Letters of Recommendation for MFA in Creative Writing

Recently, after posting on this blog about the Letter of Intent and the Writing Sample, I received a question about who should write letters of recommendation for a program in creative writing. I thought it might make sense to elaborate on that answer here. Let me preface my comments by saying that I can only discuss how I will view letters of recommendation, so what someone else might think about it could be different!

Prospective students applying to The W’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing may face a bit of a challenge in this regard. I assume that many will have been out of college for awhile, so they may not be in touch with their undergraduate professors. Of course, my first advice is to get back in touch with them! Don’t hesitate to ask. I’ve been happy to write letters for students who I haven’t taught in as many as eight years! And I’ve had a pretty good track record writing letters for them. I always ask the former student to catch me up on his or her life after graduation, and I always ask to see a statement of purpose, so I can help them with that difficult task (see my previous post), and so I have a better idea of their plans. So be prepared to answer some questions from your former professors, but don’t be shy about asking us for our recommendations. That’s part of our jobs!

Still, it is good to include one or more letters from people who are familiar with your recent writing. So if your former professors can’t speak to your creative writing (or can’t do that effectively), what can you do? Choose people to write your letters who will be able to speak to your potential as a writer, a teacher, and a scholar. Having at least one recommender from an educational program you’ve been in does seem like a good idea because that person can discuss your strengths as a student and as a scholar, and can probably assess your potential as a teacher, which is especially important if you are interested in teaching as a graduate assistant. Also choose recommenders who can speak to your creative writing strengths (why not let your former professors read your recent writing if they’re unfamiliar with it) and/or who can discuss your potential as a scholar.

You are looking for people to recommend you who are well-known enough to pull some weight in the admissions decision, so choose someone who has academic credentials, if possible. Balance that against choosing recommenders who know you well and can represent you well in their letters. A famous writer who doesn’t really know you will write a worse letter than someone who isn’t well-known (but has some credentials like publication or teaching) who knows you and your writing/teaching well. Also, try to pick recommenders who write this type of recommendation frequently. They will know what to say and what tone to take. Again, someone in academics who knows your work is the best choice. If you can get one or two who are (also) creative writers with some publications to their name, even better. If you’ve been to any weekend or summer workshops or if you are part of a writing group, then maybe a published writer from one of those experiences would be willing to write a letter for you. Or if you’ve been published in a literary magazine and have developed a working relationship with one of the editors, then he or she might be willing to write for you. But don’t imagine a relationship where there is none. Your recommenders should know you fairly well.

However, I would recommend against getting letters of recommendation from family members, bosses, or friends, unless they can write impartially and unless they are involved in either education or writing as a profession. If you work for a school or newspaper, then your boss might be a good recommender; if you work at a pizza place, then probably not (unless your boss is also a published writer). Similarly, if you work at an independent bookstore or at a publishing company, then your boss might write a good letter about your writing and your work ethic, but do include at least one letter from someone in education, if at all possible.

Yes, a letter of recommendation should speak to your character, but more importantly, it should speak to your ability to succeed in a creative writing MFA program. Someone who has experienced you in a classroom or workshop setting will be better able to write that letter. And someone who has written other letters of recommendation for similar programs, or who has read similar letters for the program they teach in, will be in a position to write for you.

Will I throw out your application if your mother writes one of your letters? Probably not. But I may not take it as seriously as if you have more appropriate letters, and that isn’t because I don’t believe or trust your mother, but because I won’t have as much to go on, when making my decision.

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