Despite (or because of) the so-called "democratization" of film technology, film programs are doing a booming business. Acceptance rates hover around 10% or less at a lot of the more notable programs in the nation. From my own first-hand experience serving on the grad selection committee (in 2006) at Temple University, I can tell you that we accepted something like 8%. The last time I checked, the best med schools in the country aren't that selective. So how do you make yourself a competitive applicant?
For starters, recognize that most film schools, generally speaking, are looking for interesting people with original ideas more than they're looking for folks that are already great filmmakers. (In fact, it's their job to teach you to be a better filmmaker.) Since they're looking for interesting people, your job as an applicant is to present your unique life experience, creative vision, and professional potential.
As for specifics, what follows are some highly subjective tips and observations from my experiences as reviewer of film school applications, as a writer of student recommendations, and -- not so long ago -- as an applicant.
Rule #1: Follow directions. An incomplete or improperly submitted application will likely result in your application being dismissed. This seems like something so basic that no one could screw it up. Wrong! And since many programs are trying to weed out 90% of applicants, the first folks to get cut are those that didn't cross their t's and dot their i's.
Rule #2: Give yourself time and know your deadlines. Begin assembling your application more than a month in advance, particularly the letters of recommendation. Some schools won't accept a late application -- even if it's only late by a single day. Know your deadlines and work on your application well in advance of those deadlines so that your application can be as strong as possible.
Assuming you can obey Rule #1 and Rule #2, your application is going to get a look.
Most applications require you to submit the following: - Application Form - Undergraduate Transcript - Personal Statement - Creative Sample - Letters of Recommendation
I'm going to focus my attention on the last three because those are the most important elements of most applications.
DO write with honesty and accuracy.
DO talk about the types of films you want to make. Be a specific as possible.
DO write about how and why you got into filmmaking, but keep it very brief if it's not terribly unique (e.g., spare us the "When I first saw Jurassic Park..." memories).
DO discuss why you're applying to this specific school. Demonstrate that you've done the research about the programs and why this is a good one for you.
DO talk about how you've grown and changed as a person since you've been making films.
DO mention any visit you made to the school and any conversations or correspondence you've had with specific faculty members or students. Consider: You're trying to stand out from possibly 500 other applicants. They've actually met you. Remind them of that!
DON'T be afraid to be a little critical of the films you've made. Use this as a way to explain why you would benefit from film school. You're applying to film school because you want to be a better filmmaker, after all.
DON'T fret if you've not made many films, or even any at all (as long as your portfolio can contain creative work other than films and videos). If you've never made films but have done other art-making (photography, painting, creative writing) discuss why you're interested in making the transition from one art form to another. Think about it: Who would seem to have more professional potential in film -- an individual with a portfolio of amazing photographs or someone with a few just-okay videos?
DON'T be afraid to share your unconventional, idealistic dreams. ("I ultimately want to start a radical, experimental film co-operative in Idaho.") On the other hand...
DONT make statements that suggest you have absolutely no sense of the reality of the film business. ("I plan to get a three picture deal with Disney after my 3rd year film is screened.")
DON'T be afraid to speak about your accomplishments, but...
DON'T exaggerate or embellish your accomplishments. Besides the fact that dishonesty can come back to haunt you, grad schools are looking for people that haven't done everything. Tell the truth and show some humility.
DON'T spend all of your time talking about your favorite movies. You're applying to film school to make your own movies. Talk about that.
DON'T use a one-size-fits-all approach to your personal statement. Like a cover letter and resume for a job application, your statement should be tailored to each school.
DO put your best work on the DVD first. With 500 applicants, most schools simply aren't going to watch that 90 minute movie of yours. Sorry. How long do you think these people have? Do the math: 500 applicants x 10 minutes of screening footage = 83+ hours. Get it? Shorter is better, but great and long is better than short and bad.
DO test every single DVD before you send it off. Test it on multiple machines. Send two if it makes you feel better.
DO label your work with your name, email, phone number and some indication that this is part of your portfolio for application in to X program.
DON'T include films or videos that feature derivative genre retreads or sophomoric humor. You're trying to demonstrate that you're mature, unique and original. Even if you aren't.
Letters of Recommendation
DO choose your recommenders carefully. You usually need three. For better or worse, "names" impress, so if you've done an internship for an award-winning filmmaker or studied under someone very well known in academic film circles, a positive recommendation can mean a lot. A glowing letter from an alum of the program can go a long way, too. A lukewarm recommendation, on the other hand, is bad regardless of who wrote it.
DON'T wait until the last minute (or week) to contact your recommenders. Chances are, many of them will have several students wanting recommendations, possibly even to the same schools. Some recommenders won't write in support of more than one student to a school. Others may have certain policies that you need to know up front (e.g., they only write for students that have earned A's), which may determine whether or not they can write for you.
DO volunteer to share a draft of your personal statement and your creative sample with your recommenders. This will help them write their letters. They may even be willing to give you some feedback.
DON'T ask a person to write a letter if s/he has tried to politely decline. All letters should be glowing.
Finally, a word about transcripts....
DON'T assume that your grades matter in the way you think they do. I once heard a professor on a grad selection committee remark, "Now this is my kind of transcript: All A's and F's." He was serious. That student was accepted on the basis of her strong portfolio while others, with lesser portfolios and better grades, were not.
In sum, be honest about who you are, share only the very best of your work, emphasize what is unique about your accomplishments and your goals, and help those writing in support of you to do the same. Then hope for the best.