Columbia University's MBA program just announced its essay questions and deadlines for the Class of 2016.  There are significant changes from past years' essays here, so extra-long drum roll, please...

The application deadlines are: 

Early Decision Deadline: October 2, 2013
Merit Fellowship Consideration: January 6, 2014
Regular Deadline: April 9, 2014

Note: Columbia Business School uses a rolling admissions process, which means applications are reviewed—and decisions rendered—as they are received. It is always advantageous for you to submit your application as early as possible.

And here are the Essays:

Applicants must complete one short answer question and three essays.

Short Answer Question:
What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (200 characters maximum)

Essay 1:
Given your individual background, why are you pursuing a Columbia MBA at this time? (Maximum 500 words)

Essay 2
Columbia Business School is located in the heart of the world's business capital - Manhattan. How do you anticipate that New York City will impact your experience at Columbia? (Maximum 250 words)

Please view the videos below:

New York City - limitless possibilities

New York City - fast paced and adaptable

Essay 3:
What will the people in your Cluster be pleasantly surprised to learn about you? (Maximum 250 words)

Optional Essay
An optional fourth essay will allow you to discuss any issues that do not fall within the purview of the required essays.

Knight-Bagehot Fellows
Rather than answer Essay 1, Part A above, current Knight-Bagehot Fellows applying to Columbia Business School should use the space allocated to the first essay (500 words) to complete the Wiegers Fellowship application essay.

For more information, as well as links to the Columbia Admissions page, see our Columbia GSB Essay Guide.

Architecture personal statements can be challenging. Here's how to write one the admissions committee is never going to forget.

There are so many fantastic architecture schools out there -- check out our deep dives into Harvard and Yale for two specific examples -- but one thing that they all have in common is the requirement that all applicants write an admissions essay.

No matter what name it goes by -- statement of purpose, statement of interest, or plain old personal statement -- architecture school statements are challenging.  They often want you to cover a whole lot of information in only 500 words. For instance, Columbia University’s prompt this year was: In a statement of approximately 500 words, describe your background, your past work in your intended field of study, and your plans for graduate study and a professional career. All of that in only 500 words or less? Oy.

“So…by ‘background’ do they mean my entire life story plus all of my work, school and internship experiences?” my candidate, Kara, an aspiring architect, asked. “It says ‘personal’ – does that mean I should tell them about my parents’ divorce?”

Here’s the thing: It is important that after the admissions committee has read your statement of purpose, they feel that they know who you are. They need to know what you want to do (your goal)—Kara’s was opening her own architecture firm one day—why this is important to you, what you have done thus far in regards to pursuing your goal or taking an interest in the subject matter, and what you still have left to learn and/or explore. And right there is the outline for your entire 500-word, statement of purpose.


Paragraph 1: This is where you get personal. No, this doesn’t mean empty the contents of your diary. This means write about the moment you realized you wanted to pursue your goal. For instance, perhaps it was when your family moved from a sprawling home in Greenwich, Connecticut, to a 1200 sq. ft. apartment in Manhattan. Perhaps you found yourself wishing you could move the walls around, and reconfigure the space to be more open. There, you have your “ah-hah!” moment—the moment you realized that architecture would be a part of your life. Write about that. Be specific.

Why? Graduate programs want students who are passionate about what they want to do, not students who are just looking to avoid the real world for another few years. This is your opportunity to show them why you want it.

Paragraph 2: What have you done thus far to pursue your interest in architecture? Did you explore classes in college? Did you take art or art history classes? When you studied abroad, did you take an active interest in the city’s architecture? This is an opportunity to discuss specific classes you’ve taken as well as experiences—talk about a particular professor you learned from, clubs you started or joined. Discuss internships or observation hours. But do not simply list them; you don’t want to regurgitate your resume (remember, they have it!). Tell them what’s not on your resume. For instance, discuss specific moments within your internship where you learned something significant and how you plan to apply what you learned.

Why? Graduate school want students who have already been seeking knowledge; show them what you’ve learned so far.

Paragraph 3: Why do you want to go to grad school? What do you still have left to learn? Discuss skills that you need to obtain, improve or expand. For instance, you might be looking to strengthen your foundation and design skills with a Masters in Architecture. You might be interested in expanded your knowledge of technology and how one can use it in the design process in order to achieve greater innovation. Look at your goal, and then ask yourself, “What do I need to get better at in order to improve my chances of achieving my goal?”

