Applying to Film School: What You Need to Know

students_directingAfter a week of sharing film school application knowledge with our International Film Institute community, we have gathered all of the Q&As into one place. Thank you to everyone who submitted a question! We’re happy to host an ongoing discussion and encourage everyone to check for new seminars and course information.

What is the number one piece of advice you would give aspiring filmmakers about their applying to film school?  The thing I would say to a prospective student applying to college is to focus on why you want to enter the industry and not on the industry itself. What is driving you to be a filmmaker? Understanding the incredible uphill climb to succeed in such a competitive world and coming to terms with the time and commitment you will need to advance, having a razor sharp focus on your goal will be of utmost importance. A school’s list of accomplished filmmakers does not, in any way, guarantee your own success. That will have to come from you. Choose a program for its faculty, experience, and time in the field. Know what your strengths are and plan to continue working to creating new work. And finally, really understand that filmmaking starts and ends with a good story and knowing how to tell that story in a compelling and universal manner that will engage your audience.

What are film schools looking for in applicants?  No two apples are the same – meaning different programs are looking for different qualities in applications. Schools are not necessarily looking for filmmakers. They are looking for storytellers who can develop his or her skills in a collaborative environment.

For a graduate program, your life experience and a unique perspective on the world can go a very long way. Most likely, you will be applying to be part of a specific group or concentration, so your specialization or choice of path will matter more when considering a graduate education. If you are studying to be a director or writer, experience outside of film school will be important. If your goals are in production – cinematography, camera, sound, etc. – then some experience in the field could be beneficial.

As an undergraduate applicant, the best you can do is present yourself as an individual open to exploring what the school has to offer. The admissions committee wants to understand where you are coming from and how you have arrived at wanting to pursue a career as a filmmaker. Give them something that will set you apart. Think of it this way, they are building a community. How will you fit in and what contribution to the group will you bring to the table?

When should I begin preparing my portfolio for film school? (How many weeks before submission date?)  A portfolio is something you should be working on from the day you decide to become a filmmaker. A reel, or samples of your work, is essential in this business as it shows your experience. Applying to film school is like being asked, “What have you done?” on your first job interview. That is not to say that not having a reel is a bad thing. Passion and focus will go a very long way when you are presenting yourself in the written section of your application. As soon as you know you are considering applying to a particular program, I recommend learning as much as possible about the school and pay very special attention to what they are asking of you in the written segments.

What are the biggest mistake applicants make when submitting their portfolios?  From my perspective, the biggest mistake applicants make when applying to film school is writing about how much they want to be a filmmaker and, even more distracting, the “ever since I was 12-years-old I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.” Instead, get off the topic of filmmaking and talk about yourself, or a life changing experience you might have had that relates back to the question on the application. An applicant that can only quote existing films, or talk only about film can come across as a candidate with very little real experiences to create new and refreshing work. Do not be afraid to express who you are and how you see the world!

What’s the deal with personal statements? I’ve read that some like to hear of adversity, but is it possible that might actually hurt someone’s chances of admission?  The personal statement is very important. It’s the most important part of your application, in my regard. Here’s a quick tip: the worst thing to do is just go on about how you’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. A clear personal statement with a beginning, middle, and end will help you stand out. That said; make sure all your other ducks are in a row. Grades, GPAs, letters of recommendation, sample work, etc. Finally, keep in mind; those letters of rec can go a very long way in supporting your essay.

Who is the typical audience reviewing an application?  In reviewing applications, there is usually a “trickle up” effect at schools. First, the admissions officers will sort all applications that do not meet the school’s basic academic requirements. Then, the remaining applications head to their respective departments where faculty and staff sort, evaluate, and disseminate to application readers. These readers are usually program faculty, and they are tasked with reviewing and submitting evaluations for each applicant.

How much can a student expect to spend on their film school application and portfolio?  Aside from the actual application fee, if any, you should minimize what you spend on each submission. By the time you are filling out applications, or even considering film school, you should already have a sampling of work that you might be able to submit as part of a visual sample. If you do not have any film samples, you could think about taking a program where you make a short film by the end of the course. It’s also worth noting that the video submission might not always be required.

