So, you’re thinking a MFA program is the best option for you. Congratulations on your commitment and desire to write. Many great writers quit after finishing their undergraduate work, so you have defeated the first hurdle. The goal of this article is to give you some guidance when applying to an MFA program. This listing is by no means exhaustive, so if you have good ideas, feel free to leave additional advice in the comments below.
The first possibly most important tip is to be organized and begin the process early. Spend hours finding the right program for you. Ask your professors, mentors, and other writing contacts where they think you should apply. Do your research and be prepared. Read through all of the application guidelines before you apply. Some schools require strange documentation others request things you might forget otherwise. It is a good idea to make a check sheet for each program and mark off the items as you submit them.
Have all of your application materials including transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a working draft of your writing sample prepared at least a month in advance of your earliest deadline. This will give you time to review your materials and error check. It will also reduce the pressure of being under a tight deadline.
Get your recommendations!
Make sure you find your recommenders long before the deadline. It is a good idea to ask your recommenders to write letters 6 months before anything is due. This gives them plenty of time to prepare a good draft and make you shine.
The best people for letters of recommendation are professors you have had in writing classes. Pick professors that you had a good working relationship with and that supported you. Note: the best writers in undergraduate classes are typically the most dedicated. If your MFA is down the road and you are currently in undergraduate work, take the time to get to know your professors. Stop by during their office hours with questions and comments. Work with your professors to improve your writing. If this is what you want to do with your life dedicate yourself to it.
If you find yourself thinking about a MFA program and have never really focused on your writing, take another year to prepare. Find yourself a class or two at a university to help motivate you and keep at it. This will also broaden your network and set you up to have professors to recommend you in the next year.
Make sure you get letters from reputable individuals. Pick responsible recommenders who will get them done and out on time. Be sure to provide them with postage, addressed envelopes, and a list of the deadlines for each letter. They are doing you a big favor, so make sure you make it as easy as possible for them.
Please remember that great letters of recommendation will help your case, but the most important thing is your writing sample. Be organized in your approach to getting your letters, but this is not the moment to stress over.
Apply to the right genre for you!
One of the most common questions asked to MFA directors is “What genre should I apply in?” The answer is: Whatever genre interests you most. Do not apply for one genre just because you have written more of it or because the program takes more people in that genre. Before applying to a MFA program, you need to decide what you want to do. Do you want to focus on poetry? Then apply as a poet. Are you a creative nonfiction writer? Apply to that. Are you a fiction writer? Then do that.
While it is important to apply in your interest, remember that while most programs make you declare your focus from the outset, they still allow you to take classes in other genres. A well balanced MFA will allow you to hone your skill set and broaden your horizon as a writer. If you’re worried about what the course offerings will be depending on what genre you declare, look them up through the school’s website before spending the money on the application.
Design your personal statement!
A good personal statement is about a page long and creative. Make an appeal, yourself as a writer, but do not make it overly formal and formulaic. There is no one universal answer to the personal statement. Some people write ones with a lot of humor to them. Others tell a tragic story that caused them to write. Some discuss their primary interests and influences. Find your voice and write in it.
It cannot be stressed enough to be yourself. A good reviewer will spot a fake very quickly. Do not make up stories, overly exaggerate, or force the writing of your personal statement in any way. Be yourself and be professional, but remain conversational throughout.
As is the case with all other portions of your applications, have peers, mentors, and professors look over your personal statement before you submit it. It is a good idea to being drafting your personal statement at least 3 months in advance of your earliest deadline. This gives you time to get advice, to critique, and to revise your work.
Again, be advised that a great personal statement is important, but it is not the be all, end all. Try to keep from stressing on this piece. Writers with weaker personal statements, but stronger portfolios will gain their spot.
Build your portfolio!
Without a doubt, the portfolio is the most important aspect of your application. This is what 95% of your acceptance depends upon. This does not mean other pieces are unimportant, but this single piece will make or break your application.