Now here’s the part where Kara asks, “But don’t I want to appear confident? Won’t it make me look weak to admit that I still have stuff to learn?”

No. Schools want students who are self aware–they know their strongest and weakest areas. You want to show the school that you know what you need to work on and what experiences you need to gather in order to accomplish your goal. This also demonstrates that you actually will benefit from graduate school—and proves to the school even more that you are a serious candidate.

Paragraph 4: The school-specific portion of your essay. Why Columbia, specifically? Here, it is important to be extremely specific in order to show enthusiasm for a particular school. Research classes, professors and clubs, and discuss how they will help you accomplish your goal.

Why? You must prove that you want to go to the school. By getting specific about the school you also demonstrate your ability to research and gain knowledge—good traits for a prospective student. Additionally, when you get an interview—you’ll have lots to discuss.

Last paragraph: Your conclusion. A few short sentences about how Columbia is going to help you, and you are going to help them, change the planet (by using your masters in architecture).


Need more help?  Just ask -- we're happy to answer any questions you have about your application.

Or, if you prefer, you can check out more details on the services we provide for graduate students, advising them on overall application strategy as well as essay prep.

My jaw dropped when I saw the video Ethan planned to submit to USC film school—and not because of his immense talent behind the camera. His 13-minute narrative, “Upside Down,” was like a master class on how not to direct a movie. Even Ed Wood would have been ashamed to put his name on it. The story made no sense, the acting was atrocious, and the music was so loud you couldn’t hear the actors’ lines.

But Ethan had hired me to help him get into film school, so yelling at him for terrible directorial choices was futile. Instead, I told Ethan that he needed to make another film—one that wouldn’t be suitable punishment for a detainee at Guantanamo Bay. After Ethan and I brainstormed a number of ideas, I suggested he direct a scene from his favorite play, “All My Sons”…and shoot it with a handheld video camera…in his living room. Ethan was beyond skeptical. Didn’t he have to write the film he submitted? And didn’t he need props and locations and a tripod and all those other things that make films look like “real” films? I insisted he did not, and told him to put all of his energy instead on making every shot work, and every dramatic moment feel genuine.

Ethan did exactly what I said. Two weeks later, he presented me with the result: a tight, well-crafted, six-minuite video with a handful of really smart directorial decisions. It wasn’t going to win any Oscars, and it was definitely rough around the edges, but it was a huge improvement upon his previous monstrosity. In fact, you wouldn’t even know it was the same director.

Seven months later, Ethan was behind the camera again. This time, the camera was perched upon on a tripod, and both were property of USC film school.

Ethan was not a bad director. He had just made a host of bad mistakes. Over the years, I have seen many others do exactly the same, either in my role as Forster-Thomas’ film school specialist or when I worked in admissions within Columbia University’s film division.

With that in mind, here are the 5 biggest mistakes MFA film school applicants make when submitting a reel:

  1. Choosing style over substance. Most applicants assume their films must look glossy and professional. The truth is that film schools don’t care if your film was shot on a $100,000 35mm Panavision package or an iPhone camera. They’ll ignore the lighting and wardrobe, because there’s only one thing they really care about: your abilities as a director. Better to make a substantive film with a strong story and good direction than something slick but empty.
  2. Working with actors who can’t act. Part of a director’s job is directing actors. In fact, that’s likely your most important job—if the performances aren’t believable, the film won’t work, period. While you’re not expected to have access to Kate Winslet and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you should find a way to cast trained actors in your films. Put an ad on craigslist or visit your local college’s theater department. If you must use your friends, make sure they can act (or at least allow your film to be partially improvised to make up for the fact that they can’t).
  3. Using flashy motion graphics and credits. Film professors are not impressed by your AfterEffects skills. They don’t care that you can make text look like it’s melting. They don’t want to watch a two-minute bumper for your fake production company. All of the above will merely annoy them, because it is preventing them from getting to your film—you know, the part where you actually used a camera and have a story. Rule of thumb: plain white text on black. Title of film followed by your role and the running time. 10 seconds max.
  4. Ripping off your heroes. Quentin Tarantino is allowed to pay homage to all his heroes by stealing their ideas and motifs. You are not. So don’t submit a film that is an homage to Kill Bill or Requiem for a Dream or The Matrix. Make a film that’s an homage to your own unique voice. It’s fine to submit something you didn’t write, but make sure the directing is your own.
  5. Believing that quantity trumps quality. If you’ve made one great film and three mediocre ones, don’t submit all four films. Submit the great one! Why dilute the power of that film just to prove you’ve worked on others? When I did admissions, I once turned someone down because after their first film (a great, tight, eight-minute short), they included six more, all of which were atrocious. Based on the evidence, I had to assume the good film was a fluke.

