Posts Tagged ‘MFA’

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.

It’s nice when you’re #1

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 5.08.17 PM As I’ve written before, I’m not the biggest fan of ranking MFA programs, though I do think those rankings have some value. For one, they tell you what programs other applicants are likely to apply to. When they’re despcriptive, they can give you some valuable information as well.

Though I don’t take a lot of stock in these rankings (and fewer places are doing them), it’s still nice when you’re ranked #1, which is true of our MFA program at Mississippi University for Women, which was recently ranked first at Intelligent.com and also at The Best Masters Degrees. What I like about both of these rankings (besides that they picked us) is that they look at more than just cost. Yes, they consider the cost of an MFA, which is a significant issue, especially for low-res or fully online programs that don’t have a lot of scholarship funding, but they also consider quality. This helps our program stand out in a field that is often composed of both MA and MFA degrees. The two aren’t comparable, and to compare a 48 hour degree (ours) with a 36-hour degree (most MA programs) on the basis of tuition alone is highly problematic.

We also like to think that these websites have at least looked closely at our website and tried to get a sense of the satisfaction of our students or their productivity in the literary marketplace. I know they didn’t ask the program for information, but I like to think that our program will stand out on its own. And these rankings are evidence that we do.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re the best program for everyone. But if you’re looking for a low-residency or online degree that is affordable and high quality, then I hope these rankings will encourage you to give us a closer look. I think you’ll like what you find.

At the very least, these rankings give us something to feel good about for a little while before we turn back to the much more important work of trying to do our very best for our students and alumni. That’s where the true value is, and if we weren’t listed #1, I’d still be just as proud of all the accomplishments our students and faculty have achieved and the honors we’ve earned.

Keeping the Res in Low-Residency MFA

DSCN9898As our low-residency MFA program enters its fifth year, it seems like a good time to reflect on where we’ve come and how we’ve evolved, and that includes why we’re committed to the low-res format for the degree.

Our program is different from many low-res MFAs out there because we follow an online class model. AWP, in its Hallmarks for Low-Residency MFA programs, oulines three types of program: ones with mentoring, ones with electronic classrooms, and hybrid. I’ve never met a hybrid program, and most of the well-known low-res MFAs out there seem to use the mentoring model, but I assume there are others using online classes, since the model existed before ours was created. Still, a lot of programs and prospective students seem to expect the mentoring model. Our students are usually glad to have the online class model because it means they have contact with each other outside of the residency periods. But for some, it begs the question: why do I even have to come to campus? Usually, once they’ve been here, they understand.

There are fully online MFA programs, of course, and those can be our competition. But there are things you can’t do online that you can do in a residency: have meals together, have and give readings, talk face-to-face in workshop groups and socially, complain about the air conditioning or the dorm beds (hey, nothing is perfect), get up early (as Kyla is famous for doing when she’s here) to go to the wildlife refuge, or stay up late together hanging out at local restaurants, etc. We have parties, and we bring coffee cake to workshops.

And in our program, we have multi-genre workshops in the summer, where fiction writers sit across from poets and beside playwrites or memoirists. We get out of our comfort zone and learn from each other, and our workshop leaders are not the same people who taught us during the semester and may even write in other genres than we do. This, combined with the afternoon seminars on practical aspects of being a professional writer and evening readings by students, thesis candidates, teachers, and guest writers helps us form a strong sense of community even though we are spread out all across the country (and in Europe). The online class format with regular video conferences helps with this as well, but being together for 10 days cements that feeling, energizes us, and gives us connections that will last a lifetime.

That’s the full-residency experience, but when we put the program together, we realized we also wanted some shorter experiences, too. We wanted to have times when we could recharge our batteries in four or five days and offer unique experiences. So we also instituted short residencies. The most logical one was at our Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, where students come to hear a dozen recently published writers at this annual event that is now in its 31st year. With a great writing event like this on campus, it only made sense to incorporate it into our MFA program, but since it happens in October and is for the community and the undergraduate campus as well, we knew it had to be seperate from any of our online classes.

