By Ben Feuer, photo by Caleb Roenigk

Here we are again – at the high tide of anxiety for students on the verge of a law school application. A plunge into the unknown, safety-net-less; nothing but their wits and a dog-eared copy of the U.S. News Rankings to guide them.  But this year, one additional choice will await at least some of these future legal eagles; the choice between the LSAT and the GRE.

One thing you learn pretty fast while working (as I do) as an educational consultant is that one of your most important jobs is to dispel fear, ignorance and anxiety surrounding that bugbear that is America’s school application process. And boy, has there been a lot of FUD coming off the latest decision from HLS; allowing either test on their application.

For instance, a certain famous newspaper with a pretty strong anti-law-school bent is now dropping opinion-hints that maybe, just maybe, expanding access is a Bad Thing™.  Their argument (advanced by a late-night TV writer, speaking of absurdly pie-in-the-sky career choices) seems to be that expanding the pool of applicants will simply create more lousy, unmotivated lawyers.  Well, first of all, no, it won’t – the number of seats at any given law school won’t change. It’s possible the move might save a few lousy law schools from the scrap heap, but, if you haven’t figured out by now that any legal education outside the top 100 is a complete crap shoot, caveat emptor. Law school is a big purchase, and you should do your homework before slapping down the cash. This website’s a good place to start.

But more to the point, adding the GRE will actually give prospective students more options, not less. They’ll be able to choose not just between law schools, but between law schools and other degrees, applying to two or three types of program in one application cycle.  Then, once they know where they’ve been accepted, they can make a smart, well-thought-out choice between 2 or 3 very specific options. In the current model, it’s law school or bust, and that’s scaring away people I know who could be great lawyers, but aren’t able to devote a year of specialized education simply to the prospect of being one.

It allows schools to be more selective, weeding out low LSAT types with a low probability of success at law school and instead admitting high-GRE students with great natural ability and intellect.

It also saves students money – the great thing about the GRE is that it’s pretty comparable to the SAT in terms of subject matter and style, so you don’t have to re-learn how to test take all over again. And the fact is, logic games notwithstanding, there really isn’t anything about law school that requires highly specialized or technical knowledge before applying – after all, in many countries, law is an undergraduate degree. It’s a generalist degree. Many JDs don’t actually go on to practice law. And that’s OK too.

It limits the absurdly over-inflated power of standardized tests, which is a good thing no matter how you slice it. The fact that some schools have started to use these numbers as a crutch or a shorthand to save themselves the trouble of holistically evaluating every candidate is unfair and wasteful. Knowing how to game a test – any test, logic games and time restrictions or no – can only be one small slice of judging a student’s readiness to practice law.

As for the bogeyman fear that you might put a lot of effort into something only to find you don’t like it – that’s life! You try things and you learn. Liking the LSAT is not the same as liking Law School. Liking Law School is not the same as liking a law firm. Liking a law firm is not the same thing as liking the law. You have to find what you like. That’s the whole point of our big, unwieldy, messed up educational system.

There are no easy choices in admissions, for schools or students. But there are fair ones. Schools owe it to themselves to expand and not limit access, to make applying easier and better understood, not harder and more exclusive. And that has nothing to do with what kind of student ought to apply, and everything to do with the kind of student we ought to want.


 

 

By Ben Feuer and College Choice

We all know that it’s a good idea, fiscally speaking, to attend a quality college and graduate school – but how good of an idea is it, exactly?  The chart above tells the tale in full.  But one of the many hurdles you’re going to have to leap is the completion of the dreaded FAFSA – federal application for student aid.  But don’t despair -- the FAFSA’s bark is much worse than its bite, and we’re here to offer a step-by-step guide, with props to our good friends at College Choice.

Is the FAFSA Need or Merit-Based?  Many colleges and graduate programs offer merit-based scholarships, but not through the FAFSA. It is strictly need-based – the key factors are your family’s income, assets and the cost of tuition at your chosen school(s).

