I spent most of last summer stressing about the GRE and my application essays, in addition to the constant questioning of my poetry portfolio. I know now that was wasted time. Despite three months of vocab cards and math worksheets, I scored poorly on the GRE, as I do on every standardized test. The essays I drafted months in advance ended up changing five times over because I either didn’t like my tone or found mid-way through an application that my 3-page personal statement perfect for X school wouldn’t fit into Y school’s 200 word limit.
For all my preparations, I found that some things, like the essays, work out better under pressure. Then others, like your portfolio, need to be massaged over time and cannot be rushed. And had I the confidence to move forward diligently, I could have pushed out a few more finished poems before the deadline instead of worrying myself into writer’s block.
But there are a few things I wish I had started on earlier because I didn’t realize how much time they would take away from more important tasks. And they’re things you can do now, in the dead of summer, so you won’t have to stress about them later.
- Choose your schools, and stick to them. Do as much research on programs in the summer months so you won’t be flip-flopping your decisions in the fall and winter months, which are crammed with holidays. Go ahead and set up an Excel grid of application criteria for each prospective school like Tom outlines in his book. This will help you stay on top of deadlines, even if they are months away.
- Request transcripts. If you’ve already graduated from college, you can request your transcripts to be sent out now. Graduate admissions offices will keep them on file whether or not they have an application from you yet. This was one of the most time-consuming and frustrating tasks I went through last year, and I STILL had missing transcripts after my applications went out! It seems every MFA program website likes to bury the address where your transcripts need to be sent (and often there is more than one). You might also want to request your alma mater send official transcripts to you so you can put them in your sample packets and lessen the chance they get lost in the mail.
- Send out GRE scores. Yet another tedious task of paperwork, but you gotta git-r-done. And if you haven’t taken the test yet, schedule it pronto!
- Start talking to people you want to recommend you. Meet up for coffee or shoot that professor an email and politely ask him for a commitment now. Give your recs a sense of how many schools you're applying to and when you expect to deliver forms and stamped envelopes to them (around October) and when you need the letters sent out (early December). The last thing you want to do is spring a professor with your need before he goes on sabbatical or ask an employer before she takes a long Christmas vacation to Waikiki.
- Relax & keep writing. It’s too early to really start freaking out, so take your steps in stride. Keep writing. Meet up with other writers to get the feedback and support you need. You’ve got a few more months to get this done, but setting a little time aside for applications and a little time aside for yourself now goes a long way.