Applying for Your MFA: Tips, Tricks and General Straight Talk

columbia-at-night

I’m getting a lot of hits to my site lately about MFA programs and applying to film schools in general, so this post is really meant for these curious peeps. I’ve written about this before, mostly on the question of whether or not a film MFA is right for you. Just for your handy-dandy convenience, here they are in one splendidly convenient place:

This is a bit more “service-y” than my usual m.o., and if you’re not interested in Master of Fine Arts programs, film school or any of that, there’s fun stuff planned for later this week. But if you are definitely going to apply to a MFA program, I’m more than happy to be a cheerleader and Girl Scout to help you along your way, especially since I have some insider-y knowledge of the process.

Assuming you’ve wrestled your angels and grappled with your doubts — or you’re just balls-out “let’s go for it” — this entry will get you rolling on the process of getting the strongest application possible together. How am I qualified to tell you this info? Well, I did get into an MFA program — Columbia’s graduate film school. And, well — I can’t really be very open about it, but let’s just say I had a front-row seat on the application process. I have seen many, many applications, and I know what makes a strong and weak applicant package.

Of course, programs are all different and look for different things in their students — but no matter what the program, here are some tips on making the best application and case for yourself as a potential candidate. I am talking a lot tougher than I usually do, but knowing how grueling and intense MFA programs are, well, if you can’t handle this kind of tone now, you won’t do very well when you’re sitting through hours of critique as you share your intimate, rough drafts.

Know the program. I can’t really emphasize this enough. A really strong MFA program has an underlying philosophy about their discipline. Some film schools are huge in the technical aspect; others, like Columbia, emphasized story and dramatic narrative. A writing program might be more experimental, and another might be much more classical. Some programs are building in certain areas, like building up their international students or bolstering their producing program — it’s good to know this stuff and apply accordingly. I can’t tell you how many times a program like Columbia’s will get applications from people who clearly don’t know its emphasis on classical film narrative, or even the strengths and weaknesses of the school. It’s a big turnoff if it’s clear you have no idea what the program’s emphasis, strength and philosophy are, and it’s a massive waste of your time to apply to a program that can’t help move you forward in your art form in the way you want. Which leads me to…

Know why you want to apply for a program. Trust me, people — it rings loud and clear if you’re applying because you simply don’t know what to do with your life, because you’re having a quarterlife crisis, you kind of what to try something new or you’re a dilettante. (Sorry to be so blunt, but I don’t want to mince words here.) You need to know exactly WHY you want to take this big, expensive, momentous step, what you want to get out of it, how the program will help you and even your broader vision of yourself as an artist and how an MFA fits in. Above anything — even above your talent — the MFA application is evaluated for the depth of your commitment to your artmaking, and the evaluators are looking for concrete evidence of this commitment. And the biggest piece? Self-knowledge about yourself and your journey as an artist. (And if you barf slightly about calling yourself an “artist,” please, don’t apply…there is no room for self-loathing or fear of appearing pretentious in a graduate arts program.)

Think of the application as a total portrait of who you are. From the inside, evaluating applications is like detective work: they’re looking for evidence for how you fit into their program and community, as well as red flags that indicate you won’t make it through the rigors of the curriculum. What does this mean for you? Know your application’s strengths and weaknesses, and try to compensate accordingly. For example, if you’re coming from a different discipline and your portfolio might not be as a strong as a more experienced applicant, beef up your personal recommendations or make sure your “creative materials” section absolutely rocks. (“Creative materials” is where you complete the work the application asks you to do — say, write a brief scene or a 10-page screenwriting sample.) And, no matter what, you must rock your personal statement. Which brings me to:

Start drafting your personal statement now. You might think your creative materials section or your portfolio is the most important component of your application, but in most cases, it isn’t. The personal statement is probably the key piece of your application. I can’t emphasize that enough: YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT IS HUGELY IMPORTANT. It’s not just a la-di-da of your own personal Wikipedia entry or a recitation of your resume — it’s the story of who you are as an artmaker, and should make clear where the MFA program fits into that trajectory. On a personal level, it is what makes an application truly unforgettable, it creates a personal connection, it gives the application committees a sense of your voice and what you bring to the world and how you approach life. Start drafting it now. Line up people to read your various drafts.

Start gathering your letters of recommendation now. Whether your applications needs 2 or 3 letters, it’s good to figure out now who you can line up to write them or fill out the recommendation forms, depending on the application. You’ll want to start lining these up as soon as you can, because, trust me, people are busy and it takes a lot more time to get all the ducks in a row than you’d imagine.

Start working on your portfolio. People stress a lot about the portfolio, and certainly you don’t want to turn in sloppy, ill-conceived work. But — and this seems obvious — but programs don’t expect tour de forces of technique and imagination. If you were already super-geniuses, there’s no need for you to even enter an MFA program! What they’re looking for are glimmers — hints of your strengths, your creative DNA, a tiny nugget of your promise. They know you’ll go through the program and grow and change, but they’re looking for a good seed to grow from. Portfolios are important, especially as evidence of your commitment to art-making — and trust me, programs can tell when work was created in one big go to fulfill the portfolio requirement — but they’re often not as make-or-break as you’d think.

Be authentic. Here’s the thing: programs know who will most benefit from their curriculum and approach. They know where they’re aiming to be in 3, 5, 7 years; they know what resources they have available, what larger university politics they’re up against. So they know what students best fit. It’s no use trying to shoehorn yourself into what you think they want to hear in order for them to select you — and if you do manage to convince them you’re an ideal student, you may find the program doesn’t really fit you or your goals at all. So just be honest with yourself, and then honest on the page. It’s better for everyone all around.

A final word. Programs can’t take everyone, and for every applicant they take, there are many other talented people that don’t get in. Ultimately programs choose a class of people — they’re looking for a dynamic mix, a community, and this is especially true if you’re applying in a hugely collaborative discipline like filmmaking. Many programs could easily take an entire group of industry veterans, for example, but it’s not necessarily the most dynamic group of people if they do. Ultimately, beyond your talent and your commitment to art-making, they’re looking to see how you might contribute to the program as a general “good citizen.” You might be working closely with faculty; you might TA at the very least. So, you know, being a decent person who has lot to offer to people feels like a dippy piece of advice. But if you knew the times someone looked at an application with a lot of talent and then said, “Oh, but this person seems like a jerk…”

4 thoughts on “Applying for Your MFA: Tips, Tricks and General Straight Talk

  1. Hey Kat, super insightful piece thank you. I was just wondering if you can share with me some Columbia’s program strengths, weaknesses, disclpine, emphasises, etc. you mentioned in the beginning of your post. I specifically have my eye on Columbia…yes I’m planning to muster the courage and take the leap. Praying I get accepted, and so all the help I can get I appreciate. Thanks!

    1. Columbia is a great program to focus on craft and the fundamentals of filmmaking: writing, directing and producing. It’s a very strong writing program — you will write A LOT no matter what your specialty is. Producing is also a strength of the program, and the directing is great as well. Narrative is the focus as well — I wouldn’t say it’s commercial, but I wouldn’t go to Columbia if you were experimental. It’s not the place to go if you wanted to work with the most cutting edge cameras, lighting, etc…the resources simply don’t go towards that at Columbia. Also, you’ll have to be ready to fundraise for your projects — there simply aren’t enough production funds to go around. But, I will say Columbia is a great community — they take great care generally in cultivating collaboration and connection.

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