Screenwriting MFA - Which School? (USC, UCLA, LMU, Chapman, or UT)

laytonw5

Active Member
Hey all, I was happy to find your message board as I am planning to apply to grad school in screenwriting for fall of 2010, and there appear to be fairly limited resources in terms of actually learning about my options.

I've read Film School Confidential cover to cover several times, but I've seen several posts on here that have called the reliability of that source into question.

Basically, I've decided to apply to UCLA, USC, Chapman, LMU, and UT (I currently live in Austin, TX already). Right now my first choice is UCLA, based on what I read in FSC, but reading these posts I'm no longer sure.

The thing is, my utmost dream would be to be head writer/showrunner/creator for a tv show, so I want to go to a school that will allow me to explore that area and also help me get connected to that part of the industry.

But I'm also very interested in exploring all aspects of filmmaking - particularly directing - even though tv writing is my main interest.

I suppose my primary question is: can anyone tell me what the various pros and cons of each of these schools are and which is like to yield me the best education and connection in TV writing while still allowing me to learn a little about the rest of the process.

Also, collaboration is key for me and I'd also like to know which school would yield the most bang for my buck.

Thanks so much for your help!
 

Jayimess

Well-Known Member
FSC's assessment of USC was malarkey.


I go there, so I know most about that school. I also interviewed at UCLA and AFI, so I know a bit about them.

USC has a huge TV section to their program, offering a thesis in television (one-hour drama ONLY, no sitcom), spec and pilot courses in one hour and half hour, sketch comedy. With the production department, they also produce one original pilot/episode per year, one each drama and three camera sitcom.

I've taken classes with writers currently writing for Law and Order SVU, CSI NY, Big Bang Theory, Mad Men, one of the first writers on SNL...

USC requires all students to take 507, a production class. There are two webisode courses, drama and comedy, which involve producing your own mini season of 3-5 episodes, so there's more directing. There is a mandatory directing actors class that was taught by Nina Foch, RIP, I do believe it will be back in the fall with another professor...

USC offers 480/546 every semester, which involves a short script competition, then teams of a writer, director, and producer pitch those winning scripts to faculty to get a film made, on the university's dime.

There's also Trojan Vision, the university run TV station, but I don't know much about that at all.

Last year, one '08 graduate got a job on Lost straight out of the gate, another with the creator of My Own Worst Enemy (so he didn't lose his job when the show got cut), another on Breaking Bad, and one of the '09ers starts on Ugly Betty next month. I know the UB guy did a TV thesis, not sure of the others.

My classmates have interned on Mad Men, Smallville, Ugly Betty, Breaking Bad, Grey's Anatomy/Private Practice, etc.

There are required critical studies credits (6 hours, I believe FSC mentions, incorrectly, that we have to take 10...again, malarkey) that you can fill with great courses that focus only on TV. I know Matt Weiner (Mad Men, USC alum) came in and talked to one class for hours, a woman from The Office came into another. (I'm a work-study projectionist, so I see a lot)

At First Pitch, tons of studio, proco, and agency peeps come out to hear pitches for series and films. The school's launching a new program this year that will help Trojan alums package features (writer producer director), but not so much for TV...but I mention it because it's collaborative.

Shonda Rhimes (Grey's, USC alum) came and spoke at commencement this year. Every year, Josh Schwartz (OC, Gossip Girl, USC alum), provides a scholarship just for TV writers.

You can totally learn TV here.



UCLA has lots of TV classes now, as I understand, and within their producing program you can learn to be a showrunner, I've heard.

At my interview, I asked about interaction with other departments...not promoted, but not discouraged. Entirely up to you.

I asked about production classes...my interviewers looked at each other, awkward. Nope.

UCLA has an amazing feature writing reputation, and they're building up their TV program. I don't think you'll meet too many production cats, though, to collaborate, or have opportunity to produce your work, but keep in mind this is all based on my interview experience three years ago.



