This section will address how to select which program you should attend.
MOTIVATIONS FOR DEGREE
Are you interested in producing or directing films? Do you want to learn more about the technical aspects of film-making (like cinematography, sound mixing etc.)? Do you hope to have a career in the film industry (production/direction/writing) in the future? If so, a graduate-level degree in Film may be suitable for you.
But is film school a requirement for entering the industry?
Whether you want to do an MA, an MSc or even an MFA in Film (more information on each degree type can be found below), remember: the degree itself does not make your career. Unless you want to go into teaching, there are no such degree requirements for a job in television or film industries. Film school is most certainly not a requirement ‘for making it’. But if you know what you want out of your degree and are able to use every opportunity presented to you during your degree, then it could be extremely beneficial.
Brad Riddell, writer of four feature films, Professor of MFA and BFA Screenwriting at USC and Assistant Professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts, says he was able to get the following things from film school (source: Scriptmag)
- Expert training from people who had been where he wanted to be,
- The time to intensely focus, develop and improve
- A safe place to experiment and fail
- Access to equipment and facilities
- A network of lifelong colleagues through which he was able to build a career
- Insight and access into the industry
- A portfolio of well-developed material
But film school also requires a very large financial investment -- how do you decide if the investment is worth the return?
Riddell says, “in the end, it comes down to knowing what you want, knowing how badly you want it, and knowing yourself well enough to determine how to get there...in my ten years of teaching, I have seen many graduates succeed because of what they have learned, what they have written or made, and who they have met in school”. The opportunities that students of film find in graduate school really do help them advance their careers.
Students who successfully complete a Master’s degree in this field have a number of career options open to them, including but not limited to: film critics, filmmakers, film curators, and other industry professionals. Do keep in mind film school is expensive, and you can pursue one of the aforementioned careers without having a Master’s in Film Studies.
Please note: this information has been extracted from US sources. Career opportunities in the film industry in Pakistan may differ significantly. As a graduate student at a film school in USA, you will mostly have opportunities to network with professionals based in the USA only. If you plan on working in Pakistan after completing your degree, it is highly recommended that you get in touch with experts/veterans of the field -- and ask them about the sort of career pathways that are available for a film graduate, within Pakistan.
It is recommended that you read this excerpt from Jason Kohl’s book Film School: A Practical Guide to An Impractical Decision to help you further in deciding whether to apply or not.
TYPES OF DEGREE
The following degrees are available for Film Studies:
- MA programs (in Film Studies, Cinema Studies, Cinema and Media Studies etc.)
- MSc programs (these programs tend to focus on the more technical aspects of film, i.e. cinematography, sound etc.)
- MFA programs
- PhD programs
How to select the best option for yourself (among degrees/specializations within this field)
Information in this section has been extracted from ScriptMag
MA and MSc
MA programs offer their students artistic training in directing, writing and production and some technical training. Graduates of these programs become “generalists”, meaning they are well-acquainted with all aspects of film.
Students of MSc programs, on the other hand, generally graduate as “specialists”. These programs tend to focus more comprehensively on the technical aspect of filmmaking such as cinematography, post, sound or VFX.
Most MA/MSc programs are 2 years long and some programs even allow its students to apply for an MFA program at the end of the first year. If you have an MA/MSc, you will be eligible to teach at most universities in the US (do note: the chances of getting tenure, i.e. permanent employment, are low with MA/MSc degrees, as compared to the MFA and PhD degrees). To find out about similar opportunities in Pakistan (or other countries), please connect with your professors or professionals/experts in the field and ask them about future prospects with these degrees.
The MFA is considered to be a terminal degree for practice (if you hope to go into extensive theoretical study or criticism of the field, a PhD would be the terminal degree). Most schools offer an MFA in the following specializations: screenwriting, direction, animation and producing. These programs are typically 2-3 years long: screenwriting programs are 2 years long, and production programs are usually 3 years long. If you are enrolled in an MFA program you will typically be required to complete a thesis project (of professional quality). If you are a filmmaker, your project could be in the form of a short film, feature film, web-series or a pilot for a series. And if you are specializing in screenwriting, then you could create a feature screenplay or television pilot for your thesis project. This is a general overview, and specific final thesis requirements may vary by program.
