Entrance tests for DMJX_1

How to get into ad school

Whether you just left high school, already have a degree or are making a career change, getting into the creative side of an advertising school or course can be tough. Most ad schools have limited places and some kind of selection process to ensure that only the most talented people get in. So, how do you do it?

1. Take it seriously — For many of you, this will be your first out-of-school application experience. It is not a job application, but in many ways should be taken as seriously. This is your first big step on the career ladder towards a great creative future! Being an advertising creative is a lot of fun, but it is also a lot of hard work as you are basically being asked to invent something brand new every day. In order to do this, you need focus, discipline and passion. These qualities need to come through right from the start. I have seen applications containing pointless doodles, illegible copy, up-side-down jpegs and silly sketches in out-of-focus photographs thrown on the floor. This is not ‘cool’, ‘creative’ or ‘unique’. It is just bad.  

2. Do research — Learn what you can about advertising. Find someone in the industry to have coffee with, or read relevant literature or websites to help you figure out what advertising is as a profession. It's always evolving, so try to know about trends and the latest work. This will help you see what's heading your way.

Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads

"Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads" by Luke Sullivan is a great place to start learning about advertising. It's also a fun read.

Find the study options available. Spend some time thinking about what kind of school or course fits you. There are full degrees that take three years, post-graduate options, two-year, one-year, 6-month courses and even night-school options. There are a variety of different approaches to creative education, from super academic to do-it-yourself-with-the-ocassional-guest-speaker, and everything inbetween. Some schools have scholarship programmes or flexible times to allow for part-time study. And some ad schools actually help you get ready for ad school, like The Brixton Finishing School in London, read about it here.


The Brixton Finishing School is a new, 3-week initiative started by ad agencies in London to ensure more accessibility and diversity in the industry. Entrance is free and applicants are selected for the course based on potential. One lucky student wins a place to study further at The School of Communications Art in London, one of the most awarded ad schools in the world.

Ask students. Speak to current and past students about the school you are applying for. How did they get in? Do they have any advice? Do they like it there? Have previous student's found it easy to get jobs after graduating? Does the school help them get jobs? Stalk schools. Look through the school's website or blog. Look through past student portfolios. See who currently teaches there.

 3. Be you — Don't try to be what you think people are looking for. Don't act like 'people working in advertising'. There are honestly so many different personalities in Creative Departments (nerds, loud-mouths, ego-maniacs, sweethearts, surfer dudes etc.) it's just not worth the effort. Just be you. Of course, this is easier said than done. We are social creatures and seem hardwired to compare ourselves to others. So, take a bit of time to really consider what you like doing. What have you been drawn to your whole life, what music, art, books, people do you like and respect and why? How are you different to your friends? If you are a daydreamer who notices the tiniest details, loves long walks, Oscar Wilde and tea, great. If you’re a skater slash DJ who loves pierced tattoos, grafitti and Gothic films about vampires, great.

Some common advertising school application mistakes:

1. Sending in an art school application — sketchbook doodles and charcoal nude model-drawing attempts from art class will not work. Ideally, your technique or artistic style should be applied to a brand to communicate to an audience. The difference between advertising and art is that advertising is a) paid for by a client and b) communicates a message to a target audience. (Believe me, no matter how crazy a campaign appears, there's almost always a communication strategy lurking).

2. Including your holiday pics from Thailand — Unless you are a great photographer or have edited together a clever collection, then why? We all have smart phones.  It's nice to know you like new experiences, travel and adventure, but many people do. Try to make your collection stand out or convey a message about a culture, the joy of solo travel, humorous mishaps in new languages or weird meals around the world.

3. Showing tonnes of websites made with templates — Don't show more than one website you made from a wordpress template! Anyone can do this. It says nothing about you or your talent.  

4. Showing glossy campaigns you already did at a real agency as a 'junior' —
It's great you got some experience and made something for real, but ad schools really want to see your own art direction skill or talent, not how well you follow orders. Don't show more than one or two pieces of 'made' work, use those spaces for your own brilliance! If, however, you were given total freedom and cracked something amazing in an agency, bring it (but then why don't you just skip ad school altogether?)

Personality does count — When I was Associate Professor at the Danish School of Media & Journalism, we had a rigorous selection criteria to find talent for the Creative Communication course. We were, however, also looking at personality, and wanted people who would represent the school in a good way. So, do take it seriously, definitely be yourself, but, above all, be nice and respectful.

What if you don't get accepted? — Remember, it is not the end of the world! (even if it stings for a bit). Spend a bit of time reflecting on how it went. Did you really try your hardest? Were you having a bad week? Was it just a particularly brilliant group of candidates? Be honest. Then, get some feedback if possible so you can improve for next year. Or, attend a preparatory course to get ready. Perhaps that school is not for you? Try a different school. But, maybe, just maybe, advertising is actually not for you. This is okay! There are plenty of other creative industries and careers to choose from. The world needs curious, critical thinkers in all professions.

McNally Unlimited © 2023

McNally Unlimited © 2023