What I’ve learnt from my yearlong film school application

Via Richard Lund

A post with a title like this is, or should be, written by people who are already admitted. I have applied to four top film schools and by far have been rejected by two. (*Usually this is the cue where people stop reading.) While I am still begging to hear from the rest two schools, I think I can use my time more wisely writing about my yearlong application than becoming an expert in refreshing email inbox.

Those who know me often assume that if I were to study a master’s degree, I would choose some business programs like MBA and what not. That was what I thought, too. But instead, I quit my job last Spring and applied to film schools for the Screenwriting MFA program.

#1 Brace yourself

Let’s admit it, applying to film school is hard.

Unlike business schools where a few pages of short essays plus sterling GRE/GMAT scores and strong recommendation letters would do the trick, film school requires “a bit” more than that, especially for those who don’t have portfolio handy, like myself.

When I started writing the hundred-page feature-length screenplay in English, I had written nothing longer than my undergraduate English thesis. It was also the first time I wrote fiction. One evening during the application period, I screamed at the top of my lung from a nightmare and almost gave my parents heart attacks. During the dark-tunnel waiting period, I caved in and binged watching TV shows while I still had to work on GRE which was just three weeks away…

Fast forward — after receiving two rejections and one waitlist, I tried to smile, “it would be fine.” Then a week into the suffocating no-news, I bawled like a psychopath. In my sleep, I would grind teeth till my nerve hurt.

Sure, there are people sweeping all top film schools they’ve applied. But, let’s face it, there are only so many seats (around 30 each) at each school. Most people will have their share of heartbreaks.

So the question for you is this:
Are you ready for all these?

#2 Do your damnedest

I confess I didn’t prepare for a worst-case scenario — like the one I am in right now: two rejections, one waitlist, and one up in the air.

What if no school wanted me?
What if I had to do it all over again next year?
(*Most Screenwriting MFA programs only crop applicants in the fall.)

Would I be ready physically, and psychologically?

These are what I feared most, right from the beginning.

But when I realized that I can only do the best I can, I feel liberated. Bear in mind, arts is subjective. And then, try not to apply to too many schools, because you only have this much of energy in stock. Plus, every school wants things quite differently as you browse the sites. When your Personal Statement sounds like it can also fit to other schools with minimum tweaks, the committee will know. Do your research and limit to the schools that attract and fit you most, and then, work.

So regarding these ultimate questions, I don’t have answers just yet. All I know is I will (and will have to) come up with solutions when that day comes.

Thinking way ahead paralyzes us —
The reality looks all too daunting
while the dream seems all but a joke…

Stop yourself right there! Your job, your job right now is, repeat after me, to finish your application by the deadline. And you can only polish your work when you have completed the first draft.

When you submit your work, your job is done. Let the judges do theirs.

#3 Keep your body active, too

When we have those daunting blank pages to fill, we tend to dissuade ourselves from working out.

As I observe my patterns through my morning journals and books like The Willpower Instinct and Procrastination, I find whenever I feel blue, I never feel better by binge-watching TV shows or stuffing my mouth with chocolate. But, I always become more peaceful after a fifteen-minutes jog — although sometimes I would try talking myself out of it by blaming the polluted air, the rain, or the cold weather.

But here is the thing — if you really want to feel pumped up and get your creative juice flowing, get your body active first. Your mind will thank you later.

#4 Show up every day no matter what

We’ve all been in this quagmire: we want to do our best, but we’re also afraid seeing our best rejected.

If doing our best earns us half the chance to win, investing less or not trying at all takes us to nowhere but the What-if Wanderland.

I used to consider other writers potential competitors. But truth is, we are in competition with no one but ourselves. We human beings have an insatiable stomach for great stories. With so many great writers, fiction and nonfiction, we first write for ourselves. Then the story would appeal to its own “target audience.” That is, I think, one of the best things about the writing business.

Unfortunately, writing can be a sonofbitch, too. I can look for inspiration reading books for days and letting my ideas fermenting in my head not typing a word out… till I was in the vicinity of the deadline. Lee Kuan Yew once said, “I do not yet know of a man who became a leader as a result of having undergone a leadership course.” Reading helps, but writers can only become a better writer through writing.

Even if you’re sure you’ll be rejected,
write something
to have them reject you with at least.

#5 Always look for the brighter side

I was sure that I would be granted admission after the smooth interview. Instead, I was put onto the waitlist. On the same day, I was rejected by the other school I thought I had a shot.

For a few days, I thought this whole application, my fun-less life included, was nothing but a joke. I pictured myself as a laughing stock wherever I went. I thought I was too stupid too naive taking people’s words literally as I quote, “would definitely recommend you to the admission board,” “the board regards you highly,” “your personal statement really stood out.” I was elated and shouted out to the world (via social media) about the interview and felt sure that my name was on their roster already.

But waitlisted? It’s like getting tied up to a burning car loaded with dynamites. You know you’ll wind up getting blown up, you just don’t know when.

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

It’s possible, but not very probable.


This time, I decided not to cave in chewing my heart out; I reached out for advice.

A friend who once got off the waitlist and went to her dream school encouraged me —

“If this is a marathon you are running, it is this last 50-Meter dash that counts now. Shoot them another note about your latest projects and new plans. Re-state your passion for this trade and for the school. When I learnt it was my GMAT and TOEFL scores hurting my chance, I completed an online English program and lay out my sixteen-months study plan as per the school’s program. To this day, I don’t know what got me back in the game in the end. The truth is, you never know.”

Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t.
But it never hurts to try, eh?

A sage mentor and friend of mine reminded me —

“You have a reasonable chance of admission. If applicants who have been admitted to multiple places decide not to accept their offer, then spots open up for the waitlist. We don’t know how many from the waitlist customarily make the final class. It seems it will be several weeks to learn that. In addition, some people who have been waitlisted will accept admission elsewhere, so the waitlist can rapidly shrink. In all, I believe you’re in a pretty good spot.”

Those words pulled me back to senses. I realized the waitlist wasn’t as bad as it sounded considering the odds I was up against. I then wrote back to the school with a heartfelt thank-you letter and waited, patiently — totally out of my character. Two weeks later, I learnt they began accepting students on the waitlist.

I might have a shot after all.

#6 Miracle does happen

2004 ~ 2015: Thanks mum for safekeeping.

As I was polishing this piece, I was finally off the waitlist and will go to U.C.L.A.’s Screenwriting MFA program — at long last.
(*By the way, I got rejected by the last school.)

Four applications, three rejections, one waitlist. And now, finally accepted.

My mum said it would be super humiliating having nowhere to go if nothing panned out. I suppose it could, but it doesn’t have to.

Even if I failed this time, I am already brave enough to quit my job and put my dream to test.

We lose by default if we let our dreams rest and rot. Our failures are only temporary if we refuse to let it be indefinitely. There are no what-ifs in life. You did it, or you did not.

Go big, or go home.

*A bit about myself

I was born and bred in Shanghai by a working class family; neither of my parents speak English.
I graduated with B.A. majoring in English.
I had four full-time jobs in four years after graduation.
By 25, I became the youngest director at a prestigious agency leading five people; I resigned eight months later — one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made.
I fell in love with books long before I found my lifelong fascination with words.
Whenever I am at sea, I turn to Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech for answers.
Like Jobs, I ask myself what I want to do with my life constantly.
Unlike Jobs, I wasn’t lucky enough to find what I wanted to do with my life when I was younger.
I have been doing projects from home while preparing for the school applications and saved enough for the first year’s tuition and fees.

When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.


Yours truly,