Archive for the ‘MFA application’ Category

The MFA Writing Sample: How long?

Sometimes the best advice is the most practical advice, so with that in mind, I want to revisit the MFA Writing Sample to ask a question about optimal length. Those of us who teach undergraduate writers often make paper assignments that are 5-7 or 8-10 pages. In those cases, hitting the minimum is required, but to get a really good grade, you should strive for the maximum. If you’ve just been in college or if you remember those good old days, then you might think the MFA Writing sample works the same way. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t. That is to say, the minimum is still the minimum, but the maximum isn’t really the number you strive for.

In our low-residency MFA program, we ask applicants to send a sample of 10-30 pages. I’ve seen other programs list 10-20 or split it up and ask for 10-20 for poetry and 15-30 for prose (or something along those lines). We don’t distinguish poetry from prose because we accept poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama, so it could get confusing to list too many distinctions. Plus, some people write flash fiction and may have plenty of pieces with 10-15 pages. What we want, is for you to give us enough pages (10) so we can judge a sustained effort, and for you to have enough room to put forth your best effort without completely overwhelming the person reading your sample. We figure there are some stories that might run about 30 pages that we’d like to see in their entirety, but there aren’t many that are much longer that couldn’t be excised or excerpted and still give us a strong sense of the writer.

So how should you view the vast amount of space (10-30 pages) you have to work with? If you write short forms, you should definitely get to 10 pages, and you probably won’t go wrong to send us a few more, but poets and flash fiction writers shouldn’t feel like they have to reach 30 pages or even 20. 10-15 pages is a good range to shoot for if this includes more than 3 pieces (and poets may have 10-15 poems!), 15-25 pages is a good range to aim for with 2-3 pieces, and 20-30 pages is a good range for 1-2 pieces. You can send more — up to 30 pages, and I usually say a few extra pages, maybe up to 33, won’t kill you if you really need them.

And there’s the rub. How many pages do you really need. A single story that was thirty-three, maybe even thirty-four pages long might be fine. But remember, you’ve got to keep me reading through all of those pages. They had better be good! Could you cut a few of those pages and get below thirty? If you have two stories that together exceed thirty pages, you know I’m going to tell you to send me one of them, but not both. The only reason to send both is if they show very different things about you as a writer, but then I will thank you keep it under thirty pages. (Hint: you want me to thank you!)

Let’s say you’re a poet, though. You’ve hit your ten pages and could stop there. How many more poems should you send? That depends on how many more strong poems you have and whether they show the range of your poetry. Sending me more pages (beyond twelve or thirteen) probably won’t help unless they reveal something more about you than that you write a lot. Maybe the poems go together as a series or poem cycle: okay, you might send them all. Maybe some are published, but you also want to send me new poems that are in the direction you really want to go. That’s good. But don’t pad your writing sample with work that isn’t as important to you or as well-written. The extra pages won’t do you any favors. Just as in prose, you want to keep my attention. I might be tired or I might have read several other writing samples that day (or freshman comp papers).

If you’re somewhere in the middle, say at the 20 page mark and you’re deciding whether to include another short piece: should you? Again that depends. How much does it add to our understanding of you as a writer? We say that “more pages aren’t necessarily better” and we say “send us your best work.” We mean it. More pages won’t help your chances once you’ve given us enough. I usually suggest one to two pieces of prose or no more than four if they’re short or six if they’re really short. If you can’t convince me in that amont of writing, more won’t change my mind and may even make it worse: there’s more room for mistakes.

Now what about that novel excerpt? How many pages should you include? On the one hand, you could send us thirty pages from a novel, but I might thank you for sending twenty-five. How to decide? You should send us pages that show some portrayal of scene, some development of character, some dialogue, and possibly some action. I say possibly for the action because the action could be minimal. What I want to see are characters in conflict or tension. I want to see your prose and how you handle scenes. But I don’t need to see too much. One relatively self-contained excerpt from a novel is probably best or maybe two if both are fairly short. You don’t want to get bogged down in exposition or to have scenes that need a lot of explanation, so it can be a challenge.

