How to get Into USC Film School: An Interview With an SCA Admissions Committee Member

Tips for the USC Film School Application

In your opinion, what are the most important things to focus on in an application to SCA? Is there any aspect that kind of weighs a little bit more than other components?

Yes, there is. Your personal statement is the equalizer. If everything else is great and [the personal statement] is bad, it doesn't mean you're going to stay out . . . We're not supposed to look at it like it's weighted more than everything else, but if it's done really well we're not going to be able to leave that application alone.

Does a creative portfolio have any weight in the whole process, or is that something that you guys look at a lot?

So I'm commenting right now just for the production programs. I don't know about the animation programs etc. because I've never worked for them. I can say that for production, there are other things that can matter. I have seen people who've gotten in because their visual example had something special in it. You know, every part of the application matters– there's no doubt about it. Especially if you're tied with somebody else for a seat.

There are certain things that we really don't put as much stress on. I'd say the portfolio is one of them that we . . . you know, look, there's a little bit of subjectivity of course to it all depending on who is looking at it at the time. But for somebody like me, I look at the portfolio as basically bonus points. I look to see if you've done a lot of stuff and if you've shown a clear interest in film– fantastic. But in general, it's just weighted a lot less– I've never seen anybody get in because of a portfolio. And like I said myself, I didn't have a portfolio. I tried to scrap some stuff together that made it look like I was creative.

I have had portfolios come my way that did something. I had one recently this year that they'd done a really beautiful job with it. Usually it looks like a resume where people just write down what they have done. But this one had really taken a lot of care in putting in screenshots and making the whole thing beautiful-- just showing another creative side of themselves. And they had a hand-drawn thing . . . And that's not expected and it's not going to get that person in necessarily, but it just shows me this is someone who cares. And I think any opportunity you can do that is good.

By the way, we do have an objective way that we rate everything across the board. And so it's not just like, “Oh, my decision!”.

Aside from the personal essay and portfolio, what other aspects do you think are significant?

There's a writing sample. I can't remember the exact prompts, I think there are a few to choose from . . . like either “describe a movie you want to make” or “write a dialogue scene” or something like that. That can be a saver as well. If somebody didn't really kill it on the personal statement, but I'm reading this pitch that they have for a movie and I'm like, “Oh my gosh, that would sell tomorrow in Hollywood”, believe me, I'm going to be thinking quite differently.

At the end of the day, that's what we're doing– we're making movies and stories. As much as we want a great application in terms of the person behind it, we want to know that you can perform. But we also expect to have to teach you how to do that. So, a lot of times that writing sample, if it's not on spot, that's cool because we want students who have good stories to tell but don't know how to tell them. That's our job– to help them tell [their stories]. So that can be something that catches our eye, especially if it's an interesting story that they're telling.

The visual sample is something that can be all over the place in terms of how much weight it holds. Again, that's one of those things that I think applicants tend to stress a lot over, but we don't expect you to know how to do that yet. You're coming to film school because you don't know how to make a film (in a theoretical world). We want to see your ideas that you have. We want to see that there's a creative mind behind it all. But we don't usually judge you that harshly if it's not technically great or something of that nature. That's why we're looking for the potential. But again, every now and then there's something that we see . . . I remember there was a visual sample that I saw not too long ago that just blew me away. Somebody had made a film that in four minutes did what most of our grad students can't do and the rest of the application wasn't that strong. So, of course, we looked more into that student. That was that jewel for that [application] that said, “Okay, look at me. There's potential here.”

There's also collaboration questions on there– two essays that the students have to write (at least for undergrad, I think grad too . . . I can't remember). They basically talk about a time when they failed and a time when they succeeded. What I would say is different parts of the essays represent different parts of the person. [The collaboration essays] are usually where we tend to see the way people handle things and their personality. Usually those areas don't have as big an impact but sometimes they do, especially when they're negative. I can give you an example if you want.

I’m always up for anecdotes!

Well, I'll say that there was one year when I was reading an application that had a strong personal statement, strong visual statement, pretty strong writing statement. And then I got down to the collaboration questions, and in one of them it asked, “Where did you fail?”

The applicant talked about how they were filming something underwater. They went into a pool to film and their actress who they had hired wasn't able to swim. And so the person who's writing says, “I didn't get the shots that I wanted and I wasn't able to make the film that I wanted.” And then it asked, “And what did you learn?” And she goes, “What I learned was I should've just made the actor do it. I should’ve just held them under for a minute, asked them to do this, and tell them to get over their fear and move on and make the film.” And I'm reading this thinking, well that's a lawsuit waiting to happen, you know? And not only that, that doesn't sound like a good, empathetic person. For that person, [the collaboration question] made it so that I didn't want them in our program.

So again, those are moments that we may kind of look at to see: how does a person think, what do they [take away] from things? But in my personal opinion, they’re not the things that I think make someone stand out.

Jumping back to the visual sample: can you go into further detail on what you’re looking for there?