What form does FAFSA aid take?  It’ll be a blend of loans, which you’ll need to pay back, and grants/scholarships, which you keep.  You may also qualify for work-study, low-wage jobs offered by the school and its partners, but even if you don’t, you can always just … you know … find a job …

How do I know if I qualify for the FAFSA?  Just go to this webpage.  You’ll need last year’s tax docs, a pay stub, your banking information, and about half an hour.

Darn, I don’t qualify.  Fill it out anyway -- many colleges, foundations, and state scholarship organizations use the FAFSA to distribute money and determine scholarship funding. Plus, filling out the FAFSA qualifies you for low-cost federal student loans of at least $5,500 per year!

What if I don’t know how much my school is going to cost?  Pick the most expensive school on your list and base your calculations on that.  If you don’t know how much your target school costs, use College Navigator to figure it out.

How do I apply for FAFSA?  You can apply to FAFSA online at fafsa.ed.gov, on the telephone at 1-800-433-3243, or by paper application (available on the FAFSA website). The FAFSA application becomes available October 1st and closes June 30th the following year.  You’ll need your Social Security number or alien registration number, your driver’s license number (optional), your tax records, lists of untaxed income like child support and veteran’s benefits, asset records and lists of schools. This data retrieval tool may help you.

What kind of assets will show up on a FAFSA application?  Here’s what does have to be reported: CDs, stocks, bank and brokerage accounts, bonds, mutual funds, college savings plans, trust funds, real estate, and money market accounts.

Here’s what doesn’t have to be reported: home equity, qualified retirement plans (pensions, annuities, IRAs, 401(k)s, and any similar accounts), and estate-related assets (boats, furniture, fine art, etc.).

How can I get more money from FAFSA?  Plan ahead and apply early, when more aid is available – on October 1 if possible.  Move or spend as many qualified assets as possible well before applying.  If your life circumstances change after your application (a relative is hospitalized, someone gets fired), appeal, politely and humbly. Don’t be ashamed of or afraid to disclose your parent’s occupational status or level of education – as far as FAFSA is concerned, do not know = no.



By Evan Forster, photo by Alan Light


Question: Isn’t spring of senior year party time?  

Answer: No Prince, this is not 1999!

Recently—and hardly for the first time—I received a phone call from a mom who went from excited to panic when her daughter was accepted early to college. In this case, I’m talking Vanderbilt.

Let’s back up just a little.  Her daughter, Felicia, was no clear admit; she had some difficult times in 9th and 10th grades, but she pulled it together as the semesters went on so it wasn’t an outrageous idea to apply early to Vandy—her number one choice. When she got that fat acceptance packet, we all did the happy dance. And then, a day later, I got the following call from her mom:  

“What if Felicia doesn’t keep her grades up this spring? I’m worried she’s not keeping her grades up."

Let me answer that in simple terms by showing you the letter I sent to all of my college candidates and their families:

Dear Felicia,

I know it’s very exciting to know you’re going to Vanderbilt this fall! You worked your ass off and got in, and the crew at Forster-Thomas is incredibly proud of you.

BUT it’s not over yet. The admissions office is keeping track of what you’re doing, and there was some fine print in your acceptance letter: Your acceptance is contingent upon your continuing high grades and activities. If you suddenly make straight Bs or (god forbid) worse, you are putting your acceptance in jeopardy! We’ve actually seen this happen before, where an acceptance was revoked or someone was put on probation before they even got to school. You don’t want that to be you.

So, keep those grades up, and keep being the marvelous person who we enjoyed working so much with! We want to know what’s going on with you for the rest of the year, and beyond! We are so proud of you and what you’ve accomplished, and working with you has been AMAZING. 

And be prepared: In the fall, your whole life is going to change—and you’re going to LOVE IT. 

Please let me know you got this email, and keep us in the loop with any questions.

Best,

Auntie Evan

This advice about keeping your grades up affects you not only if you applied early, but also to those of you who are still waiting on that fat envelope. Ignore this advice at your own peril. You certainly don’t want any college saying “Bye Felicia!” 


