How do you write the perfect personal essay for film school?  Admissions experts at Forster-Thomas have the answers.

By Justin Marshall

USC film school calls it a Personal Statement.  So does NYU Tisch.  To UCLA, FSU, and the University of Texas, it’s a Statement of Purpose.  It’s a Narrative statement at AFI, an Artist’s Statement at CalArts, and an Autobiographical Essay at Columbia University.  Whatever the name and regardless of length (anywhere from 500 words to six pages), the personal essay is one of the most common application documents MFA film programs request for admissions.  

What few realize is that it’s also the single most important item you’ll submit. Richard Walter, professor and co-chairman of UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting program, told me: “The single best way to get into our program is to give us a great statement of purpose—one that’s personal and well written.”

Surprised? Sure, filmmaking experience is an important element.  So are good grades in college. And if you have a strong reel, that absolutely increases your chances of getting in.  But the personal essay is king for three key reasons:

  1. It sheds light on how you think. OK, you have a good GPA and a killer music video under your belt. But do you have the life experience, maturity, and unique voice necessary to tell a career’s worth of amazing visual stories? Are you capable of working in a fundamentally collaborative process? Do you have the tenacity of spirit to survive the film industry? These are all crucial qualities, and the personal essay is the only opportunity you have to showcase them.
  2. It puts your reel into perspective. In the personal essay, you can explain the influences behind the films on your reel, what you were trying to say, and what you learned through the creative process. If we understand what you were going for, we will appreciate your films more.
  3. It tells the school if you’re the right fit for their program. USC wants Hollywood players. CalArts wants artists. NYU wants something in between. The personal essay allows you to explain which one you are—and why.

If you want a cheesy analogy, think of the personal statement like an online dating profile or a personals ad (don’t act like you’ve never read them). If you’re looking for true love, a couple of cute photos and a matching Zodiac sign aren’t going to cut it. You want to know that you’re compatible at the core, from musical tastes to hobbies/interests to political views. The personal essay does just that: it shows the school the person behind the images.  It allows you to communicate who you are and how you think.  It’s where sparks fly and true compatibility emerges. And at the end of the day, as good as your reel might be, the schools aren’t admitting a film to a program; they’re admitting a person to their program.  So use the personal essay to showcase who you are—the real you.

Now that you understand what the personal statement is and why it’s so important, read Part 2 of this blog, where I provide three do’s and don’ts for writing the personal essay.

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

--Justin Marshall