latest Accepted Applications


Acceptance Data
For up to date Film School Acceptance Rates, including Minimum GPAs, Minimum Test Scores, After Interview and Off-Waitlist Acceptance Rates, Film Experience and Undergraduate degrees of accepted applicants, Age data, and other acceptance statistics for your film program of choice simply navigate to the Acceptance Rates tab on each film school's page in our Film School Database.

For example:
Add your own Application to our application database to help improve the site's acceptance data.

Article information

Author
Svaja Paka
Views
29,948
Comments
5
Reviews
4
Last update
Rating
5.00 star(s) 6 ratings

Latest Applications

Top