College Video 101

The college application essay is an opportunity to step out of the codified, quantified background of your transcript, and deliver a personal statement about who you are. The video essay is a similar opportunity: a fresh new way to tell your story in your voice.

Even if you’ve never shot a frame of footage, you can learn to make a compelling video. You don’t need any fancy equipment. In fact, you can make a video for next to nothing. What matters is not slickness, but content. And don’t worry if you’re camera shy. In some of the best videos, the applicant never appears. (You’ll find some examples among the videos on this site.) Colleges are looking for students, not directors or movie stars.


In making a college application video you have one overriding goal: to make an admissions officer remember you. That doesn’t mean being elaborate or gimmicky. It means saying something genuine about how you think or feel or see the world; it means following your heart and your imagination. That’s what colleges seek in the ever-growing mountains of admissions data: the beating heart of a real person.

What makes one video deliver an “I’d admit that kid in a minute” jolt while another is an instant brain-delete?


The first step in learning about what works and what doesn’t is to play admissions officer and do some serious watch-till-you-plop viewing (on this site, YouTube, or in the links in our book). Watch analytically. Take notes. After you’ve seen a few dozen videos or so, ask yourself which ones stick in your mind and which don’t… which candidates you’d admit in an Ivy-instant, and which ones you’d send the proverbial thin envelope.

You’ll soon discover that there are many types of memorable videos. They range from live action to animation, talent displays to a day-in-the-life, whimsical raps to messages-from-the-heart. You will also learn that the key to making a “like” showpiece is not by flaunting every last activity and accomplishment since preschool, and that great videos reveal a sense of the inner, not just the outer person.

Does that mean students can’t ever show off many diverse interests? No. But notice that videos which do this successfully usually have a “hook” so that the viewer gains insight into a person rather than getting lost in extracurricular-ville.


In a video you have great freedom to express yourself. But there’s one absolute rule: Don’t make a video that’s longer than two minutes.

Why? For the same reason that your essay can’t be longer than 500 words. College applications aren’t just stressful for you – they’re also tough for bleary-eyed admissions officers who have to wade through thousands of applications. Make your video short and sweet. Less is more. If you don’t believe it, keep an eye on the timer during your video-thon, and notice how much someone can communicate in a single minute.


Deciding on your concept is often the most crucial part of making of a video, and for some students, the most challenging. Don’t rush it. Give yourself time to mull, brainstorm, daydream. Put on your filmmaker’s hat and look at yourself and your world with fresh eyes.

Find a focus. Your focus. Think small, personal, human, idiosyncratic, “what I ponder alone in my room at 3 am.” Showcase your passions, personal philosophy, or problems overcome. Listen to the voices inside you. Trust yourself.


Once you have an idea, make a simple shooting plan. This may be just a rough outline of what and where you plan to shoot, or it may include your narration – what you will say on camera, or in voice over. You can always make changes and improvise on the set, but having a plan in hand helps keep you focused and on track. Put another way, a shooting plan is the blueprint of your overall vision.

A shooting plan also means having a check list of everything you will need when you film. A college video may not be a multi-million dollar Hollywood production, but your finished product will benefit from your being organized and prepared.


You have two shooting options: your computer’s webcam, or a video camera. A webcam has many advantages. It’s right there on your computer, easy to operate, and keeps your shoot simple. Some outstanding videos have been made by applicants just sitting or standing in front of their webcams. (See the Videos section for some excellent examples.)

Or you can go the “movie” route, and shoot with a video camera. You don’t need an expensive camera. Sure, use the best camera you can scare up, but bear in mind that what matters is content and creativity. The most important piece of equipment you need for making a great video is your brain.


If you’re shooting with a webcam, find a pleasing background, compose your shot, and arrange lighting that looks good – ideally use two light sources, lamps and/or windows.

Similarly, with a video camera, compose your shots and adjust your framing and camera angle until you like what you see. (If a friend is running your camera, make sure you trust his “eye,” or have him or her stand in for you, while you make the camera adjustments, and then switch places for “action.”) As with a feature film, do multiple takes, shooting both medium and close up shots. This will give you plenty of choices when you’re editing.

If you appear on camera, make sure we see your face. One of the most frequent mistakes in college videos are interviews that are shot too far from the subject. Make the most of your video “face-to-face!”


The best way to get good sound is to shoot in a quiet location. Before shooting, whether inside or out, close your eyes and listen. Or, record twenty seconds of silence, and play it back to see how silent it really is. If necessary, find a quieter time or place to shoot.

Make sure you speak in a strong, clear voice, and don’t rush or slur your words. Speak naturally, as if you were talking to a friend. And don’t forget to smile.


If you have a Mac you probably already have iMovie, an excellent choice for editing your college video. If you have a PC, you can download, for free, Microsoft Movie Maker (Vista), or Windows Live Movie Maker (Windows 7). Transfer your files via your camera’s USB or Firewire cable to your editing program.

Stay organized while you work, and label your project folders, so you can tell at a glance what’s in them, and find material quickly. The key to good editing is to cut, cut, and cut some more. If your video includes a lot of footage of you speaking, try to leaven your “talking head” shots with cutaways to other images. Watch other videos, or TV and movies, to help get a feel for rhythm and pacing. If your video runs long, keep trimming and tightening your shots. Show your first cut to other people. Viewer input will help you improve successive drafts.


Music editing can have a huge effect on your video’s impact, adding mood and emotion to your words and images. When your voice stops, music can fill auditory gaps. It can also help build toward a climax and put closure on a video by signaling to the viewer that it is about to end.


All programs allow you to add titles in many fonts and colors, with options such as roll, fade and slide. Have fun, and play around until you come up with images you like. Some videos use text not just for titles, but as part of the creative content.


When you’re done, burn your video to DVD or upload to YouTube. The advantage of posting your video online is that you can tempt the admissions officer to take a one minute video break, by simply dropping a YouTube link into your application.

To preserve privacy, you can make your video “unlisted,” so that only those to whom you give the URL can find it.

YouTube has this help page: “How to Upload Videos.”


Most online applications have a place where you can add “something extra.” On the Common App there’s an “anything else?” prompt at the end of the writing section. Past in something like, “If you’d like to learn a little more about me and my passion for falconry, you can watch a one minute video here: YOUTUBE LINK.”  What’s the worst that can happen? They won’t click.  (But we think that if they’re seriously considering you, they will.)


This guide is plenty to get you started, and may be all you need. But if you want to see more topnotch videos, and get in-depth analysis and technical information, check out our book.

"An engaging and comprehensive guide full of great advice for putting your best foot - or face - forward with this newest option in the college application process. An informative and fun read with great links to what students are doing right with the video essay format. I highly recommend it."

Matthew Perifano, Teacher
Film Studies and Video Production
International High School
San Francisco