About a year and a half ago, I wrote a series of posts about MFA applications, beginning with “What to Say in your Statement of Purpose.” At the time, The W was just launching its low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, and I wanted to be transparent about the application process by telling prospective students what I would be looking for. Now that we’re starting our second year of the program, and I’ve been through 3 application cycles (we have considered a few applicants for the spring semester), it seemed like a good time to revisit those posts, which still get quite a few hits, and to add some thoughts based on recent experience.
Looking back over what I said about the writing sample and letter of intent, everything still seems pretty true: I’m looking for your best work that is publishable and looks like it will fit in with our program. In your letter, I still want to know about who you are (as a writer), where you’ve been, and where you’re headed (what your goals are for your writing). So if I were to add anything, it would be that the letter and the writing sample really do go together.
Our successful applicants, the ones who have been admitted into the program, have had clear goals and a history that shows they have a good chance of achieving those goals. Their writing sample is a good fit for the goals they have in mind. Even if it’s not a direct fit, if their past writing and their future goals don’t line up exactly, the letter of intent explains how their past has led them to these new goals. It draws the connection between the writing sample and the MFA program experience they want.
Their goals are not just “to be a published writer,” which pretty much goes without saying for anyone applying to an MFA program, but instead are more specific: what kind of writer, what kind of publishing, what do they want to do to earn a living while working to become a published writer, and how will an MFA program help them along this path.
Most of the writers we’ve turned down haven’t convinced me that their writing and/or their understanding of the career of a writer is fully developed yet. When I turn people down, it isn’t because they’re bad writers, in other words. It is because I feel they aren’t ready to make the investment in an MFA, which will cost a fair amount in terms of time and money, so I try to offer advice on how to develop as a writer before applying to programs again.
As I look to the future, I think my responses to applicants may change, though. So far, the number of qualified applicants has pretty much kept pace with our goals for the program and exceeded our expectations, but not by so much that we had to turn people away. That may change. As more people learn about our program, we are more likely to consider ‘fit’ an important criterion. There will come a time, I have little doubt, when we have to tell qualified writers that we believe our program is not the best fit for them. As the competition grows, quality will by necessity no longer be the only deciding factor. When looking at several dozen qualified applicants and deciding whom and how many we can support, the needs of the program will be more and more important.
In other words, giving a clear sense of the genres you want to work in will be helpful (though I can’t predict which genres will be overrepresented in the future). Giving us a sense of the kind of writing you want to do within those genres will also be imperative. Not knowing the answers to these questions might rule someone out, even if the writing sample seems competent enough. Still, I don’t know that we will always choose the ‘top’ writers from the applicant pool. We will begin to look at other intangibles, such as background, style, and personality, to find a mix that will make a positive experience for all of our students. A good writer who has a clear sense of where she’s going and who adds diversity (of style, of background, of age, etc.) may be chosen over a writer with a slightly better writing sample who doesn’t surprise or add much to our program. Someone who is brilliant but too different from what we are set up to handle might also be turned away because we don’t feel we can support him or her.
So when you’re working on your writing sample and letter of intent, what can you do? Turn in your best work, and be as specific and as thoughtful about your writing and your goals as you can. Be honest, be yourself, and know that if our program turns you down this time, you will find the right place for you another time — and it may even be our program when you are ready for us or we are ready for you.