Read more on our MFA Film School consulting process or request a free candidacy assessment.

 GMAT vs GRE.  Which test looks better on your application?  It depends.

Oh, the times they are a changin’.

Just three years ago, top b-schools like Chicago Booth were going on record as “having no plans to accept the GRE in the near future.” Today, it’s hard to find a b-school that will not accept the GRE in lieu of the GMAT. HBS? Check. Stanford? Check. Booth? You betcha. In fact, as of this writing, the only top 10 MBA program that will not accept the GRE is Berkeley Haas.

So it’s official: the GRE has quickly established itself as a viable alternative to the GMAT. But how do the two exams stack up? Are b-schools truly as acronym-blind as they claim to be? And which test is right for you?

As usual, the answer is not simple. There are numerous factors in play, a wealth of conflicting information, and at least a handful of “it kinda depends” scenarios.

For example, while many contend that adcoms secretly frown upon the GRE, John Byrne at Poets & Quants recently pointed out that because many rankings organizations don’t factor GRE scores into their rankings criteria, MBA programs are actually more tolerant of a low GRE score than a low GMAT score. Likewise, some b-schools refrain from reporting GRE scores to rankings organizations, meaning that they are more likely to admit a strong candidate with a poor GRE score than a strong candidate with a poor GMAT score. In other words, if you’re not a strong test-taker, the GRE seems the way to go.

On the other hand, there’s a perception gap to contend with. The GMAT is still considered the gold standard of standardized testing for MBA programs, while the GRE is often regarded as an easier test (primarily because the quantitative section is less challenging). If you’re a strong candidate and you choose the GRE over the GMAT, it could cast a slight shadow of doubt over your entire candidacy (“If he’s really as smart as he looks, why was he afraid of the GMAT? What’s he hiding?”). If you’re a less-than-stellar candidate, meanwhile, taking the GMAT could be exactly what you need to show admissions that you’re up for the rigors of their program—but only if you get a strong score. Finally, for people who aren’t 100% set on b-school, the GRE is a great option because it is transferrable to numerous other programs…but taking it instead of the GMAT could raise questions about your commitment to pursuing an MBA.

In short, there’s enough strategy involved in the process to make General Patton go a little weak in the knees. Because of this, it’s virtually impossible for me to give you a “general rule” on the GRE vs GMAT debate. If you really want to know which test is right for you, you should contact Forster-Thomas for a free and personalized candidacy assessment. But if you twisted my arm for a general rule, well, this is what it would be:

For the majority of b-school candidates, I suggest taking the GMAT. As mentioned earlier, it’s still the gold standard, and it will be for the foreseeable future. Admissions officers know the test, trust the test, and like the test, if for no other reason than it’s more familiar to them. While the GMAT will likely require more preparation time, tutoring sessions, and headaches, chances are better that it will all pay off in the end.

Getting a bit more specific:

