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

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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.

Why the USC School of Cinematic Arts?

In the end, what made you decide to attend USC over other film schools? Were there other film schools that you were considering?

Actually there were others. There were a couple of others that I was interested in. But it was always USC in the back of my mind. The thing about USC that made me go there was that, at least to my knowledge at the time, it was the most all-inclusive master's program. I'm a person who's very curious about everything. I don't want to just learn about one thing in life. I want to learn about everything that you see. In [USC’s] MFA program, I knew that there was an additional year than most other ones and that they made you learn sound, cinematography, editing, directing, writing– everything. And I didn't have any prior experience in film at all. I didn't know how to do any of that. And I wanted to learn it all.

I didn't want to just go there and leave knowing one or two things. So to me it made sense. I went there because I realized that at my job that I was working right before that, that even if I had somebody offer me my dream job directing, I probably wouldn't do a good job at it. I didn't know enough. I would screw it up. And so I wanted to expand my tools, expand my knowledge, so that if that day would ever come, I'd be able to kill it (so to speak).

In your opinion, why is USC worth attending?

Here's my honest answer on that. For some people, it really is worth attending. For others, it's not. We do our best in admissions to try to find people who it will bring value to.

I think all film schools in general are only worth attending for one reason: if you're really trying to improve on yourself and really trying to grow and absorb knowledge. If you're trying to go there and get connections, or because you want something on your resume, or to leave with a job or whatever– there are easier, more effective, cheaper ways to do all of that. But if you want a place just to saturate in film and knowledge and the creativity around you, then film school can be an incredible choice for you.

The reason I think USC is worth attending really is because of the students. I think, undeniably, we get an incredible group of students that come in every year and we take a lot of passion in choosing them. And that's where you're going to learn most of the knowledge. In fact, my greatest teachers (and I had a lot of incredible professors that I'm still very close with today) were the peers that made the films with me. And even after school, we're still moving up in the world together, teaching each other, helping each other, and improving our projects. And that's, I think, where the value really lies for us.

I mean, I don't know why it is. Maybe it’s because we're ranked number one or whatever, which in my opinion doesn't mean much. But we happen to attract a really great group of people and we usually get our pick, which is so lucky of us.

How do you think that USC compares with other film schools?

Of course it's hard to say because I haven't spent much time at others-- I've taught a little bit here and there at other places. Again, not to beat a horse– a dead horse, I guess is the saying– but it comes down to the students. It’s just that when you see them compared to a lot of the other places, and not that there aren’t great students elsewhere, but a lot of our students are just operating on another level. And it's so consistent. It's such a high caliber of talent and motivation and drive.

The other thing is this (and this is a big one and it's something that I think students have to understand): every film school has her own identity when it comes to how they want to prioritize their student's education. I know, for example (and I shouldn't comment too much on this), other schools prioritize the voice of it all, there are certain schools that prioritize the social message of it all, there are certain schools that prioritize the art, so to speak, of it all . . .

. . . While I think you can find all of those opportunities at USC, I think the thing that we prioritize the most is the process of filmmaking itself. Not only in terms of developing projects, but also executing them in a highly professional and safe manner. We won't let our students do it any other way. Sometimes the students hate that because they don't get to do everything that they want to do, or they feel like they're cuffed to certain ideas or whatever. But we really, really put an emphasis on doing things at a professional level. And we don't let them slack off in any way.

Could you give us a little more insight into the different programs offered at SCA?

Sure. I think they're all equally well known . . . There's the Peter Stark producing program. That one, I would say, is a mix between filmmaking as an art combined with, I believe, an MBA. So it's combined with business classes and it tends to be for people who want to go into the producing side of things. Hence the name Peter Stark Producing program. That's a two year program.

There's the production program. It’s both MFA and BFA. In the production program, you learn everything. And as a grad student, outside of doing a PhD, it's the longest program. It's three years typically, but people who choose to do a thesis project often end up taking longer than three years.

There’s a screenwriting program which is just screenwriting. You don’t go and make an actual film, but you spend it making your scripts. There’s an animation program, a gaming program, media studies . . .

So the programs that you just listed seem to primarily be MFA programs… for the undergraduate students: are the programs different?

No, all of them except for the Stark [Producing] Program are both. They have a master’s version and an undergrad version. In fact, it’s a pretty similar education and curriculum for both.