 

Article by Ben Feuer, photo by Eli Pousson

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

One of the rising stars in the world of film, Chapman University has made a number of bold and innovative moves over the past ten years to put itself on the map, including a highly engaging program for teenaged filmmakers, a massive budget for equipment, high-end soundstages and industry networking. 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 Chapman’s circling around a skimpy 15 percent.

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 Chapman creative portfolio in Film Production for undergraduates, and how to nail each one.

Dodge College Personal Statement. In 500 words or less, tell us what about your distinct experiences/background/values makes you a unique candidate for the program for which you are applying. Please focus on what makes you unique as a person beyond any direct experience you may have in your intended field of study. Use this prompt to talk about aspects of yourself that are not already covered in other parts of your application.

How you handle a personal essay will be different for undergraduate and graduate students. For undergraduates, Chapman is also going to see your Common App essay and supplements, so they’ll know a lot about the fundamentals of who you are as a person, what you believe in and what you’re all about – assuming you’ve done a good job with those essays, of course!  Paradoxically, it’s better to write about your love for film in the common app and write about something else in your portfolio – film schools don’t really like hearing about students’ film experience, they prefer to shape and mold their little charges themselves.

They want to know your story -- your personal, human narrative -- that led you to this point of applying to film school. 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! And remember that narrative and documentary filmmakers are storytellers, first and foremost. So make sure it’s emotional and compelling!

Major Requirement “Essay”. Prompt: Create a self-introductory video essay no more than two minutes in length. Your video should visually highlight something about yourself, your personality, your interests, etc. that is not related to film. The only rule is that you may NOT appear in the video in any way (including any photographs of yourself), so be creative. We are primarily looking for your strengths at conveying a story visually and for evidence of your creativity rather than your technical abilities.

Format: Videos can be as simple or complex as you like but should have a clear story. You do not have to edit this project; it can be one long shot. Video essays can be live action or a slide show of still images or photographs with text and phrases, or a combination. Videos must not exceed a total running time of two (2) minutes.

For tips on creating your video essay, and for examples of our top video picks, visit the Admission Video Samples page.

This is the question that Chapman has become famous for. It’s a very different challenge than what you’ll face at any other school, which means that Chapman is trying to recruit people who really want to be there (or want it enough to make them a custom video, at least).

A lot of people seem to get tangled up in this question. How am I supposed to make a video about myself without showing myself? But don’t get yourself in a brain freeze just yet, because Chapman specifically suggested you focus on an ASPECT of yourself. A personality trait or an interest. Obviously creativity counts big here, so don’t just start thinking of workarounds (gee, maybe I can cast someone as me, or I just won’t show my face) … believe me, we’ve all seen that before. Instead, look inside yourself and determine what you actually have to say. What makes you you? And figure out the story first and the visuals second. Don’t let the cart drive the horse. Finally, don’t waste a ton of money on this – you are being judged on innovation, not your pocketbook!

Creative Resume

Provide a one-page (max.) resume highlighting 5-7 pieces of what you consider to be your best creative work. These projects should demonstrate your ability to convey a story or message through creative, artistic or technical talents. As we are only asking for a limited number of projects, include more recent items and projects in which you were the driving force or had a leadership role. These can include class assignments, projects from jobs or internships, or your personal hobbies and freelance work. Please note you are NOT to submit any actual materials from this resume at this time.  Please use the following format when structuring your resume:

Title: title of the project (length of project if applicable)

Source and Date of Creation: You may write “freelance” if it was something you did on your own.

Description of item: An in-depth description of the piece, the inspiration or objective, and your specific role in its creation. Also list any awards or special recognition you may have received for the piece.

Example

Articles for the School Newspaper

Journalism I class, 2008

I wrote several feature articles on various topics from the constant flooding of the men’s bathroom to vandalism on campus. I also did a film review for every issue. I helped with the layout of the paper as well as selecting the final photographs.

Unlike some of the other schools, Chapman doesn’t want a comprehensive list here. They just want your 5-7 best projects. They obviously want dates, so they can get a sense of when you have been creative, and in what contexts. And they want full-paragraph descriptions of the project itself.

