Posts Tagged ‘graduate school’

Grad Student Admissions!

This week, now that final exams are over and end-of-year meetings have been held, I’ve been able to turn my attention back to admitting students to our Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing. I’ve actually admitted one student, and I have two more forms ready to turn in today. There are several other applications that are nearly complete, waiting only on one or two pieces of information before I can finish the process. I knew it would probably be complicated, but never really guessed just how convoluted that could get. The sheer number of details that have to be tracked down can be a little overwhelming. Not that I’m complaining! But I want to explain that it takes more than reviewing the documents and making a decision.

Several of our students have come in with multiple transcripts from their undergraduate careers. That’s fine, but it means tracking them all down on their end (sometimes students forget about those first two classes taken at community college, for instance), and  on my end it means making sure they’ve all come in, since they come from different sources and get sent to different offices on campus. Most come either to me or to our graduate studies office, but some end up in undergraduate admissions and some seem to disappear into the ether, but I’ve managed to locate most of the ones I should have by now. One young woman had briefly gone to school that is no longer in business, so I had to help her figure out how to order her transcript, which she was able to do by contacting Mississippi’s Institutes of Higher Learning office.

Immunization forms and letters of recommendation are two other fun pieces of the puzzle, both in terms of tracking them down and in terms of reading and evaluating the letters of recommendation. Each application has a rubric, which needs to be updated for each new piece of information. Fortunately, I created the rubric, so it at least makes sense and measures things we actually care about in admitting students to the program. There are several criteria for the writing sample and letter of intent that I’ve already filled out before I invite an application, and then there are criteria to rate the transcript and letters of recommendation. The weighting, of course, is heaviest on the writing sample, and I have left room for comments, where I can remind myself of what I was thinking or add any notes about the student’s file for future reference.

Since I’ve been doing most of this while also giving final exams, calculating final grades, and tying up all the loose ends of a semester, while also trying to get a head start on next semester and communicating with the visiting writers who will be part of our faculty in the fall, I have to reinvent the wheel every time I come back to a person’s file. Fortunately, this week, I’ve been able to put forth a more concentrated effort and make better notes about what I’m still missing, so that when I return to those files, I won’t have to start over from scratch.

All of this makes me very relieved that next week we begin our planning for an automated admissions system. I’m sure that we’ll still have to assist some people with things like tracking down their transcripts or other details, but keeping up with what is here and what is still missing will be easier both for me and for the student.

But mostly, it is very exciting and gratifying that the program we’ve worked so hard to put into place is finally coming to fruition. The prospective students who have applies are for the most part a very impressive group. I’ve had to turn down a couple — or encourage them to wait and give them advice on how they can develop as a writer before they are ready to take this step on their career paths — but by and large I’ve been at the wealth of talent that is out there in our state and the surrounding region. We will have an exciting and dynamic group of students in our inaugural class, students who could vie for a place in any program in the country. There is room for a few more good applicants, but we already have enough of a critical mass to get this program off the ground in style.

How to Afford Grad School

First, a disclaimer! As anyone who reads this blog can tell you, I am not a financial planner. My idea of debt management is not to go into debt. Seriously. My only major loan was on our house. I pay off my credit cards and have never had a car loan. I thank my parents for much of that, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation for the rest. My parents paid for my undergraduate education (and it wasn’t cheap), and a Mellon Fellowship paid for all but two years of my graduate school — a teaching assistantship and a Fulbright fellowship took care of the rest. So when it comes to funding graduate school if you don’t have a great fellowship, I’m no expert. That’s why I’ve been doing some research.

If you are going into a career with prospects of a lucrative profession upon graduation, then it makes sense to invest in your graduate education by taking out loans. If, on the other hand, you’re going into creative writing or one of the many other rewarding graduate tracks that should make you more marketable, but can’t promise a huge salary (not that those aren’t possible), then going into debt is a riskier proposition. Always remember that the longer you owe, the more you’ll pay, and interest generally begins to accrue while you’re in school, even before you’re required to pay off your loans. The less principal (money you can actually use) you have to take out, the less interest will pile up. So try to find ways to minimize the amount you need to borrow up front, and try to pay down the principal (pay more than the minimum payment) as soon as you can to cut the overall cost of your loans.