This is why sending short fiction is usually better than sending a chapter of a novel. But if a novel chapter is really your best work, then that’s what you should send. Just because you can send thirty pages doesn’t mean you should, though. If you can say as much in twenty pages, then that will be sufficient. So look for an excerpt that is relatively self-contained, has a narrative arc, and presents characters (but does more than introduce characters), and is thirty pages or less.

How long is long enough? The answer is that it depends on what you send. How long is too long? As long as you can hold my interest, your writing sample isn’t too long. But if the pages are there only to show you have more pages, then your sample might be better without them. If you’re honest with yourself, you will know.

MFA Writing Samples

May I just say that one of the tasks I most look forward to this time of year is reading the letters and writing samples from applicants to our low-residency MFA program? I know we won’t be able to accept everyone, but I open each file with a sense of promise and hope.

For those who are applying, I’m sure you send out your work with a fair amount of trepidation. You know that some programs are extremely competitive and your odds are slim, but you hope you make the cut. Other programs like ours may not be quite as overrun with applications (though one day we could be), yet you’re still worried about whether you’ll be deemed “good enough.” It’s easy to imagine the readers of your application materials as gatekeepers who will determine whether or not you should follow your dreams. I’m here to tell you not to think of us that way. Of course you should follow your dreams. It’s just a question of where you are on that journey and whether our MFA is the right next step.

When I open a writing sample, I want to be wowed. I want the writing to be crisp and professional, but even more than that, I want to get to know the writer who sent it. Almost without exception, I find someone who truly wants to be a writer and who may well have the potential to make it. My job isn’t to weed out those who aren’t writers from those who are; my job is to  judge to the best of my ability who is ready for, and who will be a good fit for, our program.

So I’m just as excited to read the writings of those who aren’t ready for our MFA as I am to read those who clearly are. If I accept you into our program, I’ll be asking you to devote a lot of your time and effort, not to mention a sizeable investment in tuition, to pursuing that dream with us. I want to be fair and honest, and I want everyone we admit to be ready to get as much out of that experience as possible. I don’t expect perfection, but I do want to see that you have some idea of what you’re getting yourself into. I want to know that we’ll be able to help you out along your path and that you have a pretty good sense of what that path might be.

We’re more than happy to read your writing sample and your letter before you apply and before you pay us our small application fee. I don’t want to take anything from you other than the opportunity to read your writing as we look for a good mix of writers to be our next entering class. So with our priority deadline coming up on March 1 and possibly room for more applications after that, I’m excited to have some excellent reading in the coming months!

How to Prepare to Apply for an MFA Program, Part 2

So you’ve been writing, revising, reading magazines and books (as I suggested in Part 1 of this series), and you feel like you’re ready to start the application process. How can you navigate the difficult journey to an MFA? Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help you choose a program and figure out how to write the best application possible.

First, how do you know when you’re really ready to apply? Sometimes you just have to take that plunge, but it can help to do some relection before you start the process. My low-residency MFA progam has a Guide for Applicants that can help you make that decision and help you navigate the process, and we hope it’s helpful for any program, not just ours. I’ve also written extensively on this blog about the application process. See the category MFA Application for posts like 15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA that can help you prepare.

AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs also has a series of articles about the MFA application process that can be very helpful in thinking about the process and deciding whether you’re ready to take the plunge. Poets & Writers also publishes an annual MFA issue in Sept./Oct. that can be very informative with articles about the MFA experience and advice on choosing a program.

Another free resource that I highly recommend is Kenzie Allen’s 10-day course at Literistic, “MFA Applications 101.” This series of ten emails will walk you through the application process and provide many links to more resources than I can cover here. If you’re starting the application process or even just thinking about it, you owe it to yourself to sign up. The more you know about the process, the better you’ll be able to do to write your letter and hone your writing sample.

Other great resources include the MFA Years blog and the MFA Draft Facebook group: a new group is started each year, so search for the group if my link doesn’t take you to the right one. You must request membership and show that you’re an applicant, not a program director like me.

