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When it comes to getting into a top filmmaking MFA like USC, not all materials are created equal.  What can you do to make your application stand out?

Considered by many to be the #1 film school in America and possibly the world, USC is famous for having housed George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, all of whom continue to support their Alma Mater.   So what does it take to join their hallowed ranks?  Well, first, you have to get into the school -- no mean feat, as top film schools have become more selective every year, with USC's hovering at a measly 9 percent.

Of course, USC's deadline of November 15th is already past for this year, but there's still the spring, not to mention next year, and getting your portfolio in shape is a long-term kind of project.

The most important component of your application is going to be your creative portfolio.  Simply put, if it's great, you're in.  Here are the required elements for the 2014-2015 USC Film and Television MFA, and how to make each of them stand out from the pack.

1.  Cinematic Arts Personal Statement (please upload in PDF format under the "Forms" section): The personal statement will be read by the Film & Television Production Admission Committee as a measure of creativity, self-awareness and vision. 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. Bear in mind that enthusiasm for watching films, descriptions of your favorite films and the involvement in the filmmaking process is common in most candidates. As a result, we encourage that you focus on your individuality. Note that there is no standard format or correct answer. (1,000 words or less).

USC's expectations in a personal statement are exceptionally clearly laid out here.  They do NOT want to hear about all the cool productions you've been a part of.  They do not want to know that you hung out with Krysten Ritter at a bar one time.  They want to know your story -- your personal, human narrative -- that led you to this point of applying to film school.

Does that mean you 'can't talk' about film?  Of course not!  How would you wind up applying to film school without having film be a major component of your life?  That would be weird!  The point is, that can't be the 'only' thing going on in your life.  They want to know what raw material, what attitudes and experiences, you're going to be drawing upon when you tell your stories.  So tell them a story -- the kind that only you can tell -- yours!

2.  Writing Sample (choose one) (please upload in PDF format under the "Forms" section):
An outline for a four-minute film that contains no dialogue. It can be fiction or non-fiction. The story has to be communicated visually. (No more than two pages).

One important principle in screenwriting is the ability to limit one's writing to what one can see and hear, present tense.  This prompt tests your ability to tell simple visual stories.

You could almost think about this as a picture book project -- give yourself a short, limited story to tell, and don't push yourself to be new or original, just focus on being clear, direct and specific.  Originality grows out of limitation and specificity.

Listen up, post-MTV generation -- this is not, or at least should not be, an exercise in fast cutting and showmanship.  No one cares that you know what a dolly shot is, and there should not be any camera angles.  Instead, your sentences should correspond to shots, and your paragraphs to scenes.  Think of something evolving step by step.  Include detail.  Slow the pace.

A dialogue scene between two people. Provide a one-paragraph introduction describing the two characters in screenplay format. (No more than three pages).

There is a principle in dramatic writing known as a 'fulcrum' -- the idea that every scene is a miniature conflict, and that it resolves (in one way or another) at the fulcrum, or climax of the scene.  It's imperative that the scene COULD have gone either way, but it WOUND UP going XYZ direction.

Whether or not you agree with the idea that every scene functions in this manner, for THIS assignment and this scene, you should write in this manner.  It will give you a framework, an objective to reach, and quickly -- don't waste time with introductions and setting the stage.  Get to the meat!

Describe a concept for a feature-length movie, fiction or documentary, which you would like to develop. (No more than two pages).

Concepts, or treatments, should be written in present tense format, just like screenplays.  They should be limited to what we see and hear.  

The other distinctive and important aspect of writing concepts is that they must be segmented, IE broken down into acts and sequences.  This not only helps your reader to understand the order of events, it also helps YOU to understand them.

Another challenge of concepts is deciding what to include and what to leave out.  The most important things to include are key characters, including descriptions, and important locations and plot transitions, which typically grow out of characters.

3.  Visual Sample (Choose one) (Please submit under the "Media Section"). 
Please submit only one of the two visual samples. It is essential that you specify what role(s) you have played in your visual sample.

Video Option: Create a brief narrative video in which you had a major creative role. The video can be live-action or animation, fiction or documentary, but it should reflect your aesthetic tastes and intellectual and emotional interests. (No longer than five minutes.) Please submit only ONE video. Multiple submissions WILL NOT be reviewed.

Photo Option: Prepare a series of eight photographs you have taken which, when viewed in a specific sequence, portray a unique and original character or which tell a simple narrative story. Please upload the photos in order of sequence (1-8). Also, include a one-page narrative about the character being portrayed in the photos. The images may either be black-and-white or in color. Please also upload the required one page narrative into the "media" section of the application.

You see that phrase, "specify your role"?  There is a very good reason USC is asking you to do that.  This material is being used to assess your abilities, not whether you were peripherally connected to something famous or interesting.  Don't waste this submission on attempts at name dropping or self promotion!

Another important warning here -- less is better.  USC helps you out with that by limiting the duration of your video to 5 minutes.  You can make a remarkable short film in five minutes or less.  Many people have.  Heck, you can make a great short film in 30 seconds -- just watch the super bowl ads if you don't believe me!  Show your ability to tell a story with pictures, and take advantage of your time limitations.  Embrace them rather than struggling against them.

 Don't get too bogged down in technical details like production value.  If your sample looks amazing or stars that kid from that show, hey, that's nice, but its ultimately beside the point.  USC wants to see that you have the raw materials and capabilities to be a storyteller, so that they can then mold you into their KIND of storyteller.  Particuarly a visual storyteller, someone who knows how an image can send a message.

So, there you are!  Everything you need to craft an awesome portfolio!  If you have more questions, of course, you can always ask me -- happy submitting!