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by Emily Toffelmire, former admissions officer at University of Southern California

Admission to selective undergraduate film programs can be just as unpredictable as admission to selective academic programs—if not more so. That’s because most of these competitive majors base much of their decision on the portfolio that is required of applicants. Yes, your academic record does matter, but it’s the talent expressed in your portfolio that will separate you from the pack. Many high school students I talk to aren’t aware of just what a portfolio is, so let’s go over the basics of what these colleges expect you to include in your film application. 

Portfolio requirements vary from campus to campus, but they will almost always entail a personal statement. No, not the main essay you write for the Common Application or the Coalition Application (or the sundry other apps out there!). Instead, this personal statement is focused on you and film. As the University of Southern California cinema school puts it: “We are looking for a sense of you as a unique individual and how your distinctive experiences, characteristics, background, values and/or views of the world have shaped who you are and what you want to say as a creative filmmaker. We want to know about the kind of stories you want to tell.” They’re trying to figure out what sort of perspective you’ll bring to the program. Are your points of view and interests underrepresented in the program at the moment, or will you be creating the same content and characters they’re already seeing from current students?

Having a unique perspective is one thing—but can you clearly express that perspective via storytelling? Here’s where your writing sample comes in. Yes, more writing! Many students I work with seem surprised that writing is such a large component of most film portfolios, but it should be the least shocking thing in the world. If you can’t develop stories and clearly communicate those stories via the written word, filmmaking is going to be a big challenge for you. (Side note: Film applicants should challenge themselves with rigorous English coursework in high school!) Writing sample requirements vary greatly school to school: it could be a thought-out, multi-page description or pitch of a film; a sampling of film dialogue; a general personal essay; a short story or other short-form piece of creative writing; or a piece about your experiences collaborating on projects with others.

Paired with the writing sample will often be a visual sample, typically a short film of about five minutes or so. This sample does not need to be an Oscar-level display of technical expertise, nor does it need to be produced using expensive, state of the art film equipment. Many students these days submit pieces filmed on smart phones or equipment rented from their high school. Just as with the writing sample, application reviewers are looking for your ability to tell a story and communicate ideas effectively, and are hoping to glean a sense of your perspective and unique voice. The visual sample isn’t about flash or production value, but about the raw potential you’ll bring to the film program. While some schools give you the option to submit photos rather than videos, I personally don’t know that photos will be as powerful as a film sample in getting across your storytelling, world-building skills.

Some other requirements you may come across:

  • Letter(s) of recommendation, sometimes from a teacher who can comment on your artistic potential
  • A film or arts resume
  • A video introduction of yourself, usually under a two minutes

Keep in mind, there are many film programs out there that don’t require any additional materials or portfolios. But if you’re aiming for ones that do require these pieces, be aware of the amount of work they entail and the fact that film programs often ask applicants to apply by an earlier deadline so that they have ample time to review the many application components.

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Written by Emily Toffelmire
Emily Toffelmire is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Prior to joining College Coach, Emily worked as an admissions officer at University of Southern California as well as a college counselor at high schools in the US and Thailand. Visit our website to learn more about Emily Toffelmire.