Application season is a dreadful, exhausting season for many MFA-seeking writers. It’s true when they say (‘they’ being current MFA students, past applicants, and program faculty) applying to MFA programs is not for the faint-hearted.
For one, it takes forever. Researching and deciding on your top schools is not a simple task. Most programs require digging around the website for information relevant to your goals and experience, talking to other students in the program, and looking at the career trajectories of current and past faculty, students, and graduates. It can take weeks just to apply to one program, so start early and work often to knock out the mountain of tasks ahead. If you’re applying to grad schools now, or getting ready to assemble your documents, we feel your pain.
Here’s a quick (and real) guide to preparing yourself for the MFA application season:
Seriously. Do your research.
Personally, I recommend making frequent use of Google Sheets, the Google version of an Excel spreadsheet. It’s easier to figure out than Excel, and if you plan on working on your application from multiple locations or computers (like working in secret at your job–we won’t tell) this is a great way to have your database on hand. From left to write, I organized my spreadsheet like this: Status, School, Program, Faculty, City, Funding, Years, Teach? Deadline, Fee, Samples, Size, Letters, Transcripts, Website. This allowed me to keep track of programs and process according to what I wanted most out of a degree. I wanted good funding, teaching experience, a cross-discipline program, an affordable location, a small class size, three years, and publishing faculty. Having all those factors easily visible helped tailor my personal statement without constantly referring back to the program website.
In your research phase, you should choose a few books by faculty at the program to get a sense of what it would be like to take a class with that writer. Graduate work is good too–you can see if graduates are publishing cool work, or stuff you’re not really into. Chances are, if applying to 10 schools, you might not have a chance to read in-depth through 10 books in the middle of the season, but it’s good to get a sense of the style, interests, and quality of writing coming from the program and faculty. Reaching out to students in the program is also an approach, but if those students are getting published, you can stalk their work online. If you get a hold of the students, ask who their mentor is, how the workshop is structured, and what they like/dislike about the program so far. Every grad student has a different experience, because you get out of the program what you put into the program.
Also, research funding. Do not believe you need to go into debt to become a writer. This profession is notoriously bad at cutting steady paychecks, so really evaluate if it’s worth it to go into $100,000 of debt for a two-year program (it’s probably not). Unless you already have an agent who can promise a book and movie deal, you’ll be paying off that debt for many years, which will take time away from writing. There’s a growing database of fully-funded MFA programs here, and I recommend beginning your search with those programs. Know that they are the hardest to get into and usually only accept 2-7 students per year. You might apply more than once for a fully-funded program, but it’s absolutely worth it.
The Writing Sample
Every school says this is the most important material in your application. Obviously, send your best work, and send work that fits the program (if you’re interested in expanding those ideas). Like, Iowa wants your minimal, hard-hitting realism (I think?) and a research school might want to see a mix of your creative work and your research/non-fiction work. It depends on the program, so do your research and work on your sample accordingly.
If you don’t have polished revisions of your best work, ask around and see if any friends or mentors would be generous enough to beta read your submission before sending it off. Hopefully, you already have a writer’s group or some generous friends, but if you don’t, definitely find someone with a reading mind to offer revision advice. You can find these online “workshops” more and more on Facebook and online forums for writers, and with increasing frequency during grad school application season. Revise your sample until it sings. And keep in mind you might send a different sample to different schools, so expect to have 50 pages of work really polished and ready to go.
The Personal Statement
Deep breath. Time to brag about yourself. Writers aren’t shy at all! I made a lengthy blog post on my personal site about how to tackle the personal statement. I’ll just say now: you should set aside a lot of time to write your statements. Do not write one and call it done if you’re applying to more than one school (I recommend you apply to at least 5 and no more than 10). Your personal statement should vary for each school. Pull from your research into the program to see which parts of your interests, life experience, CV, and goals you should highlight more than others. Do remember to put the personal into the statement. Think about what makes you unique from other applicants. This could mean an event that changed the way you think about literature and writing, an opportunity you pursued that made you a better reader/teacher/student, or something from your personal background that makes you seem awesome and interesting.