A PhD in this field is “reserved for scholarship and criticism, and does not involve actual screenwriting or filmmaking”. It can take up to six years to complete, and will most likely require the publication of a doctoral dissertation. Many PhD candidates often teach at university level, alongside taking their own classes. (If you are interested in pursuing a PhD in this field, make sure you check out your prospective university’s Communication, Media Studies and English departments because these programs are often located there.)
Which degree should you opt for?
If you want to become a screenwriter, then your only choice is the MFA -- because it is difficult to find an MA with that specialization. If you are interested in production, then you should think about your objectives: what is it that you want to have achieved at the end of your degree? Do you want to become a specialist (MSc) or a generalist (MA)? Are you interested in spending a year creating and defending a single piece of work, or do you want to enter the professional world as quickly as possible? Or do you, perhaps, want to become a professor? Deciding between an MFA and an MA/MSc ultimately comes down to two things: the first is how much time you can and are willing to invest, and the second is your intention and goals: what you want to learn. Whatever you choose, make sure you are fully committed in that decision. Graduate school is expensive and much shorter than your undergraduate degree.
It is also highly recommended that you look at the future prospects for each of your prospective programs: what kind of career opportunities that are available to students after they graduate? What is the placement percentage of your prospective program like? In addition to that, if you plan to work in a country outside of the US (like Pakistan), please make sure you connect with professionals/veterans or graduates of these programs to find out what sort of opportunities are available here. The sort of opportunities that are available in the US might be significantly different than those in Pakistan (or another country), so make sure you are well-aware of what those opportunities are.
You can also check out the following tip-sheets if you are interested in Film:
- MFA in Performing Arts
If you are more interested in acting or performing in film (as opposed to working in production or direction), a degree in Performing Arts may be more relevant for you.
- MFA Writing
If you are interested in writing (screenwriting/script-writing/novels/stories etc.), you can consider applying for a degree in Writing.
- MFA in Visual Arts
If you are more interested in other visual forms of art (like painting, drawing, textile arts, photography etc.) more so than film, a degree in Visual Arts may be more appropriate for you.
Number of universities to apply to: Brad Riddell, who has been on the admissions committees for Filmmaking and Screenwriting at DePaul University and has two years of experience sitting on the Screenwriting admissions committee at USC, says his impression is that most people apply to several film schools, sometimes even up to ten. They tend to target schools on the basis of reputation, geography, and curricula. He advises: “make sure you are ready to apply and are able to [meet] the application deadlines. Next, get your best work as great as it can possibly be. If everything is in order and you are ready to go, flood the skies with applications” (ScriptMag).
Complement the above field-specific tips with general tips on program selection (under the tab of ‘selection’).
A lot of our tips talk about how you can strengthen your application, but you can build a stronger application when you’ve done the things this program values in the years prior to the application. The application itself is the communication part (in which you communicate what you've done to the admission committee); but this section gives guidance on the substance part (what you can actually do before you apply). In this section we talk about what you can do in the years leading up to applying that can make you an ideal candidate. Supplement the following tips with general tips (under the tab of ‘Pre-Application’) to become a competitive applicant.
A BA in Film Studies or Film Production is recommended by some programs, but it is not necessary to apply. Having a BA in Humanities (Art History, Communication, English, Sociology, Philosophy, etc.) will usually help your application.
Some schools actually prefer it if you do not have a Film degree already so that they can teach you the basics. Because of the differences in application requirements from school to school, it is recommended that you visit your prospective program’s website and check what its requirements are.
Good grades are usually important - because programs want to see that you have a good work ethic and have been able to cope well in academic settings. (Film degrees can be exhausting and admissions committees want to make sure you will cope).
But test scores and grades are just one part of your application package. Irrespective of how competitive the program you are applying to is, your grades and test scores, i.e. your “stats” are just “one part of your candidacy” (the other two parts being your “experience” and your “story”). If your grades are weak, your experience and your story might be able to compensate for it -- and if your experience and story is weak, your grades might be able to make up for it, albeit to a lesser degree. (Source: Forster Thomas).
