Monday, July 11, 2011

MFA Application Do's and Don'ts

Yes, it’s summertime, and those application deadlines are still months away. But let’s face it, many of you are already doing your research and making lists of all the programs and due dates in your head. You’re starting to wonder about letters of recommendation (how important are they, really?) and personal statements (how do I describe my entire being in 2 pages or less?) and writing samples (Is my best work good enough?). So to help answer some of those nagging questions, I thought I would take a quick poll of my local admissions committee (I trust their judgment since they admitted me) about what they are, and are not, looking for in a MFA application.

1. PROOFREAD. You’re applying to a writing program, after all. Showing that you can spell and use proper grammar and recognize typos is the minimum basic requirement. Besides that, make sure the name of the school to which you are applying is the same one you mention in your personal statement or letters of rec. Writing “…and this is why I think the University of New Mexico is perfect for me” and then sending that statement to the University of Idaho is a faux pas. We all know you are applying to more than one school and that’s wonderful, but please put in the effort to change the school’s name in your application. It is also important to make sure your recommenders do the same thing in their letters.

2. First impressions count, so make your application look as professional as possible. This means formatting your work according to industry standards when applicable (i.e. playwriting and screenwriting) and not using fancy or odd fonts (especially in your poems – and don’t center them either!). Just pick one standard font and stick with it. You do not want your admissions reader to be distracted by how strange your application looks on the page.

3. Play by the rules. If an application asks for a 20-page-maximum writing sample, do not send 21 pages. Equally important, you don’t want to pad your writing sample either; if you’ve submitted your best work and it only comes to 17 pages, don’t add in an extra 3 pages of less-than-best work to fill it out. That padding just weighs your sample down.

4. Show them your Voice. The admissions committee wants to see you in your writing sample. So whether you submit one piece or a range of work, it should reflect who you are as a writer and your unique perspective on the world.

5. A tip on excerpts: Keep it simple. Try to avoid excerpts that require a lengthy explanation or synopsis in order for the reader to understand the content. Yes, you want to showcase your best work, but if the admissions reader has no idea what is happening in the excerpt, that won’t help your case.

6. While the writing sample is the most important part of an application, the personal statement (or statement of purpose) comes in a close second.

a. Take a risk and show them who you really are; don’t just try to please the admissions committee and tell them what you think they want to hear. What makes you distinctive?

b. Programs want to admit talented writers, but they also want to admit writers who are a good fit for their program. So you need to accurately describe your goals and what you are looking to gain from and hope to contribute to a particular program. Finding a good match is in the best interests of both of you.

c. The admissions committee already knows you are applying because you want to be a writer and you love writing. Beginning your statement with “I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember” is not even remotely original. Find a fresh way to show them your drive and seriousness of purpose. It’s all about what makes you different from all the other applicants.

d. A good sense of humor goes a long way!

7. Finally, don’t agonize over it. While you want to be thoughtful about your application, you don’t need to drive yourself to drink. Trust that you’ve put together the best application you can, and the right program will come to you.

28 comments:

AMW said...

Good post, especially since the prevailing notion about MFA programs center on the difficulty of the application process.

Tiffany said...

Is there a list of writing programs that do not require the GRE?

Jeet said...

oo.!!! interesting, thanks for sharing info about dissertation writing to us.. i like it.

Sally Jane said...

@Tiffany: That's a good question - I'm not sure, but try posting that in the next Mailbag. FYI, Stony Brook Southampton's MFA program recommends taking the GRE, but it is not a requirement for admission.

Roxanne Ocasio said...
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Tarun Kumar said...

you are right... you can also find latest Admission Requirements alerts online.

DisplayedName said...

I think it's worth having something with an ending if you're applying for fiction - like you should demonstrate a complete rotation, a beginning, rising conflict, a climax and a resolution... I didn't and I feel like it hurt my apps a bit.

Open Spaces said...

This may be an unusual question.

Has anyone ever withdrawn from an MFA program right before the program started? An MFA program where the individual is supposed to be a Teaching Assistant?

Personal matters have recently made it impossible for me to complete the MFA program. However, I am trying to determine what would be more ethically responsible. Withdraw now or do the semester (the TA contract is one semester and then is renewed)and then withdraw.

Thanks for any advice.

DisplayedName said...

I'm sure someone has, and if you withdraw from your TAship you'll make someone else very happy when they get yours.

sdwriter said...
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sdwriter said...
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Tyrel Murri said...

This is for Tiffany, or anyone else interested. I made a list (hopefully accurate) on the GRE Requirements. It is found @ https://spreadsheets.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AnuDe5c17D0udDJXNUctbXJtNG14VDdTeFhVSVZ6SVE&hl=en_US#gid=0

Sally Jane said...

Hi Open Spaces!

What about a leave of absence? Would your program allow that? Then you can come back when your personal matters are back in order without having to reapply.

janine said...

Hi there,

I am trying to ascertain how many people attend the open day for the Hunter College Creative Writing MFA. I understand how important these open days are but as I am in Australia it will be a very costly exercise. I am willing to attend but if there are 500 prospective students all vying for face time it may not be a wise decision. Do you have any advise for international applicants?

B said...
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Kim said...

I would also add that communication is extremely helpful. Read the bios of the professors and, if you have any questions or concerns that cannot be answered by the programs manager, send the professors a tactful and concise email with questions or concerns about their program or classes.
Don't be afraid to introduce yourself. Most professors will gladly respond, even if they can't provide an answer.

ARugs said...

@Tyrel: Thanks for your spreadsheet, it is definitely super helpful! I just checked it against mine and was wondering where you saw that Riverside does not require the GRE? I couldn't find a specific mention of the GRE at all on the site - did you assume based on the fact that they didn't mention it (which would be a fair assumption)? Just wondering, I had "yes" written down but I can't remember where I saw that...

B said...

DON'T ACCEPT YOUR OFFER TOO EARLY!!!!!!!!! You might not be considered for fellowships your program is using to recruit students who are "on the fence." Happened to me, I just found out. :(

sbrown2ucla said...

Very helpful piece. I had not heard that type of advice about the Statement of Purpose. I have a question about the sample. Do you (any of you) have any opinions on the relative merits of submitting two completed short stories as compared to one complete story and one novel excerpt?

Magdalena said...

sbrown--
I've been advised to not excerpt. I have a collection of very short stories (all thematically connected), and I was hoping to be able to take a few stories from there to create a sort of excerpt. It would probably be way too chaotic.

Although, people always say to submit your best work. Is your novel the thing you keep coming back to? Do you have an excerpt that can stand alone, story arc-wise?

K & B said...

I write novels (my attempts at short stories usually fail miserably) so does anyone have advice for choosing excerpts? What is the etiquette for doing this? Do you include a brief summary of the rest of the novel with your submission?

I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed with all of this.

Matt said...
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Matt said...

Hi all, certain areas/posts of the blog seem relatively dead lately, so I'm posting these unrelated questions here--b/c comments seem more recent in this post. . . . After going over Seth's 2012 MFA rankings & looking at programs on their own websites, I'm wondering about some places moving from "med. cost of living" to "high cost of living" w/in just one year (is this partly due to property taxes, which seem less a concern to renters)? Also, does anyone know any specifics about Brown's funding? Their info offered online is fairly vague (absolutely nothing in way of numbers) when compared to other programs. (Of course, Brown is one of the most impossible programs to get into, but, hey, we can all dream, right?) Thank you!

college consulting said...
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myessaypro1 said...
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