It has never been easier to become a filmmaker on a whim, with high-quality digital cameras on most smartphones and free film editing software available. But those who want to really hone their skills look to the prestigious film and television college programs like the one at NYU Tisch. Whether you’ve been making movies since you first laid your hands on a camera or you have the next American classic stuck in your head and you don’t know where to go with it, film school turns students with ideas into filmmakers with the tools to produce them. But first, you have to get in. Courtney Malenius, associate director of admissions and recruitment for Tisch’s film and television program, shares what you should know before tackling your application.
What does your position at NYU entail?
My title is associate director of admissions and recruitment. I oversee the admissions process for the department of film and TV for the graduate and undergraduate programs.
How does the admissions process work for NYU Tisch?
Incoming students apply through the common application with all of the supporting academic credentials, like their transcripts and letters of recommendation and such. Then we determine what is required in the artistic portfolio, and the students submit that portfolio directly to us. Our faculty, who will ultimately be the ones teaching the classes to the incoming student body, evaluate their artistic potential via the portfolio. I then come together with the admissions office to determine the students that we feel are strongest, both academically and artistically, for the program. The process is very similar for the [undergraduate and] graduate programs.
What would you tell students who don’t have advanced film classes or similar resources in high school?
We recognize that in high school, not all students have had access to filmmaking equipment or classes that teach them filmmaking. We’re really not trying to identify strong production skills at this level; we’re looking to identify storytelling potential. We recognize that we’re going to train them on how to use the software and the equipment once they arrive on campus. For the “tell us a story” prompt, if a student does not have access to even cellphone equipment in terms of filming capacities, they could email us for alternative instructions and we can provide that in the event that they don’t have the equipment. Access is something that’s very important to us, and [we strive] to make sure that our portfolio is available to all applicants.
What elements do you want to see in prospective students that might indicate they’re a good fit for the school?
It’s not one thing, necessarily. The best advice we can give is to be true to yourself and true to your own voice and the kinds of stories that you would tell if you were a student in our program. Use the portfolio to really show us that voice as only your 17-year-old applicant self can. At the end of the day, it really is that unique voice that is going to make an application or a portfolio stand out. That’s not us telling you, “Well, we want to see A +B = C.” We want you to show us what makes you you. That’s really, truly the best advice I can give to a student.
What do students need for their application portfolios?
Over time, we’ve made tweaks to the requirements, but for the academic year that we’re currently in, it’s a five-part portfolio. The first is a creative résumé, which is in many ways similar to a list of high school extracurricular involvements; we want to know how you spend your spare time. They might not think to include the artistic things that they do as hobbies in a normal academic résumé. Ours would want them to highlight their artistic accomplishments and passions in addition to the traditional extracurricular lists. Then we require a written essay, which is one of four prompts to tell us a story. This is one of the most important components in the portfolio, because we are trying to identify the next great generation of storytellers. The next prompt is called “Tell us about your selfie.” We want them to use camera equipment that’s easily and readily available to them, which in many cases is their cell phone cameras. They upload a one- to two-minute video clip where they show us and tell us something about themselves that we couldn’t necessarily get from other aspects of their application. It’s entirely in their own voice and style. We also have an additional essay prompt that’s a short one-pager that’s meant to be a fun exercise. Then, the last component of the portfolio is called the creative submission. For this, they’re allowed to pick from three different mediums: Six pages of writing, either prose or screenplay; an artwork portfolio of up to 15 images, storyboards, or little animations; [or] up to five minutes of film. That rounds out the five-part portfolio.
What types of things stand out to you when you review applications?
It’s really hard to say. Keep in mind that not everyone is submitting a film for the creative submission. We’ve gotten wonderful short stories and screenplays that really resonated. Sometimes, students think if they are going to submit a film, it needs to be “big budget,” high-gloss, and fancy; that they need to show off their editing skills or their ability to use graphics with bells and whistles. Some of the best things that we see are shot on a cell phone camera and convey a simple but effective story. I always bring it back to story, because you could put together a reel of the most impressive special effects and graphics, but if it doesn’t convey story, what’s the point of it?
What type of experience, training or preparation, if any, do you expect the prospective students to have?
Preparatory programs are fine for those who want to do them. If anything, if you’ve never made a film before and you think you love doing it but you’ve never actually done it, you should probably test the waters a bit. By taking one of those classes, you can learn if you actually really like directing or editing, or if the idea of it sounds better than the reality of it. Those kinds of classes can really help a student in determining if a passion really is a pursuit. But in terms of what we’re looking for in the applications, it’s not something that we expect to see from everyone. A student could submit a written portfolio, and that’s perfectly fine. If they’ve never touched a camera before, that’s OK, too.
What mistakes do people make when applying to the program?
When we say to submit up to five minutes of a film you’ve made, we would rather see one film that tells a great story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end than a clip reel of short snippets of a bunch of different projects. When you’re only seeing small snippets, you’re not getting a story in the limited amount of time that we see that clip. Students want to show breadth of work, but we would really just say pick your best one and put that best foot forward as a single project. It doesn’t have to fill the full five minutes. Also, if you are using the same pieces for a number of different schools that you’re applying to, remember to take that school’s name out and have another set of eyes look at it before you click submit.
What don’t you think people realize about your job?
We’re very much a human and holistic review process. There are a lot of different people who are extremely invested in this process who care very much about the applicants that are pouring their hearts into their applications. If they’ve applied to the film program and they’re passionate about filmmaking, if not at our school, we hope that they pursue that no matter where they go. They can also consider applying again as a transfer student if they’re not successful their first time around. Then there’s also graduate school. We really hope that they find a place where they can continue to pursue their passion, whether it’s with us or with another school.
This story originally appeared in the May 14 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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