Finding a program is a little more complicated. Of course, you want to apply to the best programs you can where you’ll be competitive, but you also want to bear in mind the cost, location, and the culture of the schools you’re looking at. The best places to start your search are the guides at AWP, Poets & Writers, New Pages, and Publisher’s Weekly. You can find out everything you need to know to get started from these sites, and they all list slightly different information, so checking more than one is worth the time. They also link to program websites, which makes it easier to dig down to find out more about the programs you’re most interested in.

The common advice you hear about writing programs is to choose based on the writers who teach in the program. There’s a certain amount of wisdom in that — it they write like you write, then you might have a better experience working with them. That’s if those writers are truly active in their programs and if they are good teachers as well as good writers. But many of the best teaching writers out there are not the most famous writers you’ve heard of. Yes, the reputation of your thesis director could make a difference, but the vast majority of writers will make their way based on their own merits, not on who they worked with in grad school.

Better advice that you hear is to contact students in the program to find out what it’s like. Ask about hidden fees and about the culture of the program. What’s it like to live in the town for a full residency program or how a low-residency program works: do you work with a mentor or take online classes? How do you exchange files? etc.

Another piece of advice for choosing programs that I don’t hear a lot about, but have been thinking about recently, is to read the program’s literary magazine. From the magazine, you’ll learn a lot about the esthetic of the graduate student editors. Sure, the contributors for the magazine won’t be from the program (or if they are, that would be a huge red flag), but students in the program have chosen every piece published, so you learn what kind of writing interests them.

There is no magic bullet for choosing the right program. That’s why you’ll want to apply to more than one program, and you shouldn’t stop researching once you’ve sent in your application. Keep exploring the choices you’ve made, try to make connections or visit campus, write the programs to ask questions or get in touch with current students, so that when you are faced with a decision, you’ll have a better sense of what you want to do.

How to Prepare to Apply to an MFA Program, Part 1

Okay, so you want to apply for an MFA in Creative Writing, but you don’t know whether you’re good enough or where to start. You want to brush up on your writing and you want to put together the best application you possibly can. But how? In this post, I’ll try to give you some advice and point you to some resources to help you develop your writing. Then we’ll look at resources to help with the application process.

First, write. If you are going to be in an MFA program, you will write like you’ve never written before, so why wait until after you’ve been accepted? Start by writing every day or every time you possibly can. Write new material, try new genres, test your boundaries.

Next, rewrite. Don’t be satisfied with that most recent good draft. If your best writing was done in college, you would probably write it better now. Nearly any piece of writing can be improved or polished. Go back and re-read your older work, esp. if you don’t have ideas for new work. Try to find new layers. Do more than just correct errors (though fix anything and everything you can so you have absolutely clean copy). Sometimes this revision leads you to your next good idea. Going to a workshop or being involved in a writer’s group can be helpful, so you get feedback from others. If you don’t have someone nearby who can help, try going to a workshop or conference.

Finally, read. As I’ve said before, every MFA applicant should read widely in literary magazines. You need to know what’s being written today by the writers you admire (or the ones you’ll only admire once you’ve read them). You need to see what other MFA applicants are reading and what their professors are reading and writing. If you know what programs you want to apply to, read their literary journals to see the editorial choices of their current and former students. Our low-residency MFA program publishes two journals Ponder Review and Poetry South.

Go to bookstores and libraries to find the books that are being written that you’d like to emulate. What genre or sub-genre do you think you want to write? What authors are being published in those areas? Buy some books and read them! Or check them out from the library. Find out who those authors’ agents are. Start learning about the publishing industry.

You will have a better writing sample and letter if you’ve prepared yourself for your MFA than if you rely solely on your own talent.

That’s enough for today! I’ll continue soon with some resources that can help you with the application process.

Transcripts for the MFA Application

I’ve reached Day 8 in Kenzie Allen’s 10-day course on applying for the MFA in creative writing, and she’s talking about the CV, transcripts, and the GRE. She has a lot of good advice, so if you haven’t taken her free course, you should. She even links to my blog a few times, so she must have done her research!