AFI will require you to collaborate on cycle projects, at least the first one. I know the curriculum requires some television writing, but I'm forgetting how much. AFI will be the first to tell you that their focus is on narrative filmmaking, though.

You absolutely will not be able to direct at AFI. You will be required to put in hours in both set construction and physical production for every cycle project, but not as a director. Not ever. It's a great school, but it might not be for you based on what you've written above.


Chapman allows exploration into directing classes, if I recall correctly, and I believe they have TV focus of some sort.

Don't know enough to speak on LMU or UT.


Look, I know I go to USC, and thus I'm a huge champion of it, but I know the SCA takes great pride in the fact that they teach TV. In fact, my MFA degree will say Writing for Screen and Television.

Many of my TV-minded classmates said they came here specifically for the TV part!

Personally, I came here specifically for the writer-director part, which you may have read if you've been digging about...but it's been a real struggle to make it happen, so I don't want to lie and say the production department welcomed me with open arms...because they didn't. But it wasn't impossible.

Best of luck.
 

FarhanAli

Well-Known Member
Def. some great schools, but you should also consider Northwestern's Screenwriting program. Northwestern has a massive presence in Hollywood.
 

KayS

Well-Known Member
I'm going to attend USC this fall, but I interviewed with other schools and got the best impression of USC's television program (though USC didn't interview me).

Here's the deal though: I attended the admitted students event at USC, and the faculty said they are now beginning to more strongly discourage directing alongside the writing MFA program. I believe they even mentioned that Jayimess was an exception, not the rule (as she mentioned above how she struggled to make her situation feasible). Their goal is to make you a professional, working writer--which is exactly what I wanted, so I said sign me up!

During my interview with UCLA, the interviewers expressed that they wish they had more production courses offered to writing grad students. They do have a showrunner route though.

I know you didn't ask about AFI, but just in case you think of applying there, don't. They're all about film, though they have one television writing class and offer the option of a television thesis. And as Jayimess mentioned, if you're in the writing program, there aren't enough opportunities to direct.

I'm not going to mention the NY schools because television is written mostly in LA with a few exceptions, so LA is a better place to network--in my personal opinion of course!

...Okay, fine, I'll mention the NY schools. They are definitely more encouraging of the writer/director tracks, from what I understand. But prioritize your interests.

I don't know anything about Chapman or LMU. I went to UT for undergrad but don't know much about their grad programs. Austin is awesome, though.

So, in short, apply to USC, UCLA, and perhaps the schools I know nothing about...and then pick USC because it rules. w00t. :)

Good luck applying!! Happy waiting lies ahead. And by happy, I mean torturous.
 
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laytonw5

Active Member
Hey everyone,

Thanks for all your advice. I'm definitely noticing a prevelance of more students from certain schools - haha!

Given everything I've read, I think USC has weaseled it's way up to my number 1 choice, which is funny because it was my first choice when I first started looking at film schools years ago.

I'm not really planning on applying in NYC, even though I'd really like to live there. I know tv writing is my main passion - and LA is where the business is for that.

LMU has a really annoying website and a whole slew of pre-reqs that are really making it seem less appealing. But the rest look great.

KayS - are you still in Austin? I'm there now, and I love it. Would you be willing to give some application advice to a future USC hopeful? Jayimess, that goes for you too!
 

Jayimess

Well-Known Member
Without going into it, the production classes are not out of reach: my experience has been closely documented by the department so that others can be advised of how I made it work...as KayS said, I am the exception, not the rule, but many things have happened since we met on April 3rd!

Interestingly enough, the production program is also easing out its own writing emphasis. They want writers in the writing program and directors in production. I am not responsible for this, but I may have been one of the gajillion pieces of straw on the camel's back. So basically, while not promoted, or, to a certain extent, encouraged, taking directing classes is not impossible. I'm not taking production MFA classes either, btw, I'm taking 400 level non-major courses, similar to writing electives such as sketch comedy writing, open to the entire university but no less awesome.

