Applications advice!


Active Member
Hello all,

I've posted on these forums before a while back, but now I'm back again. So I'm currently taking my first steps towards studying filmmaking in the USA (I live in Israel), and hopefully in one of the leading schools in the field (I'm looking at all the usual suspects - USC, Tisch, UCLA, FSU, Chapman, etc). I'm aiming to start studying in Fall 2010 (I'm released from the army in February of next year), but I figured that it's never too early to start working on the applications, especially because there is a lot of work to do, but also because I read somewhere that it is recommended for foreign students to send in their applications as early as possible, because of the longer time it takes for correspondences to take place.

Anyway, I've already done the first stage which is taking the SAT - Got 2140, which I guess isn't bad at all, but it's not really THAT important in film school as far as I know - and I will of course also have to take the TOEFL at some point, but there's no rush as you don't have to study for it. In any case, I would rather shift my focus to the more difficult aspects of the applications, about which I have a few questions and hope that I can get advice from fellow applicants/current film school students/film school alumni. If there are any foreigners around here who went to a US film school who could help me out and give me specific advice about their own applications, I'd really appreciate it!

So each school has some variants in their application requirements, but most of them have a few common themes about which I was hoping to get some advice/information. So let's just go through all of them:

- Letters of recommendation. Is there anybody in particular I should ask for letters from? What are the admissions offices looking for in the letters? I can get letters from my two former film teachers from high school, but that only covers that aspect. What else would they like to see in the letters?

- Personal essay. A lot of emphasis is placed on this on the film school web sites, and the build-up makes me pretty nervous about it. So what are they looking for in these letters? Just an autobiography, or something more specific alluring to aspirations in filmmaking? How can I express ambition without being arrogant? How can I be humble without coming across as self-loathing?

- Portfolio. Most of the schools ask for original creative writing examples tailored to their specific requests, but others (Tisch for example) also ask for prior creative work in any artistic field, including but not limited to filmmaking. Thing is, they have some pretty strict limitations on these portfolios, for example, no more than 10 minutes of filmed material, no more than 6 pages of creative writing, and no more than 10 photographs or drawings. Since I haven't painted/drawn anything substantial since I finished art school in the 9th grade, since my photography is at an amateur/hobby level and nothing more, and since my writing is... underdeveloped to say the least, I think that my best chance would be to go with something I filmed during my film studies in high school (as I already mentioned; being in the army, I don't really have much time to film anything). Thing is, the only thing I made that I feel is REALLY worth showing is my "final" film, and the problem is that it's 25 minutes long. So what do I do? I want to show them that I not only know how to point a camera or light a scene but also that I can tell a story. So, do I cut it into a 10-minute version that touches upon all the major plot points but will still be somewhat incoherent? Or do I make a sort of "director's reel", taking the most impressive shots/sequences of all my previous movies and edit them all together? Or wound that be too pretentious?

- Creative writing. Some of the schools request to send an example of original creative writing, which is usually some variation of dramatizing an emotional event from your life. I was just wondering if there are any specific recommended ways of writing this piece: First person? Third person? As an essay? Screenplay? Does anything go, or are there limitations? Most places aren't very specific about it.

I know there are plenty of contributors to these forums who are either in their applications procedure, enrolled in film school or have graduated from film school, so any and all advice you guys have to offer would be humbly appreciated and obliged. Thanks in advance!


Well-Known Member
All the answers you seek are in the archives of this site. I suggest you do some digging...hear from many voices and find some consistencies, some patterns, etc...better than relying on the few people who will take the time to thoughtfully answer all of these questions right here in your own thread. I personally am not one of those few.

I don't mean to sound like a jerk, it's just my advice.


Active Member

I will be attending AFI as a screenwriting fellow this fall, so take my advice for whatever it's worth:

I agree with Jay; you'll find a lot of good examples from the years past on this site. Just do a search for some of the key issues you're concerned about and see what people before you have gone through (and survived). That said, I'll still offer some personal advice.

Letters of Rec: I would suggest approaching the people who know your strengths the best, and that provide the most well-rounded picture of you. Don't necessarily submit three letters that all say “awesome writer (for example). I had one from a screenwriting mentor who used to work in Hollywood, which attested to my ability as a writer; one from a film studies professor that attested to my abilities as an academic; and one from my current boss, which vouched the business work I've been doing since leaving undergraduate study (essentially 5 years ago).

Personal Essay: In my experience, there are really two main goals: create a character sketch for yourself and explain why film is your calling (calmly, sensibly and earnestly); and show that you're a good storyteller. You're telling your own story, more or less, and if you can't do that in a passionate and engaging way, it may cast doubt on your ability to do it with stories to which you are less attached. (By the way, the military service definitely paint you as a more worldly, experienced person, which is to your benefit for this process. I'm not saying it's a done-deal, but these schools want people who have lived a little, and who have thoughts/opinions/stories to tell.)