I agree with Allen about the CV — it should highlight your education and other experience, it should be professional and easy to read, and you’ll probably elaborate on most of those things in your letter or statement of purpose, but the CV brings them all together and is a place where you can list all of your publications (if you have them) without bogging down your SOP. At our program, it’s optional, so don’t stress about it, but do send one if it helps you make your case.

I also agree that the GRE has become less and less important. See if the schools you’re applying to require it, and don’t take it if you don’t need to. If you do need to report a score, remember that most MFA programs don’t care what your score is, but they may be required by their graduate school to use a minimum score as a requirement for admission. They may not publicize what that score is, and they may have some leeway in how they set that score (that will vary by university), but you’ll need to report it if they require it. Then the committee will likely ignore the score once they see you have met the minimum standard.

However, I realized that, though I agree with most of what Allen says regarding transcripts, I hadn’t written about those and there are a few things I can add from a program director’s perspective. For one, Allen says that in her experience it doesn’t matter if you have studied English as an undergraduate. While that’s true for many programs, I also know of some that require a certain number of prerequisite English or creative writing undergraduate courses. Usually, they don’t ask for specific ones, but a certain number of hours of literature. You might be admitted without these, but required to take them in addition to your regular degree requirements.

Our program doesn’t require any prerequisite English courses, and I’m happy with that. We’ve admitted a dancer and an accountant, among others. I’ve probably forgotten more of our students’ undergraduate majors than I remember, since once you’re in the program, it won’t really matter. But your transcript will still make a difference: it tells me things I want or need to know.

1) What you’ve studied

Naturally, we like to see that you’ve studied English, whether or not your major was in English. Many of my best creative writing students over the years have not been majors, so I’m open any major. If you never took an English class as an undergrad, that can be an issue (in terms of your preparedness for our degree), so I’ll want to see evidence elsewhere of your active reading life and of your sophistication as a scholar. After all, some of our classes demand that you do literary research, so you want to show you’re prepared. We also like to see undergraduate creative writing classes in the mix, but if you haven’t had that opportunity, we understand. Things like summer workshops or activity in local writing groups can help your application if you don’t have creative writing classes. So if your transcript has holes, you want to address them in your SOP by talking about what you’ve done since graduation. Most of the applicants to our low-res program have been out of school for many years, so their experience since undergrad should weigh much more heavily than their undergrade, except it does tell about your academic record.

2) How well you’ve performed in school

The one thing you can’t change is your undergraduate GPA, and that can be very important for admissions. Actually, you can change it by going back and taking some undergraduate classes or by enrolling in another graduate program. If your GPA is deficient and you’ve gained a lot of experience and motivation, you may be well-served by taking a semester or two, even part-time, to show that you can now do better than you did the first time.

For our program, you need a minimum overall GPA of 2.75 or a GPA of 3.0 in the last 60 hours of work in order to be fully admitted to our program. If you don’t have that, then taking additional credits might help you bring up those last 60 hours. We consider every semester in its entirety, so if your the 60th hour is in a semester with several other hours, I would have to consider the whole semester. Taking additional classes might even affect which semesters would be considered in your  last hours, which might help as much as earning higher grades.

(These requirements will likely be different for each university on your list.)

3) How you can be admitted

GPA makes a big difference in how we admit students. The choice of whether to admit someone hinges more on their overall academic record and what they’ve done since graduation. I’ve admitted students who were marginal at best during their undergraduate years, yet who had gone on to achieve remarkable things. I want to look at the whole picture, in other words, but I also have to consider your potential as a student and I have to live within the rules of my institution’s admissions policies. Check these out for any school you’re interested in, esp. if you’re worried about your previous record.

I can fully admit someone to our program if they meet our admissions standards or I can conditionally admit anyone to our program if I feel there are mitigating circumstances.