  • If you are a very conventional applicant, the GMAT is practically a must. “Very conventional” means that you are from a big applicant pool and have a quant background (i.e., investment bankers, PE associates, management consultants, etc). The GMAT is what your (numerous) peers are taking, and you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you opt for the GRE. The only exception here is if you’re bombing your GMAT diagnostics (even after sufficient prep). If that’s the case, the GRE might be a good alternative; schools are more likely to overlook a poor GRE score than a poor GMAT score, since they may not have to report the former. However, this only works if you have a stellar candidacy—otherwise, they’ll just take the “you” with the good GMAT score (probably that guy you hate who works two cubes over from you).
  • For highly unconventional applicants with strong GPAs, the GRE is a viable alternative if you’re struggling with the GMAT. You’re unconventional if you have no “business experience” and/or never took a single econ or finance class in college—in other words, you’re a Sociology major who has spent the last two years doing Teach For America or working in the PR department of a crunchy non-profit. If this sounds like you, I still suggest you try your hand at the GMAT; if you can do well on it, you’ll impress the adcom. But if the GMAT just isn’t paying off, the GRE will suffice—after all, the reason b-schools started accepting the GRE was to attract a more diverse applicant pool, and you are the “diversity” they had in mind. Just make sure your GRE quant section is strong, as that’s where admissions will really be looking.
  • For strong dual-degree applicants, the GRE can be a great option. Not only will it allow you to take one test instead of two, but you have a built-in “excuse” for not taking the GMAT. That being said, you don’t want to seem lazy, so you better study hard and get a great score. Further, while MBA programs have nothing against dual-degree programs, they look out for applicants who might just be tacking on the MBA to add an extra degree, but one for which they might not really care about. Therefore, if you opt not to take the GMAT, you better make it clear just how much you want that MBA in your MBA goals essay. In summary, the GMAT is still the king, but the GRE is gaining ground, and is a great option for less traditional candidates and those who just can’t crack the GMAT.

Finally, if you’ve taken the GRE already and want to know what your score looks like to MBA admissions, check out this handy GRE/GMAT comparison tool.

--Justin Marshall

In 2013, 86% of Forster-Thomas MBA applicants got into at least one of their three top choice schools.  Join the club!  Contact Forster-Thomas for a free and personalized candidacy assessment.

Graduate school personal statements can be challenging, often because they don’t specify what exactly they want you to write about. For instance, the prompt might read as follows: Personal Statement (500 word limit).

This can create a lot of anxiety in grad-school candidates. “So, I can write about...anything?” my client, Ryan, an aspiring speech pathologist asked. “It says ‘personal’ – does that mean that I should tell them about how my mom had a stroke when I was in tenth grade?”

I gave Ryan the same answer I give all of my candidates who come to me with that confused puppy dog look: “Yes and no.”

If you’re applying to a speech pathology program because you want to work with stroke victims, then yes, by all means, include the story about your mother’s stroke in your personal statement. Discussing the impact that moment had on you would be the perfect set-up for the essay. BUT, be careful not to end up writing an essay about your mother. Remember, you only have 500 words, so talk about you. Your mother is only a launching point for a discussion about a defining moment in your development as a future speech pathologist.

Let me break it down for you:

Paragraph 1. This is where you get personal. No, this doesn’t mean empty the contents of your diary. This means write about the moment that you realized you wanted to pursue your goal. For the speech pathology example, this paragraph could be about how your mother had a stroke and then how you watched her struggle to relearn how to speak—and how you worked with her to improve her speech and found that you had a passion and a talent for it. Be specific.

Why? Graduate programs want students who are passionate about what they want to do, not students who are just looking to avoid the real world for another few years. This is your opportunity to show them why you want it.

Paragraph 2. What have you done thus far to pursue your interest in speech pathology? This is an opportunity to discuss specific classes you’ve taken in college—talk about a particular professor you learned from, clubs you started or joined. Discuss internships or observation hours. But DO NOT simply list them, you don’t want to regurgitate your resume. Remember, they have your resume! Tell them what’s not on your resume. For instance, discuss specific moments within your observation hours where you learned something significant and how you plan to apply what you learned.

Why? Graduate school want students who have already been seeking knowledge; show them what you’ve learned so far.

Paragraph 3. Why do you want to go to grad school? What do you still have left to learn that you need NYU for? Discuss skills that you need to obtain, improve or expand. For instance, you might want to work with stroke victims in a hospital—therefore you are looking to apply to a medically-based speech pathology program. Perhaps the majority of your observation hours were spent in a classroom with young children. Therefore you lack the medical knowledge needed to obtain a job as a speech pathologist in a hospital.

Now here’s the part where Ryan asks, “But Kirsten, don’t I want to appear confident? Won’t it make me look weak to admit that I still have stuff to learn?”

The answer? No. Schools want students who are self aware–they know their strongest and weakest areas. You want to show the school that you know what you need to work on and what experiences you need to gather in order to accomplish your goal. This also demonstrates that you actually will benefit from graduate school—and proves to the school even more that you are a serious candidate.