So they have two options. Basically, option one is turn in a five-minute video. Option number two is you turn in a series of eight photographs that tell a story– you put them together in a sequence along with a one-page narrative description.

So, again, you don't need to make a movie to get in. And, in fact, here's a little pro tip for you:

Typically speaking, like this year, I don't think I got a single person who elected to do the photograph option. For [the applications that I read], everybody was doing the video. But, typically speaking, I think it’s more likely that we will respond positively to the photo one. Here's why, for those applicants out there that want to know:

First of all, it'll set you apart a little bit, because most people don't do that. And we'll remember it a little bit more; we'll be excited to see that. Number two: it's harder. You have to tell a story in eight frames, whereas if you're telling it in five minutes, that's several thousand frames, right? So if you can go out and take eight photos and tell that story and we get it, great! You've risen to the challenge. And by the way, like I said, you get the writing with it so you can describe it. The third reason is this: we spend all day long watching great short films and we're teaching our students how to make them and we've made them and we've seen them on applications-- chances are good that when we watch your film, it's not going to blow us away. We're not expecting to be blown away, we're not expecting to be super impressed . . . We're mostly looking for potential, like I’ve said before. But the things that you're probably really proud of are things that were probably like . . . oh, you know . . . used to. When you go into that other realm, that's something that we don't spend as much time in and are more likely to get surprised by. And . . . and we kind of step back in terms of being the film critic that we have learned to be and just enjoy your art. So that is why I suggest people try to do that photo one, especially if they don't have a short film that they're confident in.

Any tips on how to write a good personal statement?

First of all: show not tell. Show me in a visual way. I don't mean writing a bunch of flowery words to describe something. I mean, paint the scene for us. For example, and this is a bad example, but somebody might write, “When I was a kid, I was a loner.” What we're looking for is somebody who instead would write, “when I was a kid, I walked 20 feet behind everybody else.” Right? Because now I can visualize that scene and it means so much more than just the adjective “loner”.

Also, write like you talk. We want your personality to shine through. When I'm reading a statement, I'm not so much judging the technical display of the statement as I'm trying to imagine who the person that wrote it is. If I finish it and have an incredible idea of who you are as a person, I’ll probably want to meet you. I'll probably be interested in you because you can paint a character well and I've started to bond with you, even though I haven't met you.

If you're just very formal and write a good paper, I don't know who you are. I want to know who you are. By the way, a way to show who you are: have opinions on things. Like, strong opinions. I don't care if I agree with them or not. Present them. Again, show, not tell.

Finally, and I think this is the big, big, big one that people have a hard time with. Entertain me. And I don't mean in the sense of, like, making an Avengers movie or the sense of making me laugh. I just took 30 minutes of my life (at least) to look through your stuff. That 30 minutes is 30 minutes that I'll never get back. So, in that time, give me something that makes me say, “I'm glad I read that.” And, again, it's usually not about why you want to go to film school. It's usually not why you love films. It's about opening my eyes to your world, which I guarantee you is a world. Teach me something about your world, expand my universe, expand my horizon, show it to me in a way that I never thought of, and then you'll have me. I don't care if it's about your dog or the genocide you witnessed as a child. If you can do that, if you can frame the world in an interesting new way, then I'll be with you.

What kind of experience do you kind of want to see in an undergrad applicant, if any experience at all?

That's an interesting question. In undergrad applicant, I understand that the life experience . . . you might not have had the ability to do that yet. Some people come from these troubled backgrounds that really give them a lot to write about. And that's always interesting to see. And then some people don't, but it doesn't make them any less of a filmmaker. So when it comes to experience, especially for undergrads, it's not about the experiences you've had. It's about what you've taken away from them and how you’ve processed them and how you've done that, more specifically, in a unique way.

It's cool if you learned, “Oh don't hit somebody because that hurts.” Okay, good. You grew up, you matured. It's even cooler to know the way that you learned that, or if it affected some part of your life that I never expected it to, or you had a different thought about it or a different comparison. Again, it's how you process your experience.

What kind of experience do you want to see in an MFA applicant?

By that point, I'm definitely looking more for life experience. I want to see if they know themselves by that point. Undergrads, I don't expect them to know themselves. You're still finding yourself at that age. In the MFA program, we get people sometimes who don't really know what they want. They’re good storytellers and smart people and they come in, they don't do well, they don't like it, and they spend a lot of money on, you know, something that's not beneficial to them.

I'm looking for somebody who has tried a few things, who really understands what they want in life, who understands what opportunity means and is going to take full advantage of it. Interesting life experiences are always great. I love somebody who has done something already. We've had plenty of doctors and lawyers and whatnot in our programs who left behind incredible careers. There was a guy, I think about a year below me when I was in school, who was a surgeon, and a very successful one. He left behind a job making a lot of money and transferred over. We love people like that because you have a different point of view, you know work ethic. You don't need to do that in order to come in, but it's always nice to see somebody who has explored life a little bit.
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.

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LOVE. so informative and enlightening
Such an excellent deep-dive interview on the process! I'm so glad I have this clarity now.
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