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How to Ace a Film School Admissions Interview


I turned in this column way late this quarter. My excuse? Admissions. Like film faculty across the country, my colleagues and I in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California are reading dozens of applications for a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate filmmaking, screenwriting and media arts programs, and sorting through personal statements, work samples, grades, letters of recommendation and more, trying to sense who might be best for our program and how our program might best suit potential applicants. There are more applications than ever, even though recent analyses suggest that students consider the humanities to be a joke, while enrollment in statistics classes skyrockets (I’m thinking specifically of Nathan Heller’s New Yorker piece from last year, “The End of the English Major”). Anecdotally and from my perspective, film programs continue to be extremely popular. As a result, the competition for admission is fierce.

How do we decide who to admit? In the past, it was popular for faculty to rank candidates by gut instinct and then argue with each other to determine a cohort. Now, it’s more common for the admission process to be more structured. For both our undergrad and graduate programs, for example, we use a rubric created collectively by our faculty that strives for what’s known as “holistic review.” As we read and view materials that are submitted, we rank applicants across a variety of dimensions—academic and creative strengths, an alignment with our program’s focus, an interest in interdisciplinarity and so on. This way, all applicants are assessed using the same criteria. The same holds for interviews: Each is a set amount of time, and identical questions are asked of every candidate. While the result is often a slightly stilted conversation, the process is designed to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to be seen and heard. 

So, what works in a film school application? I answer from my perspective on the other side of the process and with the caveat that this is my own opinion! Indeed, many other professors will have their own pet peeves.

First, in the all-important personal statement for graduate and undergraduate applications, avoid sweeping statements about the power of cinema, or your lifelong dream to be a director or your earliest memory of film. Don’t open with a snappy description of a scene from a film, and then show how it has inspired you for your entire life. Don’t tell us how you are a unique human being or a born storyteller. Definitely don’t recapitulate our program description and then say it’s a perfect fit for you. And don’t list the skills you will have attained in our program that will really help you do what you want to do next. If the program is in a desirable location, don’t mention that you’ve always wanted to live there. If you use ChatGPT to compose even the first draft of your statement, we will probably be able to tell. Finally, think hard about mentioning specific professors who make you want to enroll in a program. That person—perhaps famous and no longer even reading admissions materials—might be flattered if he/she knew of your admiration, but the rest of the committee might just be irritated. Why irritate the committee? 

None of these things are particularly terrible. It’s just that we read dozens of essays every admissions cycle, and the repetition makes certain tropes and tactics lose their power. Recently, a few statements that have stood out for me are those that explain what someone has been doing and what they hope to do with their lives. Sometimes, these stories document remarkable achievements; other times, though, they more simply describe a
worldview, offer an insightful reflection or ask a set of questions. What are you thinking about? What are your commitments? What impact do you want to have in the world? I know undergrad applicants are especially challenged here; they’re guided toward a particular kind of chirpy writing, and the pressure to overachieve and thereby be able to list dozens of extracurriculars is frightening, frankly. For some programs, finding and accepting overachievers may be a goal. For us, the goal is identifying people who are curious, committed to the world in some way, dedicated to story as a fundamental human capacity and willing to collaborate and participate in a community. However, each program is different, and gauging from the outside what drives the admissions committee is next to impossible. Best to be yourself!

Many film programs now conduct interviews via Zoom at the undergraduate and graduate level. Here, the best advice is this: Don’t read your answers! For international students, this recommendation is particularly challenging. However, committees would really prefer that you simply talk. A second suggestion is to prepare in advance, knowing the limited time you will have (often 15 to 20 minutes). Imagine five questions you might be asked and then practice answering them for yourself before the interview. 

The questions in an admissions interview often include something like these: 

1) Tell us about yourself and your desire to be a filmmaker/screenwriter/cinematographer, etc. 

Here, respond in a way that suits you and your personality, but remember your time constraints (i.e., don’t go on and on).

2) Why do you want to study in this particular program? 

Obviously, to answer this question you need to do some research on the program in advance. Again, don’t repeat the program’s curriculum or website copy, and don’t say you’ve chosen the program because of the industries in Los Angeles, New York or any other geographical location, even if it’s true! Instead, you might think about what the program represents (a tradition of commercial, experimental, independent or TV-oriented work, for example) and how that resonates with you and your aspirations. You might also point to what graduates have achieved, but avoid naming professors. You never know what weird dynamics characterize any program’s faculty. Steer clear! For this question, you want to show that you’ve done your homework. Talk about yourself through what you choose to emphasize about the program.

3) Our program involves collaboration. Can you describe an experience of collaboration that stands out for you? 

This may not apply to all programs, but “collaboration” for filmmakers is pretty essential, and this may be part of your interview. Other concerns may center on your ability to be part of a generous and creative community and your willingness to participate and be present.

4) This is often the concluding question: Do you have any questions for us? 

Asked as the clock ticks toward the end of your interview, which is unfair, the question may seem to turn the tables and shift the power dynamic. Not true! Instead, this question is one more way for us to assess you. And there is no single great answer, in my experience. While it’s essential to have a minimum of two questions at hand, you want to be careful. Avoid asking about scholarships, tuition, costs of the program and so on. Don’t ask how long the program is—you should already know. You can also call the school later to get program-specific information. And don’t ask, “What are you looking for in an incoming student?” This approach often feels disingenuous. Avoid questions that are too big to answer in just a minute. Instead, ask about something that reflects your own interests and offers just a little bit more information about you. Here’s an example: “I’m really interested in collaborations across campus. I see that there’s an organization called [blank] that is aligned with my interests. Are there opportunities for these kinds of cross-campus collaborations?” Obviously, the key here is to be authentic as you signal what’s important to you.

To sum up (and get back to reading personal statements): Neither the application nor the interview process is designed to trick applicants. Instead, committees are looking for students to join a community, and often they are putting together a cohort that mixes productive overachievers, sensitive artists, committed activists, highly skilled filmmakers, thoughtful amateurs and a couple of wild cards who have ignored all of the advice above but seem really compelling nonetheless. Chances are you’re one of these. Good luck.

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