Posts Tagged ‘statement of purpose’

A Few Don’ts for the MFA Applicant

It’s getting to be that time of year again, when college seniors and graduates planning to go to grad school start thinking about their applications in earnest. I’ve written a fair amount about the process and even compiled some of my best advice in a Guide for Applicants for my MFA program in Creative Writing that I hope is helpful for anyone. I even compiled a list of things I think you ought to do before applying for an MFA program. Recently, as I was going through some old emails and cleaning up my office, I decided it might be good to add a list of things to avoid when applying. These may not get you into the program you most want to go to, but they might help you avoid giving the wrong first impression. So here they are, in no particular order.

  • Don’t apply to grad school because you don’t know what else you’re going to do with your life. Realistically, many people do this, and sometimes it turns out for the best. But you risk wasting time and money on an education that you won’t use, so it’s better to figure out realistic goals for your education, and especially when applying for a creative writing degree, to have Plan B. In other words, if you’re going to grad school just to avoid getting a job, then figure out how going to grad school will help you get a better job when you’re finished. Or consider taking a year or two off after college to work in a job (that doesn’t have to be your career) and figure out what your goals really are. Why is this important for your application? Grad programs make an investment in you; even if they don’t provide a scholarship, they give more than you pay in tuition, trust me. They want to admit students with clear goals who will stick with it throughout their degree program.
  • Don’t apply only to the top-ranked programs. I tell this to my undergraduate students all the time. Pick the programs that seem like the best fit for you! It’s fine if some are highly ranked, but you need to remember that the odds of getting in are stacked against you (just because they receive so many applicants, many of which could be as great as you are, and they only have a few spots). There are great programs that may be a better fit for you, so do your research and find a good range of programs. You will be happy if you have two or three programs to choose from at the end of the application process! You may be happy if you have one school to choose from! But you won’t be happy if you apply to one or two highly competitive schools and don’t get in. If that happens, though, then learn your lesson and apply to a wider range the next time — it doesn’t mean you can’t write, only that you didn’t find the right program for you.
  •  Don’t wait until you apply to ask for letters of recommendation. Your recommenders will appreciate some advance notice, and they’ll be able to write a much better letter for you and get it in by the deadline. Contact your prospective recommenders as soon as you decide you’re going to apply. Ask them politely if they would be willing to write for you. Esp. if it’s been awhile since you had them as a professor or worked with them, it is a good idea to say something nice about your experience as a reminder and to fill them in on what you’ve been doing since you saw them last. Give them a list of the programs you’ll apply to and the deadlines. Getting your letters in on time can help your application a lot, so it’s up to you to give your recommenders everything they need to make that happen.
  • Don’t send a writing sample that is too long or too short. I’ve seen writing samples that definitely seemed padded and others that really needed more material. Either error can be a deal breaker. Length is fairly subjective, though, so how do you know what is too much or too little? First, follow the guidelines for each program! Ours states that you should send 10-30 pages. 10 pages is for poets or flash fiction writers. You can probably show a good range of work in short genres in 10-15 pages, so there’s no need to strive for 30. Fiction writers may feel that 30 pages doesn’t give them enough room to work with, and though I’m willing to entertain 31-33 pages if it seems necessary, I don’t have time to read your full novel. I tell prose writers to send me one or two pieces. If your stories or essays are short enough, you could send two or three if that shows the range of work that you’re doing. But I’d rather see one 15-page story than two, unless the second really adds depth to your portfolio. Either the first one is going to be best, so why give me another that is a let-down? Or the second is best, in which case you may have lost me before I got there. Send your strongest work and send a good selection (esp. of short work) that represents the kind of writer you are. But don’t send more just because you can.
  • Don’t use non-standard fonts. Trying to reach the minimum page count? Don’t do it by increasing your font size. Trying to keep within the maximum? Don’t make your font tiny. You want me to be able to read it! And don’t use a funky font unless you’re a poet and there’s a reason for it. For prose and most poetry, 12 point Times New Roman is a good standard font and size. Don’t stray to far from this golden mean.
  • Don’t make your letter or statement of purpose too long or too short. I’m more than happy to read a 2-page letter, but probably don’t want to read much more than that. On the other hand, a letter that is less than a page shows that you haven’t put a lot of thought into your application. You do want to tell some about who you are, but you don’t have to describe your full résumé (especially if you’re allowed to include one with your application. Hit the high points and give more personal detail in your letter than in the résumé. You should also indicate why you’re interested in the program you’re applying to and what your goals are for the program and for your writing career.
  • Don’t be too informal in your letter and in your follow-up correspondence. An MFA is a professional degree, so you should act professionally. Yes, it is also an art degree, so you don’t have to go all corporate on us, but we do like to be treated with respect. If the director of a program uses their full name, don’t address them with a nickname unless you know them personally and know they don’t mind. Using a salutation, like Dear X or Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. X is wise, even in an email. Treat the initial email like a business letter and subsequent emails like professional emails. You might drop the salutation in your follow-up replies, but generally follow the other person’s lead. Remember, there is a difference between emailing with your friends and emailing for work or school. Keep the tone of your email professional as well. Every piece of writing you send a program makes an impression. Make it a good one!
  • Don’t ask the program to tell you whether you have talent or not. If you apply to the program and they accept you, then you can assume they think you have potential. If you apply and they don’t accept you, then you can assume you weren’t the best fit for that program (or just weren’t lucky), but it doesn’t mean anything about your level of talent.
  • Don’t expect a decision overnight. MFA programs follow their own schedules, and admissions committees and program directors lead busy lives when they aren’t reading your writing sample. Some programs may wait until after their deadline to begin reviewing applications. Some work with a committee. It can take weeks or even months for a program to make a decision (see the program’s website for information on their process). Patience is a virtue, though it can feel like torture. To relieve the stress and maybe gain some insight in to your program’s decision-making schedule, consider joining the MFA Draft group on Facebook, where people post their experiences and whether they have been accepted, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you’re unsure how to apply or whether your application was received, a polite query is perfectly fine. If you have a problem submitting your application or paying your fee, someone will be able to help. But no one will likely help you if you don’t ask them first. Peppering the program with questions is probably not a good strategy, but neither is maintaining complete silence during the application process. You don’t have to ask questions if you don’t have anything to ask about, but you shouldn’t feel intimidated either. We are humans. We understand, and we’d rather fix something if it isn’t working right than let people become frustrated.

I’m sure there is more advice I could give, but for now, this is a pretty good list of things to avoid and a few things to do when you you are applying for MFA programs in creative writing.

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.