Grades and GPAs are also viewed in context: although a CGPA of 2.7 is not usually considered to be a high GPA, if you have earned this GPA from an Ivy League school, MFA programs will definitely be more forgiving. Additionally, what you studied also matters. For instance, if you scored a “3.0 in an engineering degree”, it would not not warrant a rejection -- but “a 2.3 in Art History might not fare as well” (Source: Forster Thomas).
While there is no specific GPA requirement in most programs, you should try to be a B grade student at least (GPA of 3.0).
Research experience is typically not a stated requirement for a Master’s in Film. But you are advised to check your prospective university website(s) to confirm this.
It will always help your application if you can display commitment to film/film studies/film production outside of an academic setting/an undergraduate film program. This can be in the form of internships or some professional production experience. These experiences will contribute positively to your graduate school application, and will also help you develop a more concrete and specific interest in film.
- It is recommended that you try to have at least 1-2 produced films under your belt when applying.
- Try to gain some experience relevant to film; even if you are not producing or directing a film, being a part of the production team (i.e. being a part of the production crew/staff) could help your application as well.
- If your undergraduate university has a dramatics/media society or produces/directs university plays/short films, get involved in them. Not only will you gain valuable experience and insight into production and directing, but you can also refer to these experiences later in your statement of purpose.
- Even if you do not have experience in the film industry, you still have a fair chance of gaining admission. Any sort of work experience could boost your application if you can show that you have advanced in a particular field. (Of course you would have to display a serious passion for film -- to make up for your lack of film-based experience.)
- In some programs, a strong GPA might be able to compensate for insufficient professional experience (but only to an extent -- you should still try to your absolute best to gain some experience before applying).
Volunteer work is typically not a stated requirement for this degree, but if you can gain some experience working in a relevant capacity, you should go for it. You are also advised to check your prospective university website(s) to confirm this.
Some, if not most, film schools really value diversity in their students. An unconventional extracurricular background would help you fit into a program that values diversity. You need to stand out from the crowd, so anything that enables that will contribute positively to your application.
This section provides an overview of general guidelines pertaining to the application process. It also delineates the key components of the application process.
Film schools are generally looking for individuals who come with varied life experiences -- the more fascinating and interesting your background, the better your chances of gaining admission. They ultimately want their student body to consist of different identities and unique storytellers.
The most important component in your application will be your creative portfolio/writing sample (dependent on which degree/field you are applying for). Your statement of purpose will also be a crucial part of your application, so make sure you start working on it well in advance. Letters of recommendation and transcripts will also be quite important. You may be required to take some standardized tests and give interviews -- when these components are required, they are important.
Refer to the Program Selection Section for further information.
Is this component required?
How important is this component (in the overall review of the application for admission)?
Standardized tests or entry exams
May be required (depending on program)
Important when required
Transcripts (past academic records)
Letters of recommendation
Resume or CV
May be required
Important when required
Creative Portfolio/Writing Sample
- At this point, if you are seriously considering graduate school, begin your search by reading this guide and by searching the websites from the following links:
Complement the above field-specific tips with general tips on overview (under the tab of ‘overview’).
Pakistani applicants suffer most because of inadequate information -- or wrong information -- about essays and personal statements. This section will address those inadequacies specifically in relation to applying for this program. Supplement the following field-specific tips with general tips (under the tab of ‘essay’) to craft a stellar personal statement.
“The single best way to get into our program is to give us a great statement of purpose -- one that is personal and well-written”, says Richard Walter, Professor and co-Chairman of UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting program (Source: Forsterthomas).
A statement of purpose has to be fresh and innovative: Brad Riddell (Associate Professor, DePaul University) says your statement needs to be made of “great writing and honesty”, and must be extremely compelling. Oftentimes, admissions committees read statements even before writing samples because they want to know who the applicant is: why are you applying? Are you “capable of writing about themselves, your process, and your ambitions intelligently and creatively”? These committees want to know where you have been, what you have seen and done so far, and what has led you to this point. Your statement needs to be memorable: members of the committee should be able to remember who you are one week later after they have gone through dozens of applications so they can vouch for your admission. (Source: ScriptMag)
Which resources should I make use of?
