Posts Tagged ‘writing sample’

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!

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 too 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.