Paragraph 4. The school-specific portion of your essay. Why NYU, specifically? Here, it is important to be extremely specific in order to show enthusiasm for a particular school. Research classes, professors and clubs, and discuss how they will help you accomplish your goal.

Why? You must prove that you want to go to the school. By getting specific about the school you also demonstrate your ability to research and gain knowledge—good traits for a prospective student. Additionally, when you get an interview—you’ll have lots to discuss.

Last paragraph. Your conclusion. A few short sentences about how NYU is going to help you, and you are going to help them, change the planet (by using your speech pathology degree to work with stroke victims).

Don’t worry, it’s completely normal to feel anxious about writing a personal statement. It can feel like the be all end all—when you start to feel overwhelmed, just remember that you already know all of the answers. You’ve been living this essay—just dig down deep and start typing.

--Kirsten Guenther

You just got waitlisted.

“Lucky you!”

That’s exactly what I said to Todd when he called to give me the news about Columbia Business School. He was really confused by my remark. His face looked as if he had just slammed on the brakes at 50 mph, leaving a skid mark. It was that kind of moment.

Todd didn’t understand my congratulatory tone until I reminded him that he could have received another kind of notice: one that said, “Better luck next time; you’ve been rejected.”

So, you’ve just been waitlisted. The first thing you need to do is stop the panic and start realizing that it could have been worse. Schools don’t waitlist people who are not solid candidates. You end up on a waitlist for a number of reasons, not the least of which is very simple—they had five other guys just like you. The quota for you got filled earlier.

In other words, you are just like Todd. You had all the right parts: He got a 720 on his GMAT, he was a leader, he had extracurriculars, a great hedge fund job, and phenomenal grades at his Ivy League school. So why didn’t he get in? It might be as simple as five other people just like him were already accepted, and Columbia reached its hedge fund quota this year. It’s very likely that the only reason you got waitlisted is because Columbia is waiting to see if the other “you”s are going to say yay or nay. And when they do, and the space opens up, don’t you want Columbia to choose you?

Of course you do. And here’s how:

Stop whining and start planning your strategy for making sure that you are their number one choice. You need to find out who the waitlist manager or the admissions officer in charge of your candidacy is. How? Just call the school and ask. Oh, wait, the letter says, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Nonsense. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s like a dirty little secret. It’s not that business schools admissions people don’t want you to call them, it’s the way in which you call them.

If the school did not provide the name of the waitlist manager or admissions officer who is handling your candidacy, call the school and ask. I know you’re scared that you’re going to annoy them. The way to ensure you don’t annoy them is to refrain from begging for acceptance. When you contact them, you want to contact with authority. Take control of the situation. Be the answer, not the question.

Once you’ve called and gotten the name of the person in charge of your candidacy, you know who your champion is. That’s the person you want to become good friends with. How? Let me break it down:

  1. Write them a letter in which you remind them who you are, let them know that you know they are overwhelmed, but you want to let that admissions officer know that Columbia remains your number one choice. Don’t come out and say you’ve been accepted to other schools, even if you have—it’s inferred by the way you are saying “Columbia still remains my number one choice.” Less is more. This is also an opportunity to inquire about what you can do to improve your chances—in the letter, ask if there’s a way you can bolster your candidacy.
  2. Update them on something new: Something great that happened after you submitted your application—an organization launch, a CFA exam you passed, a promotion you received, or a project you led. Choose one or two things, max. It’s not a laundry list, and it better be BIG. If you have nothing to say here, you probably just found out why you were waitlisted.

  3. Next, tell them when you are going to revisit campus. Make the request to meet with them. (I’m assuming you’ve already visited campus or maybe you just figured out why you got waitlisted.) You’re making a request here, to stop by to put a face to your name. Nothing says, “pick me” like a visit to the admissions office. Even if it means you have sit there in your best suit all day and all you get is a quick handshake. Remember every time you meet an admissions officer, no matter how brief, it’s an interview. Dress your best, and be ready to give that elevator pitch.

  4. If you don’t get a response, don’t freak out. Follow up two weeks later. The thing about waitlists is that you have to be prepared for this to go on, all the way until the first day of classes begins. I once had a student named Drenna who was literally on her way, in mid-August, bags packed, to UVA when Chicago Booth said, “We want you.” So she turned the car around and went north to Chicago.