How do the Masters and Bachelors program compare in regards to rigor, workload, etc.?

I'd say they're both about the same intensity. In fact, sometimes the undergraduate program is a little more intense because they have all of their other [GE] classes as well. They go through pretty much the same stuff overall. Honestly, if you take one, there's not much of a reason to take the other, you know? I would say maybe the grads are privy to a few extra things than the undergraduates. Besides that, they have very similar values and sometimes you'll even have mixed classes between the two.

The USC Film School Admission Process

Can you provide a brief overview of what the admissions process may look like from the application to acceptance, waitlist, interview, or whatever it may be?

As far as the process goes: that's something that I don't feel comfortable getting into that much. There are so many different departments involved and they all do their own thing, and it changes every year depending on what we need ... So I think it's probably best for me not to comment on that.

Absolutely, that's totally fine. Roughly how many applicants do you get per year?

I can say it's a lot. But here's what I'd like to say about that: It doesn't matter how many people apply, it really doesn't. People get caught up in percentages– how many we admit and how many apply. Here's the truth. If we want you, we're going to try to find a way to get you in there. It doesn't mean that we don't want more people than we can accept. It means that if you really proved yourself, it doesn't matter how many people applied. If we don't want people, it doesn't matter how many people applied either. It's not going to change things, you know?

Right. Going off that, I think that a lot of people, when they're applying to any college really, are concerned that admissions is kind of skimming over their essays and application. How much time would you say that you do spend reading an application?

We have a system set up within our school that makes it so it's literally impossible for the person reading to skim through [an application] and not take it into consideration. I won't get into the details of it because that's our way, but what I'll say is that you can't really spend less than 30 minutes on an application before you decide. And you're held responsible for that.

There's another thing that I think people don't understand, especially people who think we’re skimming through. At least at USC, at SCA, the people who are reading your stuff aren't doing it because they have to. They're doing it because they really want to. The admissions committee is largely composed of volunteer faculty for the most part who say, “Yes, I want to be part of this. Yes, I want to read these and help choose the people who are coming in.” And we're not going in there with the idea of, “Oh, let's see how many people we can pass.” We're going in there looking for the people who really jump out at us. There's that little nugget we find-- something that says, “Oh, this is potential. This is hope. This is someone who I want to get to know more.”

So we're not skimming over things. We're just doing our best to find what you left in there that makes us remember you. We want that as much as you do.

The thing I always compare it to is [film auditions]. If [you hold] auditions for a film, you'll get a ton of actors and you're not going in there to turn the actors down unless you're, you know, an a**hole. You're going there to try to find that special one. And really each one that comes in and doesn't do it, you're disappointed that they didn't because you really wanted them to be the one! It's the same way with applications. We're looking for that. We're looking to find that jewel you put in there for us. We're not skimming. If we wanted to skim, we just wouldn’t sign up.

And then the school wouldn't be what it is either, right?

Look, here's the truth. We're choosing our family for the next four years. Whoever we choose are students that we take pride in, that we're going to be mentoring, that are going to be in our classes, that we are hanging our hats on and hopefully someday maybe will even hire us. So I mean, we're doing it for our own good.

Do you guys get a lot of transfer students?

Yeah, plenty of transfer students.

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.

GPA, Test Scores, and Common Mistakes on a USC Film School Application

How important would you say are GPAs and/or test scores?

Typically speaking, when we look at candidates who have good material and exhibit a lot of promise, they tend to have good GPAs and test scores because they tend to be hard workers. They tend to be intelligent. That usually goes together. With that said, if I find somebody with a great application but bad scores or whatever, I don't care.

However, the school's general admissions has the right to override decisions that we make. And they do have standards for that stuff. I'm not sure exactly what their standards are, but they'll look at that. And even in my process, the way that I, and everybody who does what I do, rate things is that we do take that into account a little bit. You will get a little bit of an extra push if your GPA is higher. But it's very, very minimal. I've never seen anybody get in because they had a high GPA or high test scores.

I know that we’ve already gone through a few of them, but what would you say are some common application mistakes?

The most common one I see: it’s called a “personal statement”, and people don’t make it personal. My general rule is that if you're comfortable with publishing your application publicly with your name on it, you probably haven't gotten personal enough.

