Posts Tagged ‘letter of intent’

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.

More Thoughts on MFA Applications

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.

 

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.

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!