  5. Yay! You heard back. You’ve stuck gold. Now you have a friendship. However it’s not an opportunity to hound this person, take it SLOW. Put the brakes on yourself. Follow the admissions officer’s lead. Either way, there’s a next step.

  6. Enlist other people’s help. If you know someone incredibly influential involved with the school, then have that person contact admissions on your behalf. Choose wisely. Pick carefully. Because nothing makes an admissions officer crazier than to be told what to do. So if you’re going to pull that card, then you better be sure it’s really powerful. If you know someone that is donating millions to add a new wing at Columbia, have this person make a call, or write a letter on your behalf. You know a professor? I’m sorry to say that won’t help. So if you don’t know someone giving millions to the school...

  7. Find two people to write character letters about you, preferably people who either went to the school or are already in the program—someone who has reason to say why you are a good match/fit. These letters should be really short—200 words max. They should explain the following: How they know you, WHY they are in support of you (like one of the things they know you’ve accomplished—hopefully a new piece of information), and finally, have them tell the admissions officer that they are available to talk in more detail by phone if necessary. (Don’t worry, that will never happen.) The letters should be spread out over several weeks. The goal here is to keep you on the admissions officer’s mind. You are planting a seed, so when it comes time to make that choice, your name is the one they choose. You’re the guy or gal you want them thinking of. It’s hard to say “No” to someone you feel like you know.

Side note: You heard from the admissions officer, and the problem was your GMAT. Take the GMAT again. In fact, if you know from day one it’s the GMAT, prepare to take it again and you let them know in that letter. If the problem is your grades, enroll in your local community college quant course in accounting. You might need to build your GPA the Forster-Thomas way.

If nothing else, if you still don’t get in, I promise you that you have set yourself up as the best re-applicant of all time. You will be the first of your kind to be accepted next year. If you do all of this, and you still don’t get in, and you’re really passionate about going to this school—then none of this was a waste of your time. There’s always tomorrow. It’s only a day away.

In this guest blog, high school student Lily Shenk describes her experience visiting colleges across the Northeast with Forster-Thomas co-founders Evan Forster and David Thomas (AKA Auntie E and Uncle D). 

I recently went on a college tour with Auntie Evan and Uncle David, where we spent three days visiting Roger Williams University, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Northeastern University, Wheaton College, Marist College, and Vassar College.

For as long as I can remember, my Mom and her BFF Auntie Evan have been talking about where I would go to school and what I would do with my life. The arguments would go like this:

“She’s an artist!” Auntie Evan would exclaim.

“But I don’t want her ending up poor!” Mama would yell back.

And somewhere in between, Uncle David would gently mention my love of marine life, animals, biology, and then something about “liberal arts”—whatever that was. But try to get a word in when Auntie Evan and Mama are in what I like to call “arguing-while-drinking” mode—impossible.

I love animals and sea life, but in my heart and in my hands, I am an artist and a craftsperson, so I was most excited to see RISD. That’s where I was sure I could express who I truly am.

Auntie Evan and Uncle D picked me up at LaGuardia Airport and we drove late into the night, straight to Rhode Island. The following morning, after avoiding the lovely do-it-yourself waffle at the Holiday Inn Express, we arrived at Roger Williams University (RWU) for my first real info session and college tour. I had no idea what to anticipate, except that my uncles promised me that it had art and marine biology. And they promised my mother that this could lead to environmental law. (Law school is one of Uncle David’s strengths. Auntie Evan’s is knowing how to say what Mama needs to hear.)

I thought RWU was going to be my least favorite college on our tour, but that quickly changed. RWU had a really cool wet lab, roomy dorms, a great campus, a convenient location, and a welcoming student body; while we were on the tour, Auntie Evan and I broke off and went into the wet lab (AKA a marine biology lab) and one of the students working there—a Graphic Design minor—even invited us in and showed us around. Cuttlefish and pregnant Clownfish—and the students, right from freshman year, get to do research! Love that! I also liked that it was only an hour outside Boston and thirty minutes from either Providence or Newport, RI. Bristol was a typical cute New England town on the water, which is an environment I like. The point is that it had everything, and with my strong B+ average, I might even get some money to attend. Mama loves that. As for me, I never would’ve thought RWU would be my thing, but there it all was. It had everything I want to study: Art and marine life!

