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.


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!


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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.



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 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.



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.



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

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By Ben Feuer

Marc Longenecker '03, came to Wesleyan University intending to focus on physics, which had been his focus at Franklin high school in Somerset, NJ.  After taking “History of World Cinema to the 1960s” with then-faculty member Bob Smith, Marc fell in love with Wesleyan’s world-renowned undergraduate film studies program.

Several fortuitous accidents later, Marc has become an integral member of the faculty of Wesleyan’s film studies department.  As the Technical and Programming Director, Marc’s responsibilities at Wesleyan include overseeing the film series, maintaining and improving Wesleyan’s formidable arsenal of projection equipment, and teaching undergraduate classes on Frank Capra, Elia Kazan and the History of Television.

Ben Feuer at Forster-Thomas had the opportunity to sit down with Marc and quiz him about his role at the school, his philosophy of career success and the profile of a great Wesleyan film major (that’s what the department calls its students).

B: How did your college search go?

M:  I scored a 1560 out of 1600 on SAT, and I was valedictorian at my public school.  I applied to Yale, Tufts, William and Mary, Amherst, and Swarthmore, but Wesleyan was one of my top choices after I visited.  My school had a guidance counselor, but he was very little help — my parents hired a private counselor, which was tremendously helpful for me, because it let me know what options were out there for me.

B: And the film major?

M: I wasn't interested in film to begin with — although I may have heard about the film major before I applied, it was at best a contributing factor.  (B’s note: Wesleyan didn’t have the same reputation then that it does now, since alums Michael Bay, Joss Whedon and Alexander Payne have hit it big in Tinseltown.) I knew I wanted a liberal-arts school, but I didn’t want to give up sciences or humanities.  It was after I worked for the film series that I got really interested.

B: How did you wind up on Wesleyan’s film faculty?

M:  I became a graduate student and my role grew organically from there.  I’ve been at Wesleyan since I graduated.

B: What do you feel are the aspects of Wesleyan's film program that really stand out, pro and con?

M: Wesleyan as a school offers students the chance to test their limits and try new things in a relatively low-risk environment.  Rather than wasting time in grad school, or worse still on the job, doing things you don’t love, you can figure most of it out while you’re still in school. 

Despite its stature in the industry, Wes film is a small and interwoven department.  Everyone is involved with what everyone else is doing.  I think that’s something really special about us.

Wesleyan’s film program is a theory program, focused on Hollywood studio cinema.  We love foreign film, but for us, Hollywood is the creative apex.  A cinema that makes complicated things look simple.  Movies that are entertaining, but overwhelmingly sophisticated.  So you have to kind of love vintage studio films, or at least find them interesting.

Wes film focuses on where the technical meets the theoretical.  We’re very practical minded.  We try to extract meaning from the texts (the films) rather than imposing meaning upon them externally, like identity theory, for example.

B: There’s been a lot of talk lately that liberal arts education is dead.  What say you?

M:  I say nay!  Seriously, I wanted a liberal arts education, I got one, and I think it has real value.  The obsessively focused professional training program is great, but it’s reductive.  It can sometimes throw the baby out with the bathwater!  The liberal arts experience is the opposite — you’re up to your elbows in bathwater trying to find the baby.

Another great thing about liberal arts?  Double-majoring.  I mean sure, some double-majors are just lazy and noncommittal.  But the value comes if you can commit to BOTH majors.  I was a physics and film double major.  I worked in a lab AND ran a projector.  And you could say, oh, his physics training is wasted, he’s not using it in his job.  But I don’t feel like it was wasted at all.

B: Who is the ideal wes film student?

M: The ideal Wesleyan student figures out how to organize and combine things while caring about them very passionately. 

The ideal film major gets involved in things, is proactive.  We like our majors to try everything.  Serve on the film board, go to the series, commit to your classes, make films of your own.  It’s all there for you.  Take responsibility for your own education.  Understand that who you hang out with and what you choose to do and not do are part of that.  Don't be afraid of your own passions — pursue them, but not to the exclusion of everything else.

B: Have you noticed any trends in the types of students applying?

M: Yeah.  The increased availability of movies and the fact that Wes film’s profile keeps growing -- some students come in refusing to be taught.  They reject Hollywood and take a reductive, hip narrative -- popular cinema sucks, obscure, foreign films are what matters.  That’s obviously not going to work well with what we teach.

We have also seen some people who want to start making films before they understand the language.  Aggressively pre-professional students who are worried about wasting money, wasting time.  I sympathize, but by doing it that way they’re wasting everybody’s time.  Why be at school if you have nothing to learn?

B: What should potential applicants do to make themselves more competitive?

M: Don't overload on film work in high school, but don't come in completely blind either.  It's a liberal arts school, so you have to strike a balance.  That said, getting admitted to the film major is fairly straightforward most of the time once you’ve been admitted to the school.  There are basic requirements you need to achieve.  We do also offer a minor.

B: Any last words of wisdom?

M: Caring about movies is important.  That might sound obvious, but you have to care about the medium itself, not everything that surrounds it, if you want to succeed at Wes.  There's a difference between liking film and being unable to stop doing it.

B: I guess you’re more of the latter.

M: Apparently.


Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

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We are proud to announce that Forster-Thomas’s own Evan Forster and Ben Feuer were featured in this month’s IECA “Insights” publication. 

The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) is a not-for-profit, international professional Association representing experienced independent educational consultants. Chartered in 1976, the Association's headquarters is located in the Washington, DC area. IECA sponsors professional training institutes,workshops and conferences, publishes a directory of qualified independent educational consultants, offers information to students and their families regarding school selection issues and works to ensure that those in the profession adhere to the highest ethical and business standards. Evan is a professional member of IECA, and Ben is an associate member.

Evan wrote a piece on architecture admissions, explaining in detail how to separate your personal statement out from the pack. Ben covered the ins and outs of crafting a top-notch MFA portfolio, including personal statement, writing samples, and visual samples.

You can read the articles in their entirety at this link, along with tons of other great articles about law school, medical school and the new SATs. If you have questions or want to know more, feel free to contact Ben and Evan directly by calling Forster Thomas’s office.  You can also see them in person at IECA’s annual conference from May 6th to May 9th.