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.