Do not begin your personal statement with “I’ve written since I was four” or “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” That’s boring! What have you done that is unique to your life and your relationship to words? Why should the graduate school care? How does it fit into your goals today? Remember, grad school works for you. You must go to a program that can support your aspirations and professional goals. Think about applying to a job. Would you take a 2-3 year job that didn’t meet your needs? How likely are you to use the resources? To thrive in the environment? To be happy living in a different city? Keep these ideas in mind when writing a personal statement.
The Other Stuff: Supplementary Material, Transcripts, CVs, and Fees
There’s a lot of other stuff that goes into applications, such as transcripts, fees, CVs/resumes, letters of rec, and sometimes a separate academic statement or a series of questions about your professional development. Don’t overlook these materials or believe they are less important than your writing. A lot is riding on this application–you want to make sure all your materials are as good as they can be.
Order transcripts early because they charge you more for rush delivery. I think it costs $10 each, and some schools make you send two or three. Application fees range from $50-100, depending on the school. Expect to spend around $300-900 on the application process alone. It’s a pain, I know. Especially since you can’t attend every program, and you may be rejected from more than you hoped. That happens too. But definitely plan on spending money in the process. And if you don’t have that cash, ask your schools about application fee waivers well in advance of the deadline.
Have a friend or boss or professional peer look at your CV/resume. Make sure you use design elements like balance, bold and italics, use a simple font, and straighten your margins. Ask your letter writers several months (2-3, or even 4 if you’re really prepared) in advance of the deadlines if they would be so kind as to write you an lor. Keep your application materials in folders on your computer, sorted by school, and update your spreadsheet each time you send another transcript, apply to the program, or get a response.
These days, it sometimes takes more than one application season to get into an MFA program. The good thing about rejection is it gives you a chance to reevaluate your goals and motivations. Thousands of writers apply to programs every year, so sometimes it really is a roll of the dice. There is no sure-fire way to get an acceptance, but these tips certainly help reduce the stress during a stressful time.
Here are some other ways you can boost your application
-Take time off. If you’re applying right out of undergrad, reconsider. Grad school is like a professional job and you only get one shot. You want to go into a program totally prepared to make the most of the instruction, community, and resources. This comes with perspective and experience and maturity. Take time off between undergrad and grad school to travel, work weird jobs, write a ton across many genres and themes, and get partying out of your system. Apply when you have some interesting experience to talk about, and of course write about.
-Apply for other opportunities. Not just jobs, but fellowships, grants, residencies, summer workshops, and exhibitions. A couple of these on a CV provide credibility and other types of institutional support for your work. If a committee sees other organizations believe in your work enough to support or fund you, that works in your favor!
-Be vulnerable. You are demonstrating your capacity to be a good peer and mentee to a group of people who have never met you. Be honest and real in your statement. Show them how much your passion for this work lives inside you at all times, and how you’ve used your passion to make your community better, or how your community has made you better as a person and writer.
-Find the right reasons. Not everyone will land a tenure-track teaching job after an MFA. Not everyone will publish a book. (Not everyone who has a good job and a book has an MFA.) These are not the only reasons to get an MFA, so you don’t have to pigeon-hole yourself in believing a program only churns out a certain kind of writer or academic. What are your reasons for wanting this time to study and grow? Do you need an MFA to achieve this? Do you need an MFA now?
-Find the right program. Your work won’t grow in every environment. Consider if the MFA is hospitable to the writing you want to pursue, or even hospitable to your gender and ethnicity. Look for schools with faculty who you think represent you, can advocate for you, and want you to succeed.
-Read everything about applying, but don’t go crazy. Here’s a page of links and resources to help you plan and prepare for this difficult process, and here’s a video of a bunny jumping competition to help you calm down.
Good luck, writers!
(For more grad school advice from the minnesota review, check out our other posts about getting your MFA)