Tuesday, July 29, 2008

5 Things for Early Bird Applicants

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Jessica Miele said...

Here's a tip when asking people for recommendations: Give them a current writer's resume and your MFA personal statement. No matter how well a person knows you, this will help keep the facts straight and ensure the person understands your goals and aspirations. A writer's resume should just include bullet points of any experience you've had previously, like workshops you've taken, undergrad Creative courses, ect.

Warren said...


I am applying to ten schools. I do not want my flimsy transcript to be the focus, but rather my writing. Would sending the transcripts early to all these schools change their perception of me as a viable candidate?

Also, with the GRE: About what month would be advisable to send in the scores? If I sent them to early would they get lost?

I have been worrying about the paper work that will go along with ten applications and am trying to get some stuff done.



Warren said...

On recommendations:

I have two professors to whom I plan to show my portfolio at the appropriate time and ask for recommendations letters. I know them well. They will do it.

As for the third, I am at a loss. I have some old employers who could testify to my general responsibility, but not to my writing. Does an old boss work? Or should I quickly enroll in a writing course in order to assure I have a third letter of merit?

- dwa

malcontent said...

I sent in my transcripts early, but every single school I applied to misfiled my transcripts. Married women who have changed their name since college will likely have the same problem if they send in transcripts before completing the formal application. It is definitely important to call and double-check that transcripts aren't sitting in a seperate file under your maiden name while your MFA application is marked incomplete.

One would think these things would be matched by social security numbers, but apparently they are not.

Jennifer said...

About the timing of recommendation letters, is it to early to have recommenders send them to the schools now? When is the earliest that they can send them? Anybody know?

Emily A. Benton said...

jess: great suggestion. Let's call that #6: Update your curriculum vitae.

kio: I doubt your transcript will be the focus when it goes on file with the graduate school (who's usually asking for it), not the English department who is primarly interested in your writing sample. Of course, check with what the English dept. requires and send them a copy of your transcript WITH your other materials if they request it. In that case, it's probably a good idea to wait. The fewer envelopes to the English dept. the better. But you could go ahead and ask your alma mater to send you the sealed envelope so you won't have to worry about it later.

dwa: A former employer is a great recommender if they know you well and can attest that you're a hard worker. Maybe schedule an appointment with them to go over why you're applying for this degree. Your passion for it will show up in their letter.

malcontent: thanks for bringing up the point about changed names. I'm sure others will appreciate it!

jennifer: I would wait until all your schools have updated their websites for the 2009 applications (usually around late Sept./early Oct.) Some school applications ask that recommenders fill out specific forms or visit a web page to submit their letters. You want to make sure you're following the most up-to-date procedure before mailing in letters, forms, or manuscripts. Transcripts and GRE scores, however, usually follow the same standard procedure each year.

Emma Gorenberg said...


I sort of had the same problem when I was applying to programs. I had two English professors who I felt I had strong relationships with, but I was at a loss for a third.

I don't know if this is an option for you, but in the end, I chose a politics professor whose classes I had taken to write the third letter. He had never read my poetry before but I had done a lot of political theory writing for him with success. I liked his classes and had done well in them, and I knew he felt strongly about my writing even if he had never seen any poetry. In the end, I thought that he was a better choice than a professor that had seen my work but that I didn't know as well or as personally. In the end, I feel like what's most important (at least for your third recommender, in which I feel there is a little more space for different kinds of people) is that they be passionate about you, whether in relation to your academics, your character, or your writing.

However, in addition to what Jess said at the top of this page, I feel like a good thing to give to recommenders is a short sample of your writing. I gave it to all of my recommenders save my thesis advisor, who probably knew my work better than I did. It seemed prudent given the sheer number of students coming through their offices.

Richard said...

As far as a third recommendation, can you use other known writers?

I have two profs from school (even though it is 20 years ago) who will help me out. For my third, I did take some online writing intensives with the authors Monica Drake (fellow Chuck Palahniuk workshopper), Craig Clevenger, and Max Barry. I may need to use one of them. While they aren't super well known (ie., Stephen King) they are published, and I respect them a lot.


Jessica Miele said...

Monica Drake! That's so cool, I love her. Did you read Clown Girl?

That being said, I think the most important thing to remember is that these recommendations should be personal. Who the recommender is won't matter as much as what they say . If you worked extensively with Monica Drake or Max Barry over a long period of time and they have something to say about you from the standpoint as a mentor, then I would say go for it, especially because you are showing your interest in developing your craft through a writing intensive.

Richard said...

Thanks Jess. Yes, I did read CLOWN GIRL, great book. I am in fact the first review of it up at amazon.com, got it early, signed and all. Glad somebody knows who these guys are.

Good points. I have worked a lot with all three of these authors, and CC even said he'd get my novel into the hands of his publisher. He's very busy writing right now, so he may not have time. MD said she'd do it, and I know her warmth and passion will come through.

For me, it's a matter of what they write paired with any sort of reputation or acclaim. Will ANY of these schools have heard of ANY of these authors? Don't know.

No One New said...

hi richard,

it's hard to say whether or not your writer-recommenders will be recognized by the faculty. we've all looked at faculty lists on program's websites and probably didn't know some of the people there--people, it's important to remember--who may eventually be teaching us. i think it's the actual recommendation that is of most importance, though, and while your recommenders being writers (of some distinction) is important to you, it may not be as important to the committee reading your application.

like jess said, they are looking for personal insight into you, your work and your writing process. if these writers are in a position to offer said insight, then go for it.

Richard said...

thanks for that

would it help to add some sort of title under their names, you know, "award winning author of CLOWN GIRL" or something, or is that in bad taste? it's usually pretty obvious when you get a letter from a dr. somebody or some other recognizable faculty title (dean, head of english dept, professor of english emeritus, etc.)

L. Goodrich said...

I just want to say thank you for this post. It's calmed my anxiety a little tonight - and that's all I can ask for right now. Time to turn off the computer and do some old-fashioned notebook writing before bed. Because that's what matters most. Thanks.

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