Conditional admission means that you are limited to taking two classes in your first semester (or three if you come to our 1-hour residency), and you must earn a B or higher in those classes to show you can handle graduate school. (You’re only allowed two Cs in your program, so to get one in your first semester would be a very bad sign. Why should we keep taking your money if you’re not going to succeed in our program?) Conditional students are also not eligible for federal loans, so you would need to pay for your first semester out of pocket or with private loans. But once you’ve proven yourself, you are then fully admitted and can study full-time and qualify for loans. I’ve had plenty of people do this and do very well in our program.

So, if you’ve had a rough patch in your academic career, know that we’ll understand. It’s probably something you want to address or even get your recommenders to address in their letters, but it shouldn’t be something that will stop you from earning your degree. You can tell us why you hit that rough patch, if you want to — sometimes it may now be exactly what inspires you to write — or you can simply acknowledge it and talk about the things you’ve done since then that show you can succeed.

If you’ve been a great student but in areas other than Engish, then acknowledge that as well and show us how you combine your other interests with your writing or tell how your journey took you to a love of writing.

Your transcripts are important documents that show your preparedness and your aptitude for scholarly work. They are not the end-all-be-all of your application, but they provide a unique window into who you are that is complemented by your writing sample, statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation.

We do need to see official transcripts from every post-secondary academic institution you have attended, whether you received your degree from there or not. (Some schools make exceptions for transcripts with fewer than a given number of hours, but many do not.) Go back over your transcripts (as I will) and look to see if you transferred any credits from another school. Make sure we have the transcript from that math class you took at community college, etc. Doing that on the front end will make things easier when it comes time for us to make our decision.

Revisiting the Statement of Purpose for the MFA

This week, I’ve been learning how to apply to MFA programs in creative writing: I decided to take a free course, even though I direct an MFA program. I’m taking the course to see what Kenzie Allen has to say about the process and to review what I think about it, since I’ve written a number of advice articles and our program’s Guide for Applicants. This morning’s ‘class’ (each morning for 10 days you get an email with advice on applying) was on the Statement of Purpose. It got me thinking about the importance of this part the application, which I’ve written about previously.

Allen has some good advice, and she links through to several articles by others about how to write a statement of purpose. They all pretty much agree, though each gives a slightly different take. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for this, or the statement wouldnt’ be personal. Incidentally at my program, we call it a Letter of Intent. We do that in part to make it seem less daunting, in part to make it paradoxically seem more personal, and in part to emphasize your goals. You’re not selling me on who you are; you’re selling me on what you want to do in our program (and that you are the person who can do those things).

What I was struck by in my reading this morning is just how important this letter is. Everyone says the writing sample is the most important, and that can be true, but the statement of purpose or letter of intent is just as big a deal, and it’s probably harder to write.

I’ve seen letters of intent that definitely got an applicant into our program. Their writing sample was competent, but not terribly exciting, but their letter was moving and read like very good creative nonfiction. I could see the potential in this writer from their letter, even though I could tell from their writing sample that they were still struggling to find that voice in their fiction or poetry. The letter showed me that I had someone who was ready to make that leap in their creative writing.

I’ve also seen letters that swayed me the other way. I’ve seen many that used the clichés every advice article warns against: all the permutations of “I was born to write,” for instance.  A few have been accompanied by writing samples that made me overlook the naiveté of a poor letter (yes, I know how hard they are to write!) and others that led me to believe the writer simply wasn’t ready for an MFA program yet.

I’ve even turned down one applicant, who wrote back an impassioned response defending themselves and arguing why they were ready and didn’t want to wait another year to reapply. I told them that this should have been their letter in the first place, and I allowed them to send me more writing. Eventually they were admitted to our program and are doing quite well. However, I don’t recommend that strategy!

We’re a small, young program, and so far we’re not overrun with applications. I can take more time with every applicant than the programs whose admissions committees see hundreds of applicants each admission cycle. We can give more personal attention, and so far, we can accept nearly everyone who seems to be ready for an MFA and who seems like a good fit for our program. That may change, and we may be faced with more difficult decisions. Yet even now, the statement of purpose/letter of intent is a very important part of your application, along with your writing sample. Those are the first two things we’ll see, and they form the basis of our initial decision whether or not to encourage you to complete your application and pay the application fee, send transcripts, and get letters of recommendation.