- Read the following links before you start planning your personal statement:
- How to write a personal statement part 1 and part 2
- How to apply to film school (in the Statement of Purpose section, you can find out how Brad Riddell compared his life as a “competitive cyclist” to the “everyday grind that is writing, and became a successful applicant)
- It is recommended that you write your own statement, and not using some pre-prepared format. Just give yourself enough time to do it.
TIPS ON GOOD AND BAD STATEMENTS
What is essential in the statement:
- Most admission committees are looking for passion: when answering the question “why film”, you should display a strong desire/motivation to go to film school.
- Paula Amanda, former Associate Chair of the Film Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design says “[the ideal applicant is] the student who is writing to me about the feelings they had when they say XYZ film...experience doesn’t factor in nearly as much as enthusiasm does”. (Source: Backstage)
- While passion is important, your submission should also indicate an interest in visual arts, philosophy -- or even something very different, like science. That would help your application stand out. Admission committees value diversity and well-roundedness in their applicants.
- Show your discipline and dedication as a student. Show the admissions committee that you will be able to work well with faculty on your thesis/other projects.
- Make sure you use your experiences to come across as a unique and promising storyteller.
- Andrew Shea, professor and production area head at the University of Texas at Austin’s Radio-Television-Film department, says that the elements he most regularly looks for when reviewing personal statements are “a passion for filmmaking, a strong point of view, and evidence of commitment beyond an undergraduate film program”. You should try to make sure that your passion, your writing style and voice, and whatever relevant professional experience you have are clearly displayed in your statement. (Source: Backstage)
- You should have strong opinions: if you do not like a certain kind of film genre, be vocal about it. Talk about why you did not like it, and what you would do differently. Admissions committees want to read about your opinion.
What are some elements of exceptional statements:
- Demonstrate your passion, your maturity as a student/aspiring filmmaker, your self-awareness.
- Try to share anecdotes/personal stories that demonstrate the above. What has compelled you to pursue this field? Which experiences have contributed to your development as a person, as someone who is passionate about film? What motivates you to be a storyteller?
- Exceptional personal statements are specific, unique and easy to remember. So try to make your statement fresh, original and innovative.
- It puts your reel (or media component) into perspective. Through your essay, you can convey to the admissions committee what influenced you to create your piece, what your creative process was like and was you learned from it.
- A strong personal statement convinces the admissions committee that you are the right fit for their school: Justin Marshall, MFA Columbia University, says “USC wants Hollywood players. CalArt wants artists. NYU wants something in between. Your personal essay can help you explain which one you are -- and why”. (Source: ForsterThomas)
What are bad statements/ what things to avoid:
- Bad grammar. Grammar matters to the admission committees, so review and revise whatever writing you submit.
- Avoid talking about films that ‘changed your life’ or how much you love watching movies. Admission committees want to learn more about you, not about the films you have watched.
- Don’t brag or use cliches. Be honest and professional, and humble (humility is a characteristic that admission committees admire).
- Do not make excuses for your reel/media component. Avoid writing paragraphs about why a close-up is out of focus,or why a prop disappeared in a continuous scene. What you should do instead is talk about your learning process -- if the committee is able to see your evolution, they will be more willing to offer you admission and teach you.
How can applicants manage the process of writing?
- Some reviewing committees read the statements before they even get to the writing sample/portfolio because they want to see how well you can articulate your ambitions: are you capable of writing about yourself, your experiences, your goals, your processes in an interesting, compelling and intelligent way?
This section will cover the basics about recommendation letters, which are one of the most important parts of the application process. Supplement the following field-specific tips with general tips (under the tab of ‘recommendations’) to ensure you have strong letters of recommendation.
It is important that you find suitable people to speak on your behalf -- to speak to your work ethic, your experience, your abilities. Most places will require you to submit multiple letters. Your letters of recommendation should ideally represent “diverse elements of your life”.
If you have worked with someone in the film industry or have a professional relationship with a renowned person in the field, you should definitely ask them if they would be willing to write you a recommendation.
It would also be useful if you get a recommendation from a former professor or someone who has seen you in an academic setting and can speak to your work ethic.
Another option could be someone who can speak to your creative experiences, and how they have contributed to your interests.