Layton, regarding your application, there is no formula beyond this: be yourself. Make sure that each part of your application contributes something new to the picture you're painting of yourself for them...don't be one-note. Each part should contribute a whole new layer, a new flavor, whatever metaphor you want. NO REDUNDANCY!

Best of luck. You'll love it here.
 

KayS

Well-Known Member
Hey layton,

Nope, not in Austin anymore :( Had to move back home to save up a bit before school. Man am I jealous of you. Go to the Wheatsville Coop and eat some tofu for me. :D

As for the advice, Jayimess hit the nail on the head. Make the most of the application requirements and try and give them the clearest (but best) impression of you. Everyone has their own writing method, but what I did was spend a lot of time pooping on the page and then revising the crap out of it. Pun intended. Then I bugged all of my (two) friends and made them give me criticism, even if they're not film people (but at least one writer would help). And that's what I did for every single requirement, not just the writing sample--though I hear that's the most important. Your friends might hate you, but when you're admitted, you'll have time to thank them. :) Maybe. Just kidding.
 
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Starbuck7

Well-Known Member
During my interview with UCLA, the interviewers expressed that they wish they had more production courses offered to writing grad students. They do have a showrunner route though


Hey KayS, this is the first I've heard about the showrunner route, and I'm going to UCLA in the fall! Did they give you any more information about it in your interview? I'm super curious now. Thanks, and again, congrats on USC!
 

Jayimess

Well-Known Member
Originally posted by Starbuck7:
<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-title">quote:</div><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-content">During my interview with UCLA, the interviewers expressed that they wish they had more production courses offered to writing grad students. They do have a showrunner route though


Hey KayS, this is the first I've heard about the showrunner route, and I'm going to UCLA in the fall! Did they give you any more information about it in your interview? I'm super curious now. Thanks, and again, congrats on USC! </div></BLOCKQUOTE>

They promoted it in 2007, I specifically recall one of the people from that year citing it as a huge cool thing of awesomeness...is it possible, like my writer director track at USC, that it only exists if you pursue it?
 

laytonw5

Active Member
I'm also confused about this showrunner deal. I was under the impression that the showrunner is part of the producing program. Are you guys saying there is a way to dual-program it (so to speak) and do screenwriting but also do the showrunner route?
 

laytonw5

Active Member
Another question, if you guys check out this thread again:

For recommendations, would you say all 3 of them need to be from professors? I've been out of school for over a year, and I went to a huge school where no one really knew their professors. So I've only got 1 or 2 I could get a rec from. I just wondered if I could go elsewhere for recs and that would be okay or if it has to be academic.

Let me know what you think!
 

Jayimess

Well-Known Member
I would say ABSOLUTELY not just from professors. The LORs are just as responsible in painting that picture. Each recommendation should add one more layer, metaphor-licious.

From my own experience, which is in no way a guarantee:

-My undergraduate Screenwriting professor: the very person who convinced me I would get in if just bit the bullet and applied, to paint my academic potential at USC based on my performance in her class

-My supervisor at a job I had in sales and promotions right until I went back to UG (I dropped out for five years): to speak for my work ethic and fill my gap in education, to show I can survive in business, even if that business was the alcohol industry (beer sales rep, pretty cool job, btw)

-My boss at an internship at a morning show in Cleveland: Since I produced him for an entire semester, and also directed twelve segments, all live, I thought he could speak for my potential to work in the media, even if that experience wasn't filmmaking

I thought about this long and hard. My decisions were not replicable, but my methods for getting great letters out of them are:

For each recommender:

I hand wrote a letter of thanks to them, as they had all had a hand in helping me along my journey to where I could be; not to mention that these mentors were still willing to help me as I moved to the next step.

I typed up why I chose them, in even less sentences than I posted above, and put it in there for them, so they had an idea of what I wanted them to talk about, but weren't being told what to say.

I stamped and addressed each envelope to each school.

I put any supplementary forms into the proper envelope.