We want to know who you are and how you got to where you are, and we want to know where you think you’re going and why our program is a place that can help you get there. We want you to be as specific and detailed as possible, and we want your letter to be well-written, somewhere between a personal letter and a creative nonfiction essay. If you can do that, and if you send us writing that you’re passionate about that shows your promise as a writer, then the odds are in your favor.

The rest of your application confirms that you are who you say you are. It’s important, don’t get me wrong. But your letter and writing sample will literally give the first impression, and therefore, they carry the most weight.

A Few Do’s for the MFA Applicant

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled 15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA (plus 5 bonus things). That title was a little tongue in cheek because I’m not a big fan of numbered lists (since there’s no magic number), but they were some good things to at least consider before embarking on an MFA. I thought it would be good to follow up A Few Don’ts with a few things to do, and revisiting that list is a good place to start.

  • Read literary magazines both so you can get a sense of the many kinds of writing that is out there and to begin to get a sense of the many places your writing might land. It’s a little daunting to see how much good writing exists, and it’s exciting to see how many people, programs, and organizations are busy publishing that good writing.
  • Submit your work, get rejected, maybe even get published. If you can’t handle the pain of having a magazine not love your poem, story, or essay, then you won’t be ready to handle rejection by an MFA program. Odds are, some program will turn you down; and odds are, if you apply to enough of the right programs (for you), one or more will accept you when you’re ready.
  • Learn about the business side of writing. Yes, a good MFA program should be the place where you learn more about how to make it as a writer, but the truth is, most programs focus more on your writing than on the business side of things. That’s because here’s no one right way to go about making your life as a writer, so we can present you some options, but ultimately it will be up to you. Why wait until you get in a program to start that journey? Inform yourself about the practical side of your chosen career by reading Poets & Writers and books like Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer or Stephanie Vanderslice’s The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life, two great resources that didn’t exist when I wrote the original post.
  • Research the programs you want to apply to. Don’t just apply to the top-rated schools (and don’t give up on them either). Find the programs that seem right for you! Those should be programs that will support the kind of writer you think you want to be and programs with a culture that fits the kind of person you are. Consider fully- or partially-funded programs, and consider low-residency programs that allow you to work your way through your degree on your own terms. Depending on where you are in life, one might be the better option for you.
  • Make a financial plan. This doesn’t have to be super formal or complicated, but it also should be realistic. Consider how much your MFA could cost and how much you have saved or can earn while you’re in school. Yes, you can consider taking on (more) student loan debt, but don’t bury yourself in debt to get an MFA. There ought to be ways to earn your degree and keep your debt load to a minimum. If you already have a lot of student loans from college, you may need to consider paying them down somewhat before starting another degree. Talk to your loan counselor, so you know what your options are. And try not to live above your means while you’re a graduate student. You shouldn’t starve, but you aslo may need to live simply. Know what you’re getting into.
  • Consider whether you really need an MFA. Might there be other opportunities for you to grow as a writer through writer’s colonies, summer workshops, residencies, local writer’s clubs? I believe in the value of a good MFA program, but I also realize that for some writers it may not be the only or the best way to obtain your goals. No writer has to have an MFA, but many have benefitted from earning one. If you do your research and decide it’s right for you, and if you find the right programs for you, then you will be happy with your decision and your application will be stronger.
  • Write, read, and write some more. Don’t wait until you’re in an MFA program to get serious about writing. Write right now, and read, read, read, so you’re informed in your writing. And write and read what you enjoy. Find a community of writers where you are and get involved. You’ll be preparing all the skills that will make you a successful member of your MFA community, should you decide to apply.
  • Take time for yourself. Walk the dog, pet the cat or feed your goat. Fall in love (or not). Live your life, and let the MFA application be one part of that, but don’t let it become an all-consuming part. It will happen (or not) and you will be happier with your choice if the rest of your life is also happening when it does, though life can get complicated—that also keeps it interesting and maybe good material for writing.