Today is our third meeting with Alexei Borovikov, a successful applicant to the film directing masters program at the Columbia College Chicago. I continue my questions to him now to hear about his experience in preparing a portfolio, submitting reference letters and paying application fees. Here they are:
What is the role of creativity in being admitted to film directing programs in US schools? Many universities write that one can apply to film directing (or film production) programs without having experience in the field. Of course, everyone wants to see at least some glimpse of your talent through your video work. As a rule, you can download a video file directly into the application form or insert a link to your work posted on YouTube or Vimeo. It is important to pay attention to the requirements for the submission of creative materials: in some places the committee is ready to watch 30 minutes of material while at other places they are willing to spend no more than 5 minutes. Film directing is the art of storytelling. Therefore, one is supposed to submit one or more completed stories to apply for this program, and not just showreel, which is a cut from different works (a short piece of video or film footage showcasing an actor or presenter’s previous work.) It would be great if you can show yourself from different perspectives, demonstrating your ability to work in different genres and forms with different themes and atmosphere. Make sure you are allocating enough time to choose worthy works from your portfolio as well as preparing them for shipment. It goes without saying that all titles should be translated into English and added to the video. Some universities ask you to send a video where you say something about yourself on a camera or tell a short story. Some top universities, for example, the American Film Institute (https://www.afi.com), require “special treatment” and want you to write and make a short film for them on a given topic. Of course, this requires even more time.
Did the school also require any writing assignments? In addition to video work, as a rule, essays are also required. It could be a request to create a full-length or short film or to write a scene or an essay about an event. Whatever they ask you to do, this is all about trying to test your abilities as a narrator. All scripts, of course, should be written in English and presented in commonly accepted industrial format. To do this, it is useful to use special programs that facilitate the formatting of the text and allow you to adhere to the specified volume restrictions at the time of writing. Universities may also ask you to do some analysis. For example, they can have you watch a short film and write what and how you would like to correct it. You will need to provide explanations of your critique notes. All this will help them to identify the level of your proficiency and efficacy in your profession as well as evaluate your capacity to see the pros and cons of your own and other’s movies.
How many letters of recommendations did you provide to your schools? Who wrote them for you? Universities typically want their applicants to provide two or three letters of recommendation. In most cases, you are required to put the names and contacts of the referees on the site, and after that, they will receive e-mails with links with the requests to download the document they will complete for you. It is important to make sure that recommendations will show you from different perspectives – for example, from academic and professional. I personally chose three referees, one of whom was my academic advisor in the Moscow Film School. The second was from the supervisor in the first university, and the third was my immediate supervisor at my previous job. It is highly desirable that each recommendation needs to be specifically addresses certain projects or tasks that you worked with the author of the letter that helped him/her to make conclusions about your abilities and personal qualities.
Did you have to send your resume or CV? Curriculum Vitae (CV) is also required. It is important to update or design new documents with an emphasis on things in your education, work, and activities that helped you to master important skills in your field. You can also show them that your choice of that particular profession was not accidental but deliberate. The same approach applies to work experience. As a separate attachment, I designed my film directing experience document where I listed the projects that I shot, their genre and length of time. Some sites write that the ideal summary should fit on no more than one page. I was not successful and submitted a resume which was slightly less than two pages long.
It is not a secret that paying the application fee is a burden for many students. Did you apply for the fee waiver to schools? In America, you will need to pay not only for education itself but also for considering your applications. The amount varies a lot, from $25 to $125. The figures do look very unpleasant under the current exchange rate of the ruble to the dollar, especially taking into consideration that your school list will include more than one school. Sometimes universities come forward and allow you not to pay this money. To get this permission, you need to write to the admissions office with a justification about what makes you different from the majority applicants and what your advantages are over other entrants. That could be a high GPA for the previous education (that’s where you need a diploma with honors), a high score on a language test, a powerful professional experience, the awards and participation of your creative work in festivals, all sorts of relevant rewards, etc. From my point of view, if you are counting on getting financial support from the university, asking for a fee waiver is the right decision as it could serve as a signal for school you apply that it will not be easy for you to pay for studies and that you will definitely need a scholarship. I wrote to all universities where it is not explicitly stated that no application fee waivers are provided, and in eight cases out of fourteen my requests were satisfied and I applied for free.
Alexei, you have come a long way to your success! How did you feel at the end of it? After a few weeks, and sometimes even months after submitting applications, your work begins to be rewarded. Here you begin to especially thank yourself for applying to the maximum possible number of schools. I received a rejection from one school but I knew there were more on my list and that comforted me a lot and helped to survive during those weeks. I applied for financial aid so for me it was very important not just be admitted to US schools but to receive financial aid. Tuition fee waivers were a vital issue for me. In 10 out of 11 cases, along with the acceptance, I was informed that I had received financial assistance. Some places gave me a modest $2000, while others offered me assistance covering 65 or 70 percent of the total cost of study. One school even gave me a full ride. As I later learned, this was a rare occurrence for my field of study. It was a great offer since, in my major, expenses related to education include not only traditional payments for insurance, food and housing, but also the cost of shooting films – renting locations, suits, props, decorating, if necessary, and providing food for the crew and actors, whose presence on the site has long been considered a movie rule among the filmmakers.