Other short residency experiences that we’ve developed since then have focused on the business of writing or on another artform. The first summer short residency was led by our drama professor, T. K. Lee, who led a 5-day session in acting for writers. Students wrote their own short scripts adapted from something else they’ve been writing, and then acted in each others’ plays. We’ve also done one on oral storytelling and one on songwriting and music (and we repeated the acting residency once). Each was a great experience: a little intimidating at first for some, but in the end a great bonding experience and an opportunity for growth as an artist.

The other short residency that we offer is in the spring, when we take a group to the AWP conference. This is full immersion into the professional world of the writer, and it is also overwhelming, exciting, and incredibly rewarding. We spend a fair amount of time in our online class before the conference getting prepared: poring over the schedule, talking about what panels and off-site events people want to go to, looking at what bookstores or other local hotspots we definitely want to see when we escape AWP, and plannign what we’ll say about our writing and about our program and literary magazines when we’re walking the book fair or working our table. Then we arrive at AWP and are immersed for the three-day conference, trying to get together as a group a few times, though often we end up coalescing in smaller groups or seeing each other in passing.

When the program was begun, we knew this was the basic format we wanted to go with. We said (and continue to say) that we were flexible and want to work with students so they can have a low-res experience whether they can come to campus every semester or not. And we’ve managed to do that very well. We encourage everyone to come early in their program and to come back whenever they can, and generally that’s been doable, but we’ve had some students go a year or so without coming to a residency, yet they are always glad when they can return.

The other thing that has kept us flexible is adding new classes like the literary magazine production class and the internship class that allow us to give students professional experiences that will help their writing. In response to student requests, we’ve developed classes like Professional Writer, a (primarily) fiction class aimed at helping students revise and submit their work to literary magazines, and we’re planning to do a section of it focused on the long form: novels and full-length memoir. We’ve added special topics classes to address themes that students or faculty are interested in, and we keep exploring ways we can grow.

One of the most exciting developments this year will be collaborating with the theatre department’s new low-res MFA in Theatre Education program. We will have some of their students in our drama classes, and we are looking forward to the ability to offer some of their practical theatre classes (directing, stage design, etc.) to our playwriting students. And we’ve already been collaborating with theatre to produce staged readings of some of our student plays. Now that they’ll have a summer residency, too, we may be able to stage full productions of some of our scripts, and we may be able to offer a theatre residency or a short independent residency class for a resident playwrite.

Our first four years have been fantastic, and I’m looking forward to what the fifth year will bring. As always, our goal will be bringing the most rewarding experiences we can to all of our students and combining the flexibility of online learning with the benefits of face-to-face experiences.

The Best Little MFA

It’s been four years since we started the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, and in that time, I think we’ve created the best MFA of it’s size around. Of course, I’m biased, and I’m grateful to the students and faculty of our program who have been so great to work with.

We’ve now graduated 15 MFAs (counting the five who’ve defended their these and will get their degrees in August), and we have an enrollment hovering around 40, which is right where we want to be. We started with three faculty, two of whom were part-time, and now have three full-time faculty, one who prefers to teach 2 classes and direct theses and so is still part-time for now, and several regular part-time faculty who teach one class per semester. This allows us to offer a wide variety of classes and serve the varied needs of our current students. And it allows us to have enough faculty to direct theses as students move from taking coursework to the thesis stage. We’ve seen theses in each of the genres we focus on in the program: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and now drama with our first playscript as thesis defended in June.

What makes me think of our program as the best, though, are our students. We have a great, diverse group who work well together. They are writing in different genres (and some writing genre fiction or young adult), yet they provide a supportive environment in our online classes and when they get together at residencies. The energy in the building (despite this year’s headaches with A/C issues) has been fantastic. Every night at a full resicency, we host readings, featuring a faculty member or guest writer, a thesis candidate, and two or three other students at the residency. Our thesis students give great readings, are confident, and show they are ready to move into their professional careers. But the shorter readings by other students are fabulous, too. Here students take risks, sometimes reading for the first time in public, and the work they present is polished and compelling. You’d have to be there to know what I mean — and you could be, since they’re open to the public and we often have guests from town or beyond.