In terms of overcoming challenges, how do admission committees generally feel about the challenge being a commonly misconceived mental disorder? Without being specific, something that could hinder the filmmaking process and social life. And what if mental illness is an actual theme in one’s film and artwork?  The filmmaking process aside, I want to be clear about a very central aspect of making movies. It is an absolute social experience. Filmmaking is one career path that cannot be done on your own. The entire business is based on relationships. No matter what your situation, before you decide to go into the business, it is imperative that you evaluate how much your specific situation will affect your ability to not only work with others, but really, how you cultivate and develop the relationships you will make from the very first day you step into school or work life.

With my students I am constantly advising them to be mindful of how to work with others. The industry, as big as it is, can feel very small. How well you work with others and interact will get around. Those that understand this will achieve more opportunities for advancement and success. So, before you get into years of school loans, take some time to evaluate yourself and how you think your situation might affect you after you leave any program of study.

That said, unless you have to include a letter to the school outlining your medical situation, you should assume that your personal statement would be taken as an expression of your ability to tell a story. And that story, of course, will be your story. Yes, it is true that overcoming a challenge or situation goes a very long way when it comes to having faculty read your application. If the mental disorder is something that is misconceived, and you plan to make that the focus of your personal statement, then it is imperative that you help with making the reader understand that misconception and how you will work on, through the films you develop, help support your mission of clarity.

In the end, film school admissions are looking for great candidates to fill their seats. They should also be mindful of providing prospective students the best possible experience and path to success once admitted into a program. This is where, if it were me reading your application, and everything points to you being a possible choice for admission, I would want to meet in person to evaluate if “YOU” think my program would be the ideal choice for you. Applicants need to be honest about themselves and their abilities. Telling your story at the start of the relationship, of course, is a risky endeavor. Especially, as you say, your situation involves is a misconceived disorder. There is no 100% way to predict how a particular admit board will evaluate candidates. Personally I would prefer to learn about you sooner than later.

How important is your portfolio and creative work as part of your film school application?  The importance of the portfolio – sometimes referred to as your sample of creative work – usually depends on the school. Some programs require it, and others recommend it as an add-on to your application. If you include a portfolio, it should reflect your best work done to date. If it does not, and if the school DOES NOT requires a sample of creative work, I would recommend holding back submitting anything. In my experience reviewing film school candidates, there have been occasions where the portfolio is viewed only if the application is teetering between a yes and a no. You want to represent the best possible YOU in every part of your application. Take a moment to consider if you’re putting your best work forward.

Are there programs or courses that help you prepare your film school application or creative portfolio?  Filmmaking includes many disciplines and skill sets, some of which are not directly related to the production process. There are a variety of courses out there that can help you discover what you might be interested in doing as a filmmaker. If you are considering one of the crafts directly related to the process: directing, writing, producing, cinematography, sound, or editing, you can explore short term programs. These can usually be found at local colleges, universities or at independent schools and will offer students a sampling of each craft. The main goal of these courses and programs is to expose the individual to the rigors of making a film project while giving them ample time to explore the craft that best suits them at the same time. {Small plug: If you’re interested in exploring a film course, our IFI 5-Week Winter Intensive Program is where you’ll create a short film from start to finish.}

If someone gets rejected from a school, what tips would you give a student (i.e., reapplying, going for more workshops, looking for different programs, etc.)?  Getting a rejection letter is terrible! Feelings of failure and not being good enough immediately rise to the top. Consider a rejection letter an opportunity to continue your development as a filmmaker and, most importantly, as a human being. Keep in mind the number of applications each school gets for a very small number of seats. If school can wait, get a job somewhere doing whatever your second interest is in. Apply to a liberal arts school where you can explore other disciplines that can inform you as a developing storyteller. Take the time to keep working on your own creative samples and, when the time comes, apply again.


I really do hope all of the above helps any applicant looking at film school. I wish you the very best of luck as you apply and work toward furthering your academic experience. Remember, once admitted to a school, you are paying tuition. Make sure it’s worth your money. – Misael Sanchez, Founder, International Film Institute