Still, I figured RISD would win out. That afternoon, we drove to Providence. It’s beautimus and I love a small city, but right from the start I realized RISD is 100% art—and I am just not an Art-ster. So, while I was sure it would be my favorite school, after visiting, I’m not sure I’ll even apply. It would be a great school for anyone who wants art—and only art. At least that’s how I saw it. In all honesty, it was just too edgy for me. I realized that art is not all that I am interested in, and frankly, the students I met were standoffish and thought they were better than me; I’m a damn good artist and I can hold my own when it comes to drawing free-hand, crocheting, felting, or sculpting. And I’m sure the RISD kids are too, but they were just not me. I’m never going to wear tie-dye, Birkenstocks, or smoke cigarettes. I did not care for the campus set-up, either. It was in Providence and the buildings were spread out throughout a few blocks, so there was this kind of open-in-the-city campus, and I realized that I want a more traditional campus.

The next day we visited Northeastern, with its campus smack in the middle of Boston. A campus and a city! I loved the Co-op program; it allows you to intermittently go to school and work at the same time. Mama would love that! And I might even be able to intern at the New England Aquarium.

On our way back to New York, we stopped by Wheaton College. The snow was falling around this tiny liberal arts school* and the kids thought Auntie Evan and Uncle David were my two dads. That assumption and the poster for HIV testing said a lot about how accepting and laid-back the environment is. Oh, and I still dream about that beautiful botany lab. The problem is that I don’t even remember exactly where Wheaton was, except it was in a cute small town and part of the Marine Studies Consortium.

Maybe I was just getting worn out. Auntie Evan and Uncle David were too, so we took a day off back home in Westchester before heading to Poughkeepsie, where we visited Marist College and Vassar College. They couldn’t have been more different! Both were great, but Marist was way more “vocational” (SAT word!!!!) That means, like Northeastern, it’s all about getting the job right after graduation, while Vassar is all about grad school and higher learning—like RISD without the sole focus on art and cigarettes.

I also liked the dorm situation. At Vassar, the dorms aren’t separated by grade, which I think is the way it should be. You live with students of all ages. At Marist, freshmen live with freshmen. There are pros and cons to that. Like, if you don’t know where a class is, what are the chances another freshman two doors down will? I would say slim to none. The big problems with Vassar? My grades may not be high enough and it’s very expensive. Mama’s gonna hate that!

Here’s what I learned on my first college tour: Sometimes what you think you want and what you actually want are two very different things. I thought I would love a school I hated, and a school I didn’t even want to go to ended up being my favorite. So when you are going on college tours with family or friends—or your two uncles—you should keep an open mind or you might miss out on something great—and be honest with yourself about who you are: I like Alex Claire, my Toms and I want to save the Honey Badger, but at the end of the day I am a Sperry girl who loves her Tori Birch ballet flats and Deva hair products. Three snaps up.

--Lily Schenk

PS. Next tour: Washington D.C.: Catholic v. American—and both Mama and Auntie Evan are coming. Oh, brother!

* I learned that a “liberal arts school” is one that focuses on imparting broad general higher education in the arts and/or sciences, rather than focusing on vocational or technical education such as business or engineering.

In addition to requiring a personal essay, a film reel, and transcripts and test scores, most film schools ask applicants to complete various types of “creative materials.” Why? Because the schools want to ensure that its students have creative abilities in visual storytelling, and the example video on your reel might be a fluke—a happy accident that is not representative of your true abilities. The importance of these creative materials with regards to your candidacy differs from program to program, as well as from element to element; no two items are evaluated in the same way.

In short, there are a lot of “X factors” when it comes to creative materials for film school. Here are the most common kinds that film schools request, along with a brief explanation of what they look for in each:

Feature Film Treatment
This is one of the most common items film schools request, and also one of the most difficult—summarizing an entire feature film in 1–3 pages is an almost impossible task. You’re best off choosing a reputable genre (gross-out comedies and horror are generally frowned upon) and avoiding overly complex and convoluted plots that can’t be easily explained. Show your treatment to friends and family to make sure they understand the story. Capturing the plot is important, but equal weight should be placed upon the “softer” pillars of storytelling like character and thematic development. Finally, make sure your story has a real ending; “hilarity ensues” is not a proper third act.