Besides the readings, I know our students are killing it through there publications. Hardly a week goes by without at least one notice of an acceptance from a student or alumn. We’ve had an AWP Intro Journals prize winner and an honorable mention, and our writers are getting into some great publications. We already have one graduate with two books of a three book deal published, and a poet with a micro chapbook and good leads on a full-length collection. And I expect more good news soon, given the strength of the theses I’ve seen.

I try to keep up with the all these accomplishments on our Facebook group, then periodically I ask students and faculty to send me their publications (I’m afraid I will miss some things on Facebook and Twitter) and list them on our accomplishments page.

I know there are more established and more prestigeous programs out there, and many of them do great work by their grad students. But if you measure the value of a program by the dedication of the faculty to teaching and by the cameraderie of the students and the writing (and publications) that this fosters, then we have a lot to be proud of. We’ve accomplished a lot in the first four years, and we’re looking forward to an even better fifth year.

That said, how would we like to improve? For one, I’d love to attract an even more diverse student body. We’ve been fortunate enough to attract African American, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ students (and faculty). We also have students from all over Mississippi, every US time zone except Alaska and Hawaii (so far), and even a student in Italy (for now). We have students from all kinds of backgrounds and religious and political persuasions, yet everyone tends to get along very well because the writing is what really matters. Together, we have formed a great community, and to me, that’s what makes us the best little low-res MFA out there.

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.

Writer’s Resolution: Start or Update Your CV

This post is primarily for my MFA students, though it is a good new year’s resolution for any writer: start or update your CV. Curriculum Vitae is a fancy term for resumé, though the difference is that the focus of your CV is broader, and you will use it for applying for academic jobs, grants, awards, residencies, etc. A CV allows you to give a fuller representation of your life’s work, not just your employment and job skills.

As with a resumé, format it as a series of lists with headings. Start with your basic contact info: name, address, phone number, email. Follow this with Education, listing your college and grad school degrees and including any thesis or dissertation titles and directors. Include a degree program you a currently enrolled in before you get your degree, and list your expected graduation date.

For all your lists, start with the most recent accomplishments first, then you can add to the top of each list as you update it with new entries.

Next list your relevant Employment. You don’t have to list every job, though it’s good to list your recent jobs going back to college. What you want to avoid is he appearance of a long gap without employment or education, so if you worked at a temp agency to support yourself in grad school, you could leave that out and rely on your education listing as the most important activity in those years. On the other hand, if you waited tables for a couple of years after college while you wrote your first novel, you may want to include that job to account for those years.

After those two mandatory sections, you have some choice about the order of sections and what you want to label them. Writers will always list their Publications, though many of us break this into subcategories by genre: scholarly articles, poetry, fiction, etc. It is also common to have separate categories for Books and Anthologies. Readings or Presentations are good categories to include, as are Writers’ Residencies, Workshops or other professional activities you have attended or led. A section on Grants and Awards is also good to include, once you have one or more.

There is a good article on writing an Artist’s CV on The Practical Art World and another on CVs in general at The Interview Guys. These sites give examples that will give you ideas on how to format, and you’ll see that the typical CV is for academic jobs, so it highlights scholarly publications and achievements, while the artist’s CV highlights creative achievements. A writer’s CV is often a combination of these two approaches and can be rearranged and revised for the situation you want to use it in. You might highlight scholarship when applying to academic jobs and publications when applying for a grant, for example.

Once you have your CV started, add new accomplishments as you learn about them. List work accepted for publication as “forthcoming” and update with the full publication information once the it appears. Starting a CV may be the hardest part, so do it now when there isn’t a rush and when your lists aren’t too long. Then add to it periodically and take advantage of the new year to review it and make sure you haven’t missed anything from the past year (or more).