How to get into USC Film School (or any film program) - PART 3: Edit. Revise. Cut.

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This article is in the series How to get into USC Film School (or any film program)
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This is Part 3 of the series with advice on how to get into film school given by the many members of FilmSchool.org over the years. The forums have been around for over 17 years so there are a ton of people who have gone what you are going through right now and lived to tell about it.

USC and other film schools receive thousands of film school applications per year. How are you going to stand out? Yes... you need to show that you are unique and that you are (or can be) a good storyteller.... filmmaking after all is storytelling. Yes... your writing samples and portfolio are your chance to show the admissions office that you have the storytelling chops that they are looking for.

HOWEVER if it looks like you wrote your writing sample in one evening and it's sloppy with errors it'll look like you don't care. And no film school wants someone who doesn't care. This business doesn't want anyone who doesn't care about their work.

You're going to have to be conscientious to make it in this business. Perfecting your writing samples and portfolios is a good place to start.

3. Edit. Revise. Cut.

Triple check your work. Avoid the heartache and consternation. Proofread. Seriously. So many times I've seen people freaking out on the forums because of typos. It may not make a difference.... but it sure will save you some heartburn. Read everything out loud. Give it to friends or professors you trust. Edit. Less is more. How can it be better? How can it be different?

Cut it down. You'd be surprised what you can do.

When I applied to MFA programs, I had to cut my writing submissions down smaller and smaller for each school...each time, I didn't know where to cut, but in the end, the 25 pager reads so much better than the 38 pager.
It won't lose something, it will become something else. Possibly, likely, something better.

You need to recognize that as the writer, you are very much in love with your material, and as such you are too close to the subject matter to cut freely.

Just a few tips off the top-o-me-head...

Use one word to replace four.

Remove "prepares to" "about to," "starts to," etc, anything that dilutes your actions and adds word count.

Condense compound sentences.

Etc, etc, etc. Start with small trims, then see where you are at.

Or have someone else do it for you. Fresh eyes are really crucial.

You are asking again and again for permission from me, this forum, whomever, to not cut, which to me indicates that you need someone to push you to make the cuts.

WHAT IF EVERYWHERE YOU TURNED, PEOPLE SAID: "No, no, Omarr, it MUST be under 1000?" What if you called USC and they told you "it absolutely must be under 1000?"

I bet you'd make that shizz happen...but you're just waiting for enough people to reassure you don't have to trim. As JTHamilton said, I'm not gonna be one of those people.

I believe in the rules of applications, and I come under fire for it often on this site, which JTH may or may not have been alluding to, but here is my reasoning: they give you parameters for several reasons, the weight of each, of course, I have no knowledge of....but here are the reasons I think they set page/word counts...take it as you wish:

::To see what you can do with restriction...you absolutely will have restrictions placed on your projects, especially at the beginning, (from no dialogue to time limits, prompts, etc) and they will not be negotiable. They want to see if you can follow rules...yes, there are no rules in creative endeavors, blah blah, but you need to be able to edit yourself. This isn't something easily taught.

::To minimize their workload as admissions committees. They get a lot of freaking applications and that's a darn awful lot to read. (UCLA, for e
xample, has no page limit on screenwriting portfolios, and I've read on this forum that people sent them multiple feature scripts, pages and pages of poetry, chapters from novels, articles they wrote, etc. 100s of pages. Other schools say: WE WILL NOT READ MORE THAN xx PAGES. Which admissions committee would you rather be on, lol?)

::To even the playing field...if everyone else who's applying can craft a unique and engaging, informative and compelling personal statement within 1000 words, then why can't this guy get creative with what's offered and do the same?


That being said, it's word count, not page count, so it's not like they're going to be counting your words, unless it's online submissions, and even then, probably not.

Either way, artistic submission rules are certain to have some fluidity, but the thing is, push yourself to cut...see what you can do.

Or, call me crazy, try some new approaches. Get funky with your personal statement making, good man!
When I applied to USC, I sent my first attempt at the "Most Emotional Moment" out to the masses, relatives, friends, professors. Everyone told me it was amazing, blah, blah, beautiful, touching, etc...which it was. But it took a professor who actually went to Columbia to have the cojones to tell me what it was lacking...and she was SO RIGHT, looking back.
How this relates to you is that - most places I applied to have required a 1-2 page personal statement. So condense and condense. Storytelling that's clear and concise is often more impactful than detailed Charles Dickens-like writing. The trick and challenge is to tell that same story you chose (I assume because it's a good one!) In at the most HALF of what you have now.

Rewrite. Edit. Cut. Rewrite. Edit. Cut. Etc.

Get to the core of what you're trying to say and... rewrite edit cut.
I had a few tiny spelling mistakes in my statement of purpose that tore. Me. Up. After I submitted it and re-read it weeks later. I woke up in the middle of the night sweating. And there were other small things....
If you are the best screenwriter in the room, get out. Especially since we are baby writers! Find someone with more screenwriting knowledge than you and work with them, not with your best friend or parent. They mean well but it will not help you as much as someone with a little more experience. The worst thing though, is writing in isolation. If you can’t find a mentor, then another pair of eyes is a necessity. Sharing your work is like sharing a bit of your soul: it’s hard. Yet if you can’t share it with a person you trust, then maybe you should reconsider applying to a program whose foundation is on work sharing.

Be unique!!! When coming up with an idea, I NEVER go with my first idea. Or the second, third, or fourth. Everyone will think of those, so don't write them! My ideas don't get good until at least #12 or so.
As for general advice, I'd just re-write, re-write, re-write. I started my application process in January 2014, so I had almost a year before I had to turn things in. By the time the application deadline came around, my application looked mostly unrecognizable to the work I had in May-- all for the better, I think. Make sure your personal statements are oriented to the point-of-view of each school, too. Don't pull the classic trick of applying to undergrad where you leave a paragraph or so to show them that you've googled their school a couple of times. Take a few days to really research the kind of person they're looking for (this site is a great resource), and then write a personal statement towards that. Keep in mind, too, that these programs are very writing-intensive. UCLA is on the quarter system, so you're writing a full feature screenplay in 10 weeks when you're in a 434. Let them know that you're up to the task, and prove that to them with any evidence you've got.

Ultimately, there's no real way to game the system at all, and you seem like a pretty grounded person who's already fully aware of that. A lot of these professors have been reading hundreds of applications each year for decades. They're able to spot insecurity and insincerity from three miles away. Be confident in yourself and respectful to the process, and that'll go a long way in the end.
The film school forums on FilmSchool.org have been around since 2002 so this is only a SMALL SAMPLE of the great advice given over the years. The Advance Search tool is your friend. Use it and love it. :)

Click here to read part 2 of the series. Stay tuned for the next part... The Interview.

If you've enjoyed this article please like it and share it with your friends. Again, if you've found another gem of advice on the forums that you'd love for me to include please let me know.
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Chris W
BU COM 1999 Graduate. Currently working as a Film & TV editor and producer in Los Angeles. Founded Studentfilms.com in 1998 (from which the film school forums were spun off into FilmSchool.org in 2014).

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