Note that they’re not limiting you to movies here. Quite the contrary. You can frame a lot of different things as being creative, as long as you’re able to get creative when you write it. J  Figure out what you’ve learned, and what the key challenges were, in each task you undertook.

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!

 


 

By Ben Feuer, photo by walknboston

A lot of prospective legal eagles' scholastic options are going to be pretty obvious early on in the process, because their numbers are going to match up. For those of you who don’t know, the numbers I’m talking about here are LSAT score and GPA. The real-world LSAT range is from about 145 -> 180, and the real-world GPA range is from about 2.5 to about 4. So here are a few examples of LSAT/GPAs that ‘match up’, and the type of schools they should be targeting.

 

GPA                       LSAT                      PERCENTILE                        SCHOOL TYPE

3.85                        176                         ~90th                                      Top 14

3.55                        170                         ~70th                                      Top 50

3.1                          159                         ~40th                                      Top 100-150

 

Sounds simple enough. But what about the strange case of the splitter? Splitters, with their high marks in one area and low marks in another,  confound this process. In most cases, LSAT is going to be weighted more heavily than GPA. But that depends on your age, which school you’re coming from, and how many years you’ve been out working. Certain types of schools prefer candidates with certain types of profiles, as shown by their admissions data over the last few years. So if you’re a splitter, here are some schools you should definitely be looking at.

 

High LSAT / Low GPA

Virginia

Duke

NYU

Illinois

 

Low LSAT / High GPA

UC Berkeley

Minnesota

BYU

Pittsburgh

 

It’s also important to remember that your LSAT, unlike your GPA, can to some extent be improved with additional training and effort. If you’re serious about law school, this is one of the most valuable things you can do to help yourself get in. And the good news is, with applications down at almost every law school, there’s never been a better time to take your shot.


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The GMAT is an ever-evolving beast, and 2015 is no exception to the rule of change.  If you are applying (or reapplying) this year, there are several important changes to the methodology of the test that you should be aware of.

The first has to do with Score Preview and Cancellations.  Score Preview allows you to see your score on test day — If you feel you didn’t perform your best on that day, it is possible to cancel your GMAT scores.  That’s old news.  But here’s the new feature — it used to be that when you cancelled a score, it showed up as a ‘C’ on the score report that went out to schools.  As of July, The “C” that represents a candidate’s cancelled scores will not be shown on any future GMAT score reports generated by GMAC. This means that when a test taker cancels their score, only the test taker will know.

This is a big deal for applicants, who now have a level of fine control over how their GMAC report reads that they did not before.  Different business schools have different approaches to the GMAT — some superscore (taking the highest quant and verbal from different exams), some average all scores, and some take the single highest score.  Some factor cancellations into their decisions, and some do not.  By reducing the number of moving parts, candidates can help streamline their applications.

Another big change is that the wait period between exams has been shortened from 31 days to 16 days.  For most applicants, this is a huge bonus — more time to cram before the first attempt, less time to ‘forget’ inbetween exams.  But be careful — you’re still limited to no more than five attempts in a twelve-month period, and with these new rules you can reach that limit pretty quickly!

Both of these changes should make the GMAT a little less intimidating, but it’s still a challenging exam, especially on the quantitative side, where huge volumes of overseas test takers have been driving percentiles down farther and farther.  An elite quant percentile of 80+ is harder to attain now than it has ever been before, which is why schools are relying more heavily on raw scores and becoming a little more forgiving on the 80th percentile rule of thumb.  That said, it’s never been a hard and fast rule — what kind of candidate you are and what background you come from play a big role in how your quant score is assessed.

Have more questions?  We’re here for you!  Contact us for more information.

Photo by Ryan McGilchrist.


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How to get in: USC School of Cinematic Arts 

Article by Ben Feuer, Photos by Ben Feuer (except the one of Sean Connery, obv)

 

Let’s get this straight right off the bat -- USC is not your father’s film school.  Even if your father is Sean Connery.

 

WHY TO GO:

In our August 13th 2015 visit to USC’s campus and conversation with admissions counselor Lucy Leon, we covered the gamut of USC’s exciting, dynamic and sometimes dizzying set of new horizons and opportunities, and we’re here to give you the straight scoop on what the Trojans have been cooking up.