TIPS ON GOOD AND BAD LETTERS
What is essential in the LoRs:
- Your recommenders should be able to speak to your work ethic, your aspirations, your interests and experiences -- and how they make you suitable for the prospective program
What are some elements of exceptional LoRs:
- It would be beneficial if your recommenders could give true insight into your character. Your recommenders should ideally talk about moments in which they have seen you struggle, overcome, create, and thrive. This will show the reviewing committee that you can handle this particular degree.
- Try to select recommenders who can write well
- Make sure you give ample time to the recommenders to write you a strong letter
This section will cover everything else related to the application process; including transcripts, interviews, resumes, and standardized tests.
The specific requirements of this component varies from program to program. But it is safe to assume that every program you apply to will ask you to submit a creative component or writing/media sample. The advice stated below is a general overview, for more specific information and instructions, please visit your prospective university website.
Information in this section has been taken from Script
A lot of schools (even if you are interested in production programs) will ask you for a writing sample. A number of prominent film schools will be more interested in your writing sample than in reels or images. They want the assurance that you can tell a story on paper, that you have strong creative ideas, and you have the ability to think visually -- even without a camera in your hand. Applicants submit a variety of different things: some submit plays, others submit features, short scripts, pilots, short stories -- anything that showcases their unique voice and worldview.
Brad Riddell (Filmmaker; Admissions Committee USC, and DePaul University) advises: if you have “quality short scripts, short stories, web-series, pilots, or one-act plays”, you should submit those instead of feature work. Most admissions committees will not read your entire feature, they will probably not get past the first fifteen pages. Submitting short-form writing samples will give the admissions committee a sense for “how you handle exposition, character arc, and structure in a completed work they can actually finish”.
But what if your feature piece is strong and you want to submit it? Riddell recommends that, in this situation, you should submit the first couple of acts instead of one whole screenplay or even three different scripts that lead to the main incident. Your sample needs to be polished and consistent, but also needs to show your range as a storyteller.
Stick to the format you are comfortable with: Riddell says if you do not have a lot of screenwriting experience but are a strong playwright or fiction writer, you should stick to that format. Most film school professors feel that screenplay format, style and structure can be taught and learnt. As long as your sample shows excellent storytelling ability and a clear, distinctive voice, the format does not matter. And different or unconventional formats can be a “welcome break” for the admissions committee (and might even make your sample seem more appealing to them). If you force yourself to write a screenplay sample without really knowing how to write one, the admissions committee will be unimpressed, and you might be setting yourself up for rejection.
If you are interested in becoming a film producer or filmmaker, then your prospective film school may require you to submit a visual portfolio. For this portfolio, applicants submit a range of sample material: short films, still photography, reels, commercial/industrial samples (sometimes, other kinds of visual material like paintings or sculptures can also be submitted).
Some programs may require you to submit a short film or a photo essay.
- Admissions committees are basically trying to gauge your narrative skill through this submission: for instance, through a film sample, they would want to gain a sense of your “directing ability, your industriousness, and your capability for pulling together a cohesive piece of cinema”.
- They are also looking for your point of view, i.e. what makes you unique? Which passions of yours stand out? Focus on making these things stand out in your media component.
- Admission committees also use this component to measure your story-telling abilities. USC Dean of Students Brian Harke says a photo essay is useful for the admission committee because it “reveals a ton of creative potential”: whether or not a student can tell a story in a limited number of frames, how easily or otherwise can (s)he express emotion? Capturing and expressing emotion well is very important for admission committees, because “that is what film is about”. (Source: Backstage)
- If you are interested in applying to a directing program, you should be submitting a directing sample. Andrew Shea, Professor at UT Austin - Department of Radio-Television-Film, says “students who do not submit directing samples are at a disadvantage...I look for a distinct point of view, control, strong visual images”. (Source: Backstage)
- You should always prioritize character development and compelling narratives over production value. Film school professors feel that production is something that can be taught, but good storytelling ability is a prerequisite to gain admission.
- Make sure that you do not exceed the allowed limit when you are submitting your media pieces. Riddell suggests that a combination of a reel and one completed film would be a good approach to follow, as this would allow you to present a completed piece of work while giving you the chance to display a number of other pieces (which can show your range and experience).
