In my last blog, I explained why the personal essay is the single most important element of your MFA film school candidacy. Now that you know what it is and why it matters so damn much, you need to know how to write it.  With that in mind, here are three DO’s and three DON’Ts when it comes to writing the film school personal essay:

First, the DOs: 

1. DO open with a story. You want to be a storyteller?  Then prove it.  But don’t just open with any story; detail the moment in your life when you realized filmmaking was your calling—what I call a “catalyzing moment.” Just one warning: This is not the time to tell us how you watched “Kill Bill” 30 times or made videos of your Legos when you were 8. Everyone has those moments—even future ornithologists.  You want to recount a defining life experience where you realized what kind of films you want to make. In other words, you should trace the origin of a perspective or viewpoint you have—the one that will allow you to make films that aren’t like all the others out there.

2. DO have strong opinions.  In personal essays, being opinionated is a good thing. Mamsy-Pamsy people don’t make films (and if they do, they’re mamsy-pamsy films).  If you’re tired of mindless Michael Bay movies, then tell them why, and how YOU plan to make different kinds of films. If you want to make movies that force people to consider the effects of racism or sexism, then sound off! Don’t worry that you’ll upset someone. The people reading your essays are open-minded adults. When I did admissions at Columbia University, a candidate wrote about how he loved Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. I loathed that film, but I recommended the student be admitted—he made good arguments for why the film worked for him, and he demonstrated heartfelt passion. Those are both great qualities.

3. DO get specific about why you like the school you’re applying to. If you want to go to NYU, you better have a good reason for it. And “it will help me reach my dreams” isn’t one of them. Show that you did your research and that you know why NYU is the perfect match for your particular needs. By the end of your essay, you should have identified at least two things that set the school apart from its peers.

And now for the dreaded DON'TS:

1. DON’T make excuses for your reel.  If you’re submitting a film with many problems, the first thing you should do is submit something else. But if you don’t have anything else, don’t spend multiple paragraphs explaining why the close-up is out of focus and why the actress’s cigarette magically disappeared halfway through Scene 5. The people reading your essay are filmmakers—they know why these things happen. Instead, focus on what you learned or the insights you gained through the filmmaking process. If we see your evolution, we will know you can be taught.

2. DON’T show off. The personal essay is not a pissing match, nor a time to roll out the laundry list of all the film festivals where your short film played. The admissions committee uses your reel and sample creative work to decide if you’re worthy—not the personal essay. If they don’t like your film, they don’t care that Steven Spielberg’s niece loved it, and they don’t care how many awards it garnered. Use those precious words to showcase how you think, not how big your “package” is.

3. DON’T try to prove how much you know about film. I once read a personal essay that was essentially a review of Citizen Kane, with lots of big French words thrown in for good measure. Sigh. If the schools wanted to test your knowledge of film theory, they’d give you a test. But you’re applying to make films, not appreciate them. Your knowledge of obscure Japanese films won’t impress anyone. Write about what your vision is, and what you want to say with your films.  

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-Justin Marshall