BACK TO THE CHALKBOARD: How to Apply to Film School

Brad Riddell has written feature films on assignment for Paramount, MTV, Universal and independent producers. Brad’s first film, American Pie: Band Camp, sold over a million copies in its first week of release on DVD. Brad serves as an Assistant Professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts in Chicago. Follow Brad on Twitter @bradriddell.

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Over the last few months I’ve discussed the factors involved in a decision to apply to film school, as well as the various degree types that film schools offer. For the aspiring film student, that was just research – now here comes the real work!

Where to Apply

I sit on the MFA admissions committees for Filmmaking and Screenwriting at DePaul University, and spent two years on the screenwriting admissions committee at USC. I’ve seen a lot of applications. I have no hard data to back this up, but my impression from conversations with students is that most people apply to several film schools (sometimes up to ten) in order to see how it all shakes out. They target programs by reputation, but also according to geography and the curricula most appropriate for their interests. At $25-$50 a pop, if you’ve already decided to take this expensive and risky leap, you might as well have options and see where you stand when it comes time to decide. I suggest using The Hollywood Reporter Top 25 as a starting point, but deciding where to apply all comes down to who you are, where you are in your life, and what you want from your film school experience. Maybe a school closer to home will be better for you individually. Maybe you have L.A. or N.Y. film school dreams, but if you never apply, will you always regret not knowing? It doesn’t hurt to apply anywhere and everywhere you are interested in going. You can always say no in the end.

Photo by Ted Holmwood

Photo by Ted Holmwood

My advice is to first make sure you are ready to apply and that you are able to hit the application deadlines for the schools that interest you. Next, get your best work as good as it can possibly be. If everything is in order and you are ready to go – flood the skies with applications and then get back to writing or filmmaking while you wait for the decisions to come.

The Statement of Purpose

Every program everywhere will ask you for some kind of “statement of purpose.” People make mistakes with this document by writing about how E.T. changed their lives, or how much they just really love watching movies, or how Fantasy is totally misunderstood as a genre. A winning statement of purpose is all about you. It demonstrates passion, savvy, maturity, and self-awareness. It tells the reader who you are, what you want, and what makes you primed for success. This is the place for compelling anecdotes and analogies, not lists of favorite movies. What shaped you as a person? What drives you as a storyteller? Take the tone that you are having a conversation with like-minded people who want to hear your story. Don’t gush, don’t brag, don’t be too cute. Just be honest and have a take.

In mine, I compared my life as a competitive cyclist to the everyday grind that is writing. It was specific, it stood out, and people remembered it. I was “the bike guy from Kentucky.” Admissions committees read hundreds of applications. A statement has to be fresh and original. It has to slap the reader awake with great writing and enough plain honesty to hold your application in their tired brains for more than five minutes. The statement of purpose is the first thing I read, even before the writing samples. I want to know who these people are and if they are capable of writing about themselves, their process, and their ambitions intelligently and creatively. I want to know where they’ve been, what they’ve seen, and what they’ve done. I want to know that I will be able to work with them through a yearlong thesis process or senior capstone. I want to remember who they are one week and fifty applications later, when I sit in a room with my colleagues to advocate for their admission.

The Writing Sample

When it comes to applying to film school, writing samples aren’t just for screenwriters. Several prominent schools won’t look at reels or images, even for those applying to production programs. They want to know that you can tell a story on paper; that you have strong ideas, a sense for the cinematic, and that you can think visually without a camera in your hand. People often submit plays, features, pilots, short scripts, short stories…anything with a narrative. Your goal with the writing sample is to present yourself as talented and unique. You want to showcase your voice and worldview.

My advice is to not submit feature work if you have quality short scripts, short stories, webseries, pilots, or one-act plays. Short-form material gives the reader a sense for how you handle exposition, character arc, and structure in a completed work that they can actually finish. No one will ever read your entire feature. In fact, they likely won’t get past fifteen pages. But if you do decide to submit feature work (like I did), go for first acts. Instead of one whole screenplay, send a couple of first acts, or better yet, three different scripts up to the inciting incident. Give them a tight, polished sample of material that shows range, but also the consistent stamp of a unique writer with something to say. If you have little screenwriting experience but are a strong playwright or fiction writer – stick with what you got you here. Different formats are a welcome break for application readers, especially in screenwriting programs. Most film school professors feel like they can teach you screenplay format, structure, and style – so if your short story or novel excerpt demonstrates excellent storytelling and a clear voice, you’re in great shape. If you try to write a screenplay and have no idea what you’re doing, it’ll be obvious, and you’ll likely be receiving the dreaded skinny envelope of rejection.

Media

If your goal is to be a filmmaker, then the film school to which you are applying might require a visual portfolio beyond the writing sample. People submit short films, still photography, reels, commercial or industrial samples, and many other kinds of visual material including paintings and sculpture. Photography gives a strong sense of your “eye” but does not necessarily speak to narrative skill. A short film or two can give the viewer a sense for both, as well as your directing ability, industriousness, and your capability for pulling off a cohesive piece of cinema. Feature excerpts work, too, provided the viewer has enough context to understand what’s happening.

Beware the “dazzling image montage!” Photography and editing are cornerstone elements of filmmaking, but character development, world creation, and compelling narrative always win the day over production value. Like script format for screenwriters, film school professors feel they can teach production value – they want to know from your application that you are a good storyteller.

Depending on how much a given program will allow you to send them, and factoring in the amount of work you have that’s good enough to showcase, a combination of a reel and one completed film is likely the best bet. This approach allows you to present a completed work, but also highlights a number of other pieces quickly and efficiently to show range and experience. Be judicious with your selections, try to keep the whole package as short as possible (under 15 minutes), and similar to the writing component, present a unique voice and style that is both consistent and versatile. Oh, and try to avoid being derivative. I’ve seen dozens of the very same Zombie Short and Eerie Sci-Fi Thriller Where We Never See the Monster. Those may be fun to make, but there’s a million of them already.

Letters of Recommendation

The final piece of the puzzle requires that you find other people to speak on your behalf. The choice of whom you select for your film school letter of recommendation is important, and should represent diverse elements of your life. Obviously, if you have worked in the industry and have a known person who will recommend you – go for it. I also like to hear from a former professor or academic, a work-related reference, and someone who can speak to the candidate’s creative life. Those may overlap of course, which is fine, but avoid family members, best friends, and people who don’t know you or your work at all. If the CEO of Apple writes you a generic recommendation that says nothing specific about who you are and what you can do, it won’t help you that much. Letterhead is less important than true insight into your character, ability, and experience. Go for people who have seen you struggle, overcome, create, and thrive. Go to people who write well and will spend time on the letter. And please, please, please – give them plenty of lead time to write. No one likes to have these things sprung on them at the last minute, especially those who want to do a good job for you.

Finishing the Application

If you decide to apply to film school, you should begin working on applications at least three months before the deadlines hit – usually in the early winter – and that doesn’t include time for building a creative portfolio of writing or media. Be organized! Set up a specific calendar and mark down all of the due dates. Make lists of each school’s requirements and set up goal-driven timelines to accomplish each one. I applied to six film schools, and getting those applications ready was a full-time job, but when the acceptance letters started rolling in, it was well worth it.

Next time: choosing the right film school.

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