Many graduate students typically receive some form of financial assistance from their school. This can come in the form of a scholarship, but more likely will be in the form of an assistantship—either assisting with a graduate faculty member’s research or with teaching a class. Often a teaching assistant begins by leading discussions and doing some grading, but isn’t in charge of a full class. Then after a year or so, an assistant instructor may have complete responsibility for an undergraduate class. Don’t be fooled. This is work! It’s not easy money, but it is a job that is tied to your educational goals, and you learn as much by teaching as you will in your other classes.

If you are in a low-residency program, like the W’s new MFA in Creative Writing, then teaching opportunities may be limited. We’re a small university, after all, and we don’t have a ton of extra sections of classes to cover. Students in our program are not on campus, so there are even fewer sections that would be offered online, and it takes more expertise to teach online than it does to teach in the classroom, since you have to manage the online environment while you’re learning to teach your class. We are planning to offer some teaching assistantships, but those will be fairly limited for now. We ought to have some scholarships available as well, but again those will be limited. Often low-residency programs don’t offer a lot in financial aid, since the expectation is that their students will already be working and will do their degree on top of their regular job. So the first question before you apply may be whether you are ready, financially, to take that on. Here are some resources that might help you find the financial aid you need and make the decision whether you are financially ready to take on the expense of grad school.

If you’re applying to MUW’s Graduate programs, don’t forget to fill out an application for Graduate Scholarships and one for Graduate Assistantships, if you want to be considered for these opportunities. This needs to be done each semester that you are enrolled. These forms can be found on our program’s page on How to Apply.

What to say in your Statement of Purpose? (for an MFA Creative Writing)

Okay, so you’ve decided to apply to an MFA program in creative writing, and you are saddled with the unenviable task of writing a “statement of purpose” or “letter of intent” as I decided to call it in our new low-residency MFA program‘s application requirements. You’re undoubtedly flummoxed, thinking what the heck do I say, and where do I begin?

This is a kind of writing we’re not used to doing, and it’s a difficult tightrope to walk between bragging about yourself (which of course you need to do, at least a little) and sounding like a blowhard and an egotist; between describing your past and your imagined future, and boring your audience to tears. And there’s a lot riding on this statement or letter. It has to represent you to someone you probably don’t know, whose decision may decide your fate.

So I get it; you’re nervous. So was I when I wrote my first truly awful first draft of a statement of purpose. I showed it to a kind professor, who told me it was terrible and gave me some advice on what to write. Here, after many years of giving similar advice to students applying to graduate programs, and as I contemplate the letters of intent I’m about to receive for our new program, is my best advice for how to proceed, if you’re applying to a program like ours.

Tell about your past

Keep it brief and to the point, but do give some information about where you’re coming from. Remember, that your main focus should always be to convince the program that you are ready to take on graduate work in creative writing. We don’t care that you’ve always loved to write (well, we do, but we kind of assume that), or that you only recently discovered your love of writing (if so, how ready are you for grad school?). What we really care about is how you’ve prepared yourself as a writer. That might mean discussing your English major and the kind of reading you like best (in and out of class). Or if you didn’t major in English in college, then you may want to say something about your major, why it led you to creative writing, and what kind of literature background you do have. Bear in mind that writers need to be avid readers, and that an MFA can be a qualification to teach literature. You’ll need to be able to pull your weight in a graduate literature class, so you need some background in literature, and you’ll need good research skills.

If you’re applying to my program, then I’ll see your transcripts eventually, but I’ll see your letter of intent first. We don’t ask for the full application until after we’ve evaluated your letter and writing sample, so we need to know something about your educational background up front. But we’ll get more detail when we see your transcripts.