We want it to be personal because we want to know who you are as a person; not just that you can write, not just that you can tell a story. We really want to know who you are. People just don't get personal. They talk about their goals, they talk about why it means something to them . . . they talk about their passions, their route to it all. But they're afraid to become vulnerable. And so I think that's the number one mistake I see-- they don't make it personal enough.

Another common application mistake that I see is a lot of telling and not showing. I get applications all the time saying, “I love this, I volunteer doing this, I'm a kind person, I do this, this is how I think about life, etc.” But we're filmmakers and we use images to do that.

The last thing and probably the thing that gets me the most, to be honest . . . 99% of the essays that I read (not just the personal statements, but everything else as well, the collaboration questions and so on and so forth) are all about film. We know you have a passion for film, otherwise you wouldn't be applying here. We know it means a lot to you, otherwise you would be applying here. We know that you are giving up something to be here. We know that it's not an easy path. We've all been through that. Instead, the application should be about who you are. And I guarantee you, if you're applying to film school (meaning you're not a professional filmmaker yet) there's much more to you than film. And that's the part of your life that you should focus on. Of course, incorporate film a little bit. Incorporate a little bit of what that means to you. But mostly it should be about you, not film.

What are some mistakes that many people fret about on the FilmSchool.org forums but actually don’t have much of an impact?

There's only one thing worth fretting about - knowing that you could've put in more effort than you did. Pretty much everything else people worry about is insignificant. The amount people analyze, regret, and worry on here is crazy! Also, they shouldn't be worried about that after they submit their application. They should worry before, and then have a little faith that the people reviewing your material are not maniacal, over-analytical, detail-centric pr**ks! We're excited to learn about each and every person who applies and we're looking for diamond's in the rough that we can cut into something incredible. We don't expect you to be a polished jewel, but we do expect you to be able to tell that you tried your very best.

Is there anything that would cause you to immediately disregard an application?

Oh, absolutely not. It just doesn't happen. We really can't move on until we've gone through the whole thing . . . and we are looking for that moment we like as we're going through it. But there are some things that turn me off, that make me feel like, “Hmm, I just don't think this one's going to be worth reading.” Laziness is one of them. When you get an application where you can just tell that they didn't try, they rushed through it, or some parent had them doing this and this kid was just trying to get out and play or whatever. You can tell, you can just tell instantly. You can't hide lazy.

The USC Film School Interview

How do interviews work in the admissions process?

This is something that I feel is viewed with so much mystery. [Interviews] don't mean much at all. If I'm reading an application and there's something in that application that makes me want to know more about the applicant than what they've presented to me, I will do an interview with them.

It's not required. It doesn't mean you're getting any special treatment. The one thing that I'll say is, typically speaking, if we're going to go through the trouble of doing an interview, it's probably because there's something in that application that interested us enough to take the time to meet that person. It doesn't mean that just because we don't call someone, we're not interested.

So, in that case, an interview isn’t a prerequisite for acceptance?

I don't know the exact number, but when I was a student and I talked to my classmates, I think probably 50% of them who had gotten in had been interviewed and probably about 50% had not. That was a long time ago and it might have changed since.

Is it common for you to interview both undergraduate students and MFA students or does one tend to be interviewed more than the other?

Personally, I try to interview everybody I can.

Are the people on the admissions committee the ones that do the interviews?

Yes.

Is it common for people to be denied after they have been interviewed?

I'll tell you this: just because of the size of our classes, I’ll always have to deny more people that I interviewed than I accept. I know that on FilmSchool.org, it seems that everybody who had an interview got in. I don't want people getting discouraged, but I also want them to know that just because they got an interview doesn’t mean they are accepted.

What are your interview tips?

If someone interviews you, you don't know what they're looking for, because you don't know the reason they contacted you. So don't try and guess. Instead, just truly be yourself. Usually, we're not expecting for you to impress us as much as we're just trying to see if you're authentic, able to communicate in person, and match up with the person who we think wrote the application.

Final Thoughts

In your experience with the whole admissions process, is there one particular application that you can think of that truly affected you? What was it about that application that made it stand out?