Most MFA applications request about 20 pages of material. If you’re a play write or a fiction writer, that might seem like a small section. If you’re a poet, that might seem daunting. Whatever genre you apply in, always lead with your best piece. (It is a good idea to get feedback from professors and mentors about what your best piece actually is. Many writers are unaware of their own writing.)
Typically a good portfolio shows a range of skills. Some recommend doing sequences of interrelated pieces. If you’re applying to a program that focuses on developing those skills and you are interested in doing that, then by all means make arranged pieces. If however, you are applying to a program that focuses on experimental writing then have an experimental portfolio.
The question of “How do I know which to apply to?” should be on the verge of answering itself. What does your work look like? What have you been writing in the past? Do you have a defining style? Are you working towards a defining style? What kind of work interests you the most?
Again, this is where a healthy amount of research will significantly aid you. Find a program that is focusing on and doing what you want to do with your writing. Apply to it and give it your best shot.
Apply to several programs!
If you can afford it apply to at least 8 MFA programs. It is tough to get into these programs and many are incredibly selective. Do not put all your eggs in one basket. Many great writers have been rejected from MFA programs. This is unfortunately a subjective process. Being the best writer applying does not always guarantee you a slot.
There have been excellent writers rejected from totally unranked programs to find themselves getting into revered, highly ranked programs. Make sure you apply to a wide range of schools. Make sure you can afford these schools before you apply.
By all means, apply to ranked, unranked, and even brand new programs. Some brand new programs come out of the gate swinging because they have something to prove. Others plod along without much effort. Do your research before you apply!
After you have offers, visit the campus!
If you are accepted to a MFA or several MFAs congratulations! You’ve made it through the hardest section. Now comes the decision. Visit as many of your programs as you can. Try to have lunch with your potential professors and bounce ideas off of them. Ask questions about the program, the community, and the geography.
If something feels off to you, think long and hard before you accept. If you accept an offer, you are committing between 2 and 3 years of your life. Make sure you are where you want to be.
If at first you don’t succeed…
First, don’t take it too hard. All great writers receive rejections. Consider it a chance to grow and improve. Take a year to continue your work as a writer and hone your skills further. Some programs reject nearly all fresh out of college or first time applicants. Keep writing and preparing for the next round.
Find a good writing class at a university during your time off and take it. Get the opinions of peers and mentors and other writers. Continue to hone your craft and develop your skills. Practice, practice, practice.
Some expert advice from UCA’s MFA students:
“Don’t be afraid to Dream Big, to be silly, and to be serious. If you can, visit the campus and visit with the professors. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to submit your best work, and your most ambitious work, even if it’s not quite ready yet. Talk about what you feel most passionate about. And talk about your literary heroes and how they’ve inspired you — mentors are very important in this field.”-Jobe
“One of my mentors joked to me that when he wrote letters of recommendation for his students he wouldn’t just say things like, “He was SGA President” but also, “He’s a damn fine guitar player!” Now, I’m not suggesting that you tell jokes in your application materials. But you want to be memorable by providing specific details about yourself. Take a chance in your personal statement to show them not what you’ve done but who you are and why you are this way. Things like your time as SGA President or Workshop Chair of the Creative Writing Club will be on your CV or resume. Instead, talk about why you write and why your experiences matter to your writing career. What do you think the point of literature is? Why does writing matter to you? What have you experienced that has encouraged/discouraged your writing career and, most importantly, how have those experiences shaped who you are today?”-Louie “the Kid” Land
“My advice is to apply to all the programs you want to get into, enroll in the best program you can afford to attend, and follow directions in the application! If you have never been to Arkansas or to UCA, visit before you decide about the program. Arkansas is a beautiful place to live, and UCA is an amazing community to learn and to create.”-Stacey Jones
“Prepare. Organize. Attack. Find the programs you want and make the best application you possibly can. Revise your work, edit, and seek the advice of mentors and professors on your application. I’ll offer the warning, do not apply to a program just because one of your favorite writers is a professor there. What happens if you bank and that and then find out that person is a total jerk? What happens if that person really can’t teach? Find a balanced program that fits what you want to do with your work.”-John Mitchel