Monday, October 29, 2012

Answering the Most Frequently Asked Questions


Almost November... must be "Freak Out About MFA Applications Time"!

But don't worry, we've addressed many of the most frequently asked questions below. And of course Sally Jane, Nancy, and many others will answer any new questions in the latest mailbag. Hang in there!

-- Tom Kealey



1. If you can afford it, apply to between 8 and 12 programs. The selection process is unpredictable. Keep your options open.

2. When considering programs (and this is my advice, and not often the same advice of many other people): Consider location, funding, and teaching experience, in that order. Make a list of places where you'd like to live and where you could stand to live. Think about your financial situation (and don't drop 35K a year on a writing program), and select programs that meet your funding needs. Consider whether you'd like teaching experience or not. Using these three items, you can get your list down from over 100 to about 20. Then, factor in program reputation and professors and anything else you deem important.

3. Keep in mind that some programs offer 5 slots a year (i.e. accept 5 students), while others will offer 30 or more. Try to choose a good mix between small and large programs so that you'll have options.

4. You'll need some combination of writing samples, personal statement, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, undergraduate transcripts, and maybe a couple other items. Your writing sample will count for about 90% of your acceptance or rejection, so be sure to make it count.

5. The MFA degree is an artistic degree and not primarily a professional degree. Don't expect that the degree will get you a teaching job and a book deal. Expect that you'll spend two to three years focusing closely on your craft within a writing community. It's an MFA degree, similar to MFA Art degrees.

6. Ask for letters of recommendation from people you can count on. (i.e. People who will actually write the letters and who will say nice things about you). Getting someone dependable is more important than getting someone famous. Generally speaking, you'd like to have two letters from teachers and one from a former boss, or editor, or fellow writer. But go with what you've got.

7. For your personal statements: Come across as formal and friendly. Come across as a serious writer and a dependable person. Discuss your life experience, your goals, and the reason you want to take this time. The letter should be no more than 1.5 pages.

Bonus: Once you've been accepted at (hopefully more than one) programs, get in touch with current students and ask them about the atmosphere there. You'll learn a lot by getting the ground's eye view.

19 comments:

Otherwiseknown said...

As an addendum to Mr. Kealey's excellent post...

When crafting your personal statement, focus on the specific ways you will benefit the program. Everyone and their sister will write about how amazing they are (or about those amazing experiences that make them an irresistible applicant). But MFA programs are not just looking for amazing writers. They're also looking for writers who will become productive and energetic members of their communities, that is, the vibrant, creative communities all MFA programs aspire to be. In your statement, demonstrate that you're psyched about collaborating with other writers, that you're open to new artistic viewpoints, and that you want more than anything to help the program grow and improve. Focus on WHAT YOU WILL BRING TO THE PROGRAM. That, in addition to your own awesomeness, will improve your chances at getting in.

Best of luck.

Jeremy, distilleryediting.com

Matthew Welch said...

One question on the LOR's -- I was thinking I'd use three teachers. I'm more than ten years out of undergrad and have attended quite a few conferences and have maintained contact with my teachers. I have two very successful writers/and teachers plus another writer who has been my local teacher (not as successful but we've worked together monthly for 3 years. . ). Should I ditch one and ask a writing peer to write one instead? Thanks.

radio said...

CROSS-GENRE WITHIN FICTION:
I wanted to know if there were any fiction MFA programs that opened up to plot-heavy literary fiction. I am currently writing a literary neuronovel in the vein of McEwan's SATURDAY and ENDURING LOVE, or Powers's THE ECHO MAKER and GENEROSITY. Because I have a lot of neuroscience and transhumanism in my story (although all contemporary research, so it isn't sci-fi), nearly everyone who reads it call it "futuristic," which I can't stand, since I feel they are categorizing it into genre fiction. I heard UC San Diego sort of caters to this type of writing, but are there any others? Please help!
PS: I am currently a comparative literature PhD candidate, and I am certain that my story is literary (to wit, centered on character and theme development).

Bradley Stacks said...

Thanks for sharing the answers, I'm really thinking about getting a creative writing degree online and you've help me decide whether to pursue or not. Thanks again!

jzz said...

Good post, especially the "in that order" on location.

I am trying to find the right mix of location and a big enough city not in the middle of nowhere and not hellish winters that my girlfriend and I can stand... Meaning, no true college towns,esp not any upper midwest ones like Madison or Ann Arbor and unfortunately, no Iowa. I'm afraid I'd go bonkers there having lived the last 10 years in metros of at least 7 million people. Smallest place I have lived is the Bay Area so I already feel like I am giving up a bit of big city culture to attend.

Applying to Portland State, University of Oregon, UT Austin, UC Irvine, UC Boulder, UC San Diego and just to see if there might be funding... SF State/SJ State just to see about funding though I know they probably won't offer it. If I don't get into any full funding then I might consider a low residency MFA.

Anna Lyon said...

In terms of the writing sample, I know you're supposed to put your best poems first, but I'm reluctant to order them strictly based on which are best. My 10 poems tell a sort of story all together and if I rank them in order of best to worst, that completely disrupts their natural progression. Are admissions folks looking for a cohesive manuscript or just a collection of 10 really good poems? Any advice?

R.T. said...

Thanks for this post. FYI, I'm compiling free MFA info at http://affordingthemfa.wordpress.com/

SnackAttack said...

Thank you for taking the time to share this. Of all the programs I applied to, Purdue's was by far the best in terms of ease of application, quick replies from staff, and truly helpful mass emails about how to make the application process easier (e.g. create folders for each school and store all emails appropriately. Obvious, yes, but I hadn't done it until I got the email.). Go Boilers!

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R.T. said...

Affording the MFA is a free resource on programs that fully fund all students equally!

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Ciambellina said...

I've been studying like heck for the GRE but I see you say the writing sample accounts for 90 percent of the weight of the application. I guess I'd like advice on how hard I need to study for this test! I've been out of school a long, long, long time. Thanks!

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