You know, I can't say that there's been one that just blew me away, like through and through, where I was like, “wow.” And that's normal, by the way, because if it really did– probably wouldn't need to go to film school, you know? There are moments in several applications that I won't forget. I remember one of the first people I ever admitted, everything about her application was kind of weak except for one moment in her visual statement. It only lasted about three seconds, but it hit me so hard and it kind of showed . . . this maturity, this empathy, this kind of understanding that this person had in the world. It was kind of a moment of requited love, so to speak, in this visual statement. She just executed it perfectly. So that was one that always stuck with me.

I guess there are just moments where people say something that kind of surprises you and makes you just think about your life a little differently. Almost like reading something cool in a book. But in terms of an overall application, I can't say that there's one that really stuck with me except for the one that I read on your guys' site when I was still applying. Because, of course, that changed the way that I looked at things.

Is it common for applicants to reapply?

Yeah. I think in any class, you have a lot of people who it wasn't their first time applying. My feeling on it is, that's the film industry. If you're not down to reapply and keep trying, you're not gonna make it here in the first place. So yeah, we like people like that, we like people for reapplying. Here's a little tip for people when they're applying: typically speaking, the person who's reading your application doesn't know if you've applied in the past or not. I advise working it somewhere in there that you have– it'll show us that you're serious. It'll show us you’ve improved or are still working towards it or haven’t given up. And that's a good quality in people.

If you could give one piece of advice for future applicants, what would it be?

Dig deep. You have to dig deeper to grow. I think a lot of people who are applying, apply at a very surface level. And even if they think they'd done more than that, oftentimes they're wrong. I know that because that's how I felt. If you're sitting there thinking that your work that you're about to hand in is as good as it will ever get and that you put in all the effort you can, you probably shouldn't be applying in the first place. What you need to realize is that you have room to grow and it can always be better. We want to see the people who kind of pushed past that and surprise themselves because that's the point of film school.

You go there to grow and to search a little deeper than you thought you could. I know it sounds vague, but you can see that when somebody submitted an application: you can see when people took risks, when people didn't just do it the way their sixth grade English teacher told them to (in terms of structure and format and everything). We can really tell when you pushed every piece of art and creativity you could into something.

I always say that filmmaking (including your application), is like a sport. We look at these athletes and they spend 10,000 hours trying to master something. Yet, I see some of these film students who don't want to do that. You need to ask yourself: are you willing to put in the work? For me, that's what got my application there. Every day, doing that. What are you doing with your application is helping you to master the application itself. Because, guess what, that's just a sample of what you'll have to do should you be admitted. Dig deep and just push further than you thought you could. I know that's vague, but it's the truth.

As a closing statement, I'll say this: a great application reads like a great article or a great book. You don't look at it as an application. You don't look at it as “should this person be admitted or should they not?” You know, you don't even necessarily look at it as a person. Sometimes what you do is you start becoming introspective and you start thinking about your own life and you start thinking with the way you view things. And that's a sign of fantastic writing. That's a sign of fantastic storytelling.

I always say: imagine if I were to open up a magazine and read something you wrote. Would it make me want to subscribe to that magazine? You are presenting yourself as the filmmaker you want to be. When we view something of yours, do we want to view another thing? And at the end of the day, we are all reading for ourselves. That's important to understand when you're applying. We're not reading for you. We’re reading for ourselves. If we get something out of it, if we enjoy that time, if we look at things differently, if we understand the world a little bit better, you've done a great job.

BONUS QUESTION

**WARNING - Content may not be suitable for younger readers**

Would you mind sharing more information about that one application on FilmSchool.org that influenced the way that you approached your future applications? What was the personal statement about?

Sure, sure. I hope she doesn't read this and hate me. [laughing] I remember it was about a woman who was talking with her best friend who was a gay man and they were talking about blowjob techniques. And you think, oh, is this shock value? But no, the way she presented it was hilarious but also so sad. There was so much emotion in it all and it held my attention. It made me visualize everything that was happening. And it was the story itself. And again, I'm talking about the personal statement. Because again, I think that is so important.

I remember reading [and thinking], “Wait a second, you're allowed to talk about blow jobs on a college application?” And the answer is: absolutely, you should talk about that stuff. That's personal. Talk about those things that are hard for you to talk about. Talk about those things that you don't want to share with other people, because that's what's gonna set you apart usually. That’s what’s gonna make you memorable.


Thank you again @USCSCAAlumni/Faculty for taking the time to interview with us!

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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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