- You should select your sample judiciously: your entire package should be short and should display a style that is consistent and dynamic.
- You should also avoid submitting work that is “derivative”, i.e. imitates an already existing/successful piece of work.
- To find out more about the creative material required for the MFA degree, click here.
- To find out more about what you should and should not do in your creative component, click here.
- If you are interested in screenwriting/television writing programs: show that you have your own voice. Admission committees want to see if you can tell a story and create dimensional characters.
In most programs, shortlisted candidates get interview calls. Admission committees are trying to find individuals who are looking to write a new chapter in their lives, and are ready to be taught.
- Individuals who come in without humility get turned away, so make sure you are someone who is down-to-earth and willing to learn.
- A common exercise in the interviews is the 100 pictures exercise. There will be 100 pictures on the table between you and the interviewers. The interviewers will pick a couple of pictures and ask you to create a story using those pictures. Be prepared to be as creative as possible. Film schools are always looking for storytellers (Sean Welski - Producer and Director, MFA Film Directing NYU).
You may be required to submit a resume. Please check your university website to find out the specific requirements, and make sure you follow the stated instructions.
Some schools require its applicants to take the GRE, others do not. For those that do need it, score requirements are usually not very stringent for this degree: as long as your scores are not extremely low, it would not put your application at a disadvantage. However: if your GPA/grades are significantly low, you should try to score well in your GRE to compensate for that.
Justin Marshall, MFA Columbia University, says “ultimately your craft will trump your digits” -- and he says this based on “exhaustive research and MFA admissions decision marker”. The one thing that probably matters the most to any and all MFA admissions committees is your “creative ability”. Richard Walter, the co-Chairman of UCLA’s Screenwriting program, categorically states that GPA at the graduate level is almost inconsequential for admissions committees: “a lot of writers are not great students...there is one criterion we care about and that is the writing”. As long as you can ensure your creativity and passion for the degree is displayed extensively, your grades and standardized tests should not matter too much (Source: Forster Thomas).
FINAL COMMENTS ON APPLICATIONS
- Make sure you have done ample research on the curriculum and faculty of the school you want to apply to. Brian Harke, USC Dean, says there are a number of applicants who apply without looking at the curriculum or the faculty and therefore have unrealistic expectations. It is not enough to consider a degree in film because it is “fun”. It is demanding work, and admission committees recommend that students and applicants should come with realistic expectations.
- You need to have a very strong interest in ‘making’ films, not just watching them. And you need to constantly come across as someone who is naturally creative in your application.
- Applying to film school is difficult and nerve-wracking -- and because of that, a lot of prospective students feel afraid. Paula Amanda (SFUAD) advises: “Don’t be afraid. You’re getting ready to step into your new life. That first step is often the hardest! But just take that step do the best you can, and show your true feelings and passion”.
- Diversity is super important for film school. Howard A. Rodman, chair of the MFA program in Screen and Television Writing at USC says the program looks for “folks with life experience, folks from strange and wonderful places, folks who have had interesting first careers before turning to this”.
- It is a competitive field. Even after you get your MFA, it could be difficult to land the best job. It could be a tough climb, but most people find their way and grow professionally in the field.
- Complement the above field-specific tips with general tips on final comments on applications (under the tab of ‘overview’).
This section will cover approximate costs of the program and provide information of resources that may help with funding. Complement the following field-specific tips with general tips on finances (under the tab of ‘finances’).
Which resources can I find useful?
Film school is very expensive, and scholarships/grants are not always guaranteed. Before you apply, make sure the return on investment is worth it for you. You should also visit your prospective program websites to see if there are any scholarships/grants available for international students that you can apply for.
These tips were compiled with the valuable help of SHAHEEN volunteers. The contributors to this tip-sheet include the following people:
- Sean Welski (Producer and Director, MFA New York University)
We thank our volunteers for their contribution and hope their tips and advice help you in your application.
In addition, the following sources were consulted in developing this tip-sheet and we encourage you to consult these sources for additional information and guidance on your application.
Furthermore, the following sources were also consulted in developing this tip-sheet: Creative Materials for MFA Film by Justin Marshall, Video Reel for Film School by Justin Marshall, No Film School.