Portfolio: I'd really suggest digging around on this site for how people have dealt with this issue before. I guarantee you that you're not the first person to have this dilemma. As long as you've got “something” to show them, you'll find a way to make it work to your advantage. That said, work on your writing. It doesn't matter what your field is (directing, cinematography, etc.), you're going to have to write to get in, and you're going to have to write while you're there. (Of course, your post is written in a substantially better manner than most that go up on this site, so I can't help but wonder if you are just being a little critical of your writing skills”¦)

Creative writing: Carefully read ALL the rules and guidelines for a school's creative writing submission, then be as open minded as you can while still playing by the rules. You don't have to reinvent the wheel for each one of these, but if you come up with a novel approach, try writing a draft. Have some people read it, and if they don't think it's horribly off-putting, think about giving it a shot. The easy thing is to write a straight essay-style sample, so allow yourself to be creative, just don't go off the deep end.

Best of luck finishing out your service, and best of luck getting into film school next year. If you're thoughtful enough to start preparing now, you stand a good chance.
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Active Member
Thank you kindly, ProfUnrath and Jayimess, for the advice. I really appreciate it, and I think I'll heed to it as well, especially the bit about digging around these forums more thoroughly. Now that I think about it, I can probably learn a lot from the past experiences as they appear on these forums, as humbling as they are (so many people accepted to all these schools, and so many more trying to get in; it's hard not to feel the pressure!). So thanks again, and for the well wishes too. Good luck yourself at AFI!


When I was writing all my apps, 40 pages of creative material, I always tried to take the rules and bend them, break them, or twist them. If its good, then its good and no one is going to care that in the third act you didn't introduce a new character or what not. Focus on writing good, honest material.

Honesty really is what it's all about


Active Member
So I wrote first drafts of some of the creative materials required from some of the schools, and I find myself standing before a sort of dilemma.

NYU and USC both ask to write a "creative essay", dramatizing an event from your personal life over four and two pages, respectively. The guidelines are pretty general but it DOES say to stick to writing a "dramatic essay in the first person". Now, I had an idea about how to make it a little more creative and literary and a little less straightforward, but I don't know if it's necessarily what I should do, because it's kind of not strictly sticking to the rules. I'll explain.

I thought of maybe writing the essay in first person, but from multiple points of view. I.E., having a linear story throughout the whole thing, but having each paragraph/segment of the story written, in the first person, from the points of view of myself, my mother and my younger brother and how we all experienced this one event.

My main issue is I guess a more general question: how creative can you really get with these creative essays, or on the other hand, is it better to just sticking to writing a straightforward, first-person essay?

Would be glad for some (and any) advice, and thanks (again) in advance!


Well-Known Member
I can't speak for NYU but I was just talking to one of the admission board members for USC. She told me that the most important thing is to tell "your story." They are looking for something personal - not a "I've always wanted to go to film school." You should express your vision - in your own unique way. I think if you can justify why it's important to tell this particular story from three points of view (maybe how your mother and brother's perspective influenced you) then it would be fine. I wouldn't just do that to "try something new." Just my take on my conversation with her. She sits on the admission committee and sees lots of applicants, so I think she has a good perspective. Oh, and I think you should apply to Columbia University in NY - they have a great program also.

If you don't mind, I'd love to hear more about your experience in the army. I'm Jewish - grew up here in the states.


Active Member
Well, thanks for that advice, ds65. I should emphasize that I'm not talking about the personal essay, in which you're supposed to write about yourself, creative influences, artistic ambitions and all that stuff; but rather, I'm talking about the "creative essay", which the USC application describes as such:

"Writing Samples (undergraduates only)

Category II (Intense Emotional Moment) - Briefly describe the most emotionally intense moment you have experienced. Limit your description to two double-spaced, typed pages."

The NYU application has a similar requirement:

"Dramatic Essay (no more than four typed, double-spaced pages): Dramatize an actual event in your life that you will never forget. This event can be dramatic and/or comedic. The assignment may be written as a short story in the first person or as an essay."

Since it's supposed to be a creative writing sample, my question was just how... well, creative can I get with it, in terms of spicing it up with some more creative literary techniques other than just telling a straightforward, first-person essay-type story. If I write it in the first person but from multiple points of view, does that still meet the requirement of writing a "short story in the first person", or would that already be pushing it...?

About my experience in the army: Sure, I'd love to share, no problem. Send me a PM; any question you have, I'd be happy to answer.

Thanks again for the advice! And I'll definitely look into Columbia as well. I've heard mainly about their graduate program, though, but less about the undergrad one. Is it good?


as i look through your thread .. i can see you have loads of questions .. why don't you seek a counselor .. Actually Whistling Woods International is one of the best schools in Asia and they have counselors who can direct you with what you want ... check their site out .. best of luck ....
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