I put a sticky with the mail date on each envelope

I made a little calendar checklist for their desk and refrigerator

I put it all in a big manila envelope, and hand delivered it to them.

Each and every one of them wrote seven letters on my behalf, none of them were late, and I got in everywhere eventually (UCLA straight up, USC off waitlist, AFI rejected then admitted in June, they did this to several writers that year, a friend who's finishing up got admitted in AUGUST!!) with the letters they wrote.

It's a lot of work, to write a "good" LOR. I've written a couple, and I thought making it as easy as possible was a good way to help and show respect and gratitude. I knew they were doing me a favor, I was putting my fate in their hands.

Then, I read the letters, right before I came to USC. Two of them were amazing. The third was embarrassing, a form letter riddled with typos, that recommended "hiring (me) at (your) company."

And I got in everywhere...eventually.

It's possible that UCLA doesn't care about LORs, USC cares a little bit, and AFI cares a bit more, so the form letter impacted each school's evaluation differently, but who knows?

Personally, I think it means that LORs are just one small part of a very creative application...they will neither break nor make you.

There is no science to getting into film school. My experiences, like those of anyone else who might ramble on more coherently than I did, are unique. Yours will certainly be different.

BEST OF LUCK!!
 

laytonw5

Active Member
Yeah, I just don't have 3 profs like that - so I think I'll lean towards Jayimess's advice. If it worked for her, maybe it can work for me too!
 

KayS

Well-Known Member
I don't remember much about what UCLA interviewers said about the showrunner track (oddly enough because it is ubercool). But they talked about it during my interview, so I'm sure there is some way to make it happen while in the writing program.

My recs were from one professor, a supervisor from a summer internship, and a supervisor from a (brief) job. I went to a big undergrad and only knew that one professor well because I did well in his class and he supervised my thesis. I knew I could count on him to give me a good rec because he asked me to write him a rec months before for a teaching award. I was buddies with my internship supervisor, but I was concerned about my job rec because my job was brief. (Not because I got fired, thankfully! :) ) I ended up writing it and letting her edit whatever she wanted, which is a common practice but not necessarily a good sign. I don't know? Anyway, it either didn't matter or worked. (Yay USC!)
My interviewer at AFI actually mentioned my internship rec letter positively, so I'm dying to read that one if I can get my hands on it.

Jayimess, that calendar checklist for the fridge and desk is an AWESOME creative idea!!! And as for all of the things Jayimess mentioned in terms of putting all the forms together appropriately, providing the recommenders with easy-to-follow guides on when to get things in to each school, and how exactly is a MUST, especially when you're asking these busy people to submit to a bunch of different places (six in my case). And definitely don't forget to thank them.

I remember actually that my professor noticed he had to sign across the flap for Columbia's rec letter, which was super lucky because I missed it completely. He rocks.
 
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ilikealliteration

Active Member
Getting in with just letters from Professors is certainly feasible.

The bulk of my work experience had been in restaurants when I was putting my applications together, and frankly I didn't really think any of my general managers would be able to write a good letter on my behalf. And most of them I wasn't in contact with anymore.

I had a few professors who'd had an impact on me that I'd made a point of keeping in contact with via e-mail when I graduated.

I'm going to USC in the Fall, and I was also accepted at Chapman, Florida State and Loyola Marymount. Rejected from AFI, Columbia and NYU, waitlisted at UT, and didn't apply to UCLA.

I stressed over my letters BIG TIME. One of my professors was hard to get a hold of and not very responsive to e-mails, and had me pretty nervous down to the wire.

I know it's hard not to ask, or to be curious, but as Jayimess has said about a billion times on this board: there's no formula for an application, and if anything, you'd want to avoid a formula because you're trying to show your individuality and creative potential.
 

laytonw5

Active Member
Yeah, I definitely already understood that you CAN get in with professor recs, my question was if you could get in withOUT them - since, as I mentioned before, I went to a huge undergrad school and was only close to 1 prof. But thanks anyway for the advice!
 
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