Short Dialogue Scene
Required by NYU, USC, and a few others, this exercise is usually limited to 2–3 pages and two characters. Here, you’re not being judged on your ability to come up with a great plot or an expertly crafted narrative, so don’t waste effort on that. What’s important is character: You need to create two distinct characters with unique voices and clear objectives. If you write hackneyed lines like, “I think we got company” or “I’m getting too old for this shit,” you will fail; your characters should sound like real humans, and preferably be identifiable in some respect (i.e., “old Southern gentleman” or “teenage stoner,” not “average white male”).

Silent Story
NYU and USC have offered this one for years: Tell a silent story using no dialogue in 3–4 pages. Here, creativity is key. It’s not easy to tell a compelling story without the crutch of dialogue, and you’ll be docked points if you rely on cop-outs like gestures and pantomime. Think and write visually, using action whenever possible. For inspiration, watch Pixar shorts and Charlie Chaplin films—they are both the kings of this type of storytelling.

Script Excerpt
Screenwriting programs always request a sample screenplay, as do general production programs like Columbia University that emphasize strong storytelling skills. The good news is that you’re allowed to make some rookie mistakes; no-no’s like exposition and lengthy scenes without sufficient action will be tolerated more than usual, because you can easily be taught to avoid them. What won’t be tolerated are one-dimensional characters, wooden dialogue, and recycled story ideas. 

--Justin Marshall

Read more on our MFA Film School consulting process or request a free candidacy assessment.

In the MBA admissions game, there are no guarantees. Most elite business schools, including Stanford and Wharton, look favorably on reapplicants. They appreciate the persistence and commitment you have demonstrated to the MBA degree by applying again after you have already been rejected. At Forster-Thomas, we have an excellent track record helping reapplicants get into top b-schools. The way to win this game is simple; show them how you have enhanced your candidacy since last year. Here are some areas you can focus on.

1. GMAT. A higher GMAT score is one of the best ways to polish any candidacy… yes, even yours! Nothing says I’m ready for the intellectual rigors of Kellogg quite like a competitive GMAT. The exception to this rule is if you're already in the rarefied air of the 730+ GMAT range … if that’s the case, drop what you’re doing and email our office manager at RIGHT NOW, because that means your weakness lies in another area… almost certainly #2…

2. ESSAYS. Reapplications are divided between schools which require that you write a reapplicant essay and those which simply ask you to answer this year’s questions. This divide isn’t as meaningful as it seems at first, because either way, you still have to show them how you have grown from your failure to get in the previous year. Make a list. Take out your magic marker and scrawl on the kitchen wall all the things you have done since your applications went out last year. Make sure that numbers 1 through 5 are addressed somewhere in your application, either in your reapplicant essay, or worked into some of your other essays.

3. QUANT. If you're weaker in quant, take summer classes. The big four: Calculus, Statistics, Microeconomics and Financial Accounting.

4. JOB AND TITLE. Did the new year bring a new job, promotion, or title change? Perhaps one with expanded responsibilities or greater client facing exposure? If so, your essay practically writes itself.

5. LEADERSHIP. From the moment you get that ding in your inbox, take a hard look at all of your extracurricular engagements, including clubs and volunteer opportunities. Ask yourself, have I been capitalizing on my opportunities to lead in my communities? If the answer is no, get cracking, because this is one area that is entirely in your power to control.

6. ADD NEW SCHOOLS. Sometimes you have your heart set on a particular program and it simply doesn’t work out. Don’t despair … cast a wider net. There is a school for you--one that will get you all the success you want--and more research will help broaden your horizons. Fold in two or three schools that may be more of a target school, where your GMAT and GPA are more competitive.

Always remember, the moral of every great reapplicant story is the same: like Kelly Clarkson says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” You didn’t get in last year, you understand why you didn’t get in last year, and you’ve committed yourself to strengthening your candidacy. Write this and your dream school is sure to look favorably on you. (But if you’re struggling, don’t be “Miss Independent” … just click on this link and contact us!)

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.  

Read more on our MFA Film School consulting process or request a free candidacy assessment

-Justin Marshall