Tell about your present

If you’re applying to grad school straight out of college, this may not be much different than telling about your educational background. But if you’ve been out of school for awhile, then I’d be interested to know what you’re doing now. Even if you’re in school now, tell some about recent accomplishments and activities. Since my program is a low-residency program, I expect that most students will be working or doing something while they’re in grad school. Let me know a little about what that is. Also, if you’ve published your writing recently, it’s good to let me know about that. I’m also curious about where people live (or plan to live when they’re in our program), since you don’t have to relocate to Columbus, MS.

Tell about your writing

If I could I’d make that heading double-bold, I would. The most important thing you can do in your statement of purpose is to give a clear and concise description of the kind of writing you do. This might mean listing some of your influences, or it might mean describing your style. You can talk about what you want to write, as well as what you have written. And by all means, tell me what genre(s) you’re interested in. Our program doesn’t require that you apply in one genre only, and cross-genre work is encouraged. But remember that I’m thinking about filling classes and putting people together who will work well together. Sure, I want to pick the best writers, but I also have to be pragmatic and pick a range or writers working in different genres and styles. Your writing sample will tell me a lot, but it is likely one piece or one genre, so here you can describe your interests as a writer. There is no ‘right’ answer here, so just be as honest and as clear about your writing as you can be.

Tell about our program

Okay, we know our program, so tell what interests you in our program. What makes you want want to spend a couple years of your life in it? Be honest, but also tailor what you say to the program you’re applying to. I tell my students all the time that it isn’t lying to say you want to do different things at different places. You’re just omitting the obvious part of the equation: “[If I’m accepted to your program], I want to do X” Chart out your life if it takes the path to the program you’re applying to. What makes you excited about that path? Tell me that. And be as specific as possible. Everyone wants to enter an MFA program to learn to write better. Why is this program the one where you can do that? Why does it meet your needs? Essentially, you want to show me that you know what you’re getting into. You want me to see that you can set realistic goals and goals that my program can fulfill.

Other things you might mention

There are lots of other details about yourself that might be useful to mention in a statement of purpose. They won’t be your main emphasis, probably, but could be worth including. Your family background could be interesting, especially if it relates to your writing goals. Certainly mention it if you have had publications or work experience in writing-related fields. Volunteer work, especially if it is related to writing or literature, can be an asset. And other work experience, especially if you write about it, is worth a mention. Give a little sense of who you are, in other words, but don’t feel like you have to give your life story. Include only the most important details that are relevant to your writing or your education.

How to write the statement/letter

So far I’ve concentrated on what to write in your statement of purpose or letter of intent. But what about how to write it? I’m looking for a somewhat formal letter (which is one reason I like calling it a letter of intent). It doesn’t have to sound as stiff as a formal business letter or an academic essay, but it should sound more formal than an email or post on social media. I don’t mind if sound excited (I might even like it, unless it feels like you’re overdoing it), but I do want to see your analytical writing skills on display. Your letter should be well organized, and it should contain no grammatical errors (or very few, but do your best to make it as perfect as possible). Your letter should be concise —don’t say in 10 words what could be said in 5.

But maybe the best advice I can give you is to relax and be yourself (or your slightly formal self). After all, I want to accept you into the program. I’m looking for the most exciting and interesting and competent writers I can find. Let me know who you are and what you write (and what your background is), and let me judge whether you seem like a good fit for the program.

How to make your statement/letter better

The best way to improve your statement is to revise it several times before you submit. If you’re a writer, that’s a rule you should live by for any writing. Even better than revising on your own is if you can let someone else read your letter and give you feedback. If possible, give it to someone who knows you and knows what a letter like this should include. I often ask students to let me see their statements of purpose or letters of intent if they want me to write a recommendation letter for them. I want to be able to give advice, but I also want to know what they’ve told the schools they’re applying to. That way, I can pitch my recommendation letter in a way the complements their letter. So don’t feel like you’re burdening your recommenders if you ask them to review your letter. You may be helping them to write a better letter for you!