More than any other MFA/PH.d program in the United States, USC is tuned in to the rapidly evolving media landscape.  Although they still retain a dominant position in the (Hollywood) filmmaking pantheon because of the size of their alumni network (12,000+ at last census, including hundreds of prominent directors and writers), USC’s eyes are clearly trained on what they consider to be the future: episodic, new media and interactive.

One great example of this is USC’s allowance for interdisciplinary study – you can cross-enroll in any of USC’s 7 majors, which means even if your focus is game design you can pick up a bit of cinematography along the way.

USC’s screenwriting program is becoming more and more television oriented, following both students’ taste and the overall job market.  That said, if you’re still a feature-head no one is going to stop you from doing your portfolio that way, it’s just less common than it was when spec scripts were selling in the high six figures on a semi-regular basis.

USC was never a particularly strong independent cinema program, and despite their prominent featuring of Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler in their promotional videos, USC is not going to be a place where you develop your independent voice as a writer – it’s too regimented, too busy and far too technical a program for that.

 

The gaming division, on the other hand, has a decidedly indie vibe, with Jenova Chen https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenova_Chen one of the more notable graduates.  The emphasis is on fun and storytelling, and the interactive divisions, especially the newest one, Media Arts and Practice PH.d (which focuses on embedded / infotainment content and experimental interfaces), receive a lower volume of applications and are more high-touch than their filmic counterparts.

If all this choice seems a little overwhelming, then you’re getting an excellent sense of how the program can be for younger and less focused students.  This is NOT a place for people looking to ‘find their way’, particularly at the MFA/PH.d level.  Students should come in with a game plan and be prepared to make a lot of noise to get their needs met – with a massive 1700 students enrolled, USC is not going to cater to individuals as well as a smaller program like AFI, USC, or Columbia.

There’s also one more touchy subject to bring up – money.  USC is extremely cagey about how much film students spend ON TOP OF TUITION, partly because it varies student to student, but mostly because the raw facts are shocking.  Class fees range from $25 to $150 per class, production courses carry an insurance fee of $1000 per semester (very approximately) and incidental project costs on class films range from $500 to $1000 per semester, although many students spend more.

Then there’s the thesis.  It’s not uncommon to hear of USC students spending $15,000 to $50,000 on their thesis films, and every year someone will break the bank and spend $100,000 or MORE (West Bank Story and Turbo being two notable examples).  No one is saying you HAVE to spend this kind of cash – USC discourages it – but the fact is that it does provide a competitive edge, so students keep doing it.  USC offers ‘modest scholarships’ (their words, not mine) based on need only, and production costs are not covered, so be aware before you enroll that you must pay to play.

 

HOW TO GET IN:

USC is one of the most selective institutions out there for film, with admits ranging from 9% to about 25% depending on your choice of program.  Production is the most competitive, naturally.

The GRE is not required for MFA programs. For MA and PH.d programs, however, it is required and plays an important role in the admissions process.

All recommendations are now submitted digitally.  One should be academic, the rest are your choice.  Keep them to one page maximum or expect them to be ignored.  As is always the case with recommendations, distinctive and thoughtful comments from someone who knows you and your work well are more important than industry position or name value.

Your portfolio is, of course, the heart of any MFA application, and Lucy says that admissions counselors like her don’t review applications at all at USC – the faculty go through every single one.  That’s impressive.

Excerpts, trailers or reels are NOT a good idea for video samples, because USC wants to judge your storytelling capacity more than your technical chops as a filmmaker – they consider it more relevant.  You can submit a longer video sample than five minutes, but admissions only requires faculty to watch up to 5 minute mark, and overall it’s a bad idea to submit more.

Writing samples form another important component of the application.  For more information on how to create great writing samples, check out my previous publication in IECA.

Lucy was down on the general admission interview, although she did one herself – she feels it’s only a good idea if you interview well.   YMMV.

 

AND THAT’S ABOUT IT! 

If you have questions, USC provides Ms. Leon’s email address at the link above – or, of course, you can always talk to us