Educate Me, Please!
Applying to Graduate Writing Programs
Rhonda Browning White
The first condition of education is being able to put someone to wholesome and meaningful work. --John Ruskin
You’ve reached the point in your writing career where you’ve become quite serious about it. You can think of little else besides reading or writing. You yearn for the day when someone creates showers with built-in, waterproof laptops, because you always seem to have a shampoo-lathered head when the ultimate phrase arrives. Okay, maybe that’s just me. But we’ve recently received enough questions from our clients about low-residency MFA programs and the application process to tell us that many of you have decided to seriously invest time and money into your future as a writer. Congratulations!
While it’s not necessary to hold a post-graduate degree in order to become a successful, full-time writer, immersing yourself into a community of writers for two to three years has great benefits. In addition to showing publishers you are serious about your craft, you’ll network with successful authors, develop a cohort of like-minded writers who will support you through years to come, plus build a firm foundation from which to teach, lead workshops and conferences, promote yourself and your work, and—best of all—write with passion.
Now, how do you journey from the decision to apply to arrive at the acceptance letter? Here’s what I recommend:
- Begin today. Researching the right program cannot begin too soon. While still a university sophomore, I began compiling lists of post-graduate writing programs, and I kept a notebook with information of what I learned about each. Some schools I could quickly cross off because they required a semester abroad, were exorbitantly priced, or focused more on literary theory than creative writing. Others required classroom participation four days a week, which was out of the question for a working mother like me. Of course, these may be just the factors you’re seeking, so make sure the programs to which you apply fit your need. Cost is often a concern for many, so if you are counting on student loans, scholarships or financial aid, know that you’ll need to complete a Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form well in advance. In addition to tuition, don’t forget to factor in travel expenses to/from the program, lodging, food and textbooks. I strongly encourage you to research the faculty of each of the programs where you plan to apply, as well. Aim to read (or at least skim) one book or novel written by each of the full-time faculty members in the program. While I’ll quickly admit that I spent over three years doing intermittent research, I learned this month that an incredible source of much of this information has just been published. Lori A. May’s The Low-Residency MFA Handbook asks and answers many of the questions I had about low-res writing programs, both in the US and abroad. This text addresses the program, teaching philosophy, residency, study format and—especially encouraging—life after the MFA. Ms. May has done much of the hard work for you, but you’ll still need to handle the application process on your own.
- Contact the programs. Chat via email or telephone with a faculty member, program director or advisor, current student, or alumnus of the program. Jot down a list of school-specific questions, concerns about funding, or questions about the residency. The best programs will be happy to talk with you, and many will refer you to alumni or current students for candid conversations with those who have experienced the program first-hand.
- Acquire transcripts. This may seem like a no-brainer, but be sure to follow up with the programs to which you are applying to ensure your transcripts actually arrived. One of mine didn’t, and I had to re-request that the transcript be sent.
- Letters of reference should be written by someone who knows you and is familiar with your writing skill—other than your mother. Think of former professors and deans who read your work, but don’t limit reference letters to academia, unless required. Consider also the boss for whom you wrote a fifty-five page technical manual that was published. Be sure to carefully read each program’s application instructions, as some will request that references be mailed and postmarked at the source, while others will want the letters included in the application packet. Most will require that the letter be sealed, with the author’s signature affixed over the sealed flap.
- The personal essay. Let’s all say it together . . . “Ugh!” Now that you’ve got that out of your system, start writing. Your personal essay should be honest and heartfelt, but not folksy or humorous. Attending an MFA program is one of the most serious decisions you’ll make in your life, so treat it as such in this essay. Describe why you want to be involved in a writing community as intense as an MFA program. What is it that led you to the decision, and what is your motivation to engage in three years of study? How will you make time for the rigorous schedule (typically 20-25 hours a week) of coursework? What obstacles might you encounter, and how do you plan to overcome them? Why does this particular program appeal to you, over all the others available? Are you able to accept critique and apply it to your work? Again, read the application instructions for clues as to what the program director and faculty are looking for in this essay.
- The writing sample. This is, without a doubt, the most important piece of your application packet. Programs will typically require between ten and twenty-five pages of your best work. Having said that, if your story ends on page eleven or twenty-eight, be sure to send it all—don’t leave them wondering about your ability to end a story. The sample should be appropriate for the program to which you’re applying. Don’t send a children’s story to a literary fiction program, and don’t send a short story to a poetry concentration program. Send your very best work. Let me say that again: Send your very best work. Don’t send anything that you haven’t had someone else proofread for typos. Better still; send something that you’ve shared with your writing critique group. Make sure your manuscript is properly formatted. For stories, use one-inch margins with 12-point font and double-spaced lines. It’s important not to take the writing sample lightly. If you don’t feel you have a current writing sample that’s up to par, begin a new piece, and wait to apply until you’re sure you have a high-quality manuscript to send.
- Other important information. Most applications will ask you to include a list of prior publications and writing awards (if you have them), of professional writing organization memberships, or of writing workshops, conferences or non-credit writing courses you have taken. Some may also ask for any writing-community involvement, so be certain to mention if you’ve led a writing workshop at your local library, community college, prison or youth camp. In short, if you have a writing accomplishment of any kind, or have worked or volunteered within a writing community, be sure to mention it.
- Final details. How many copies of the application, essay and writing sample must you include in your packet? Did you sign the check for the application fee? Did you include both your home and cell number on the application form? Did you write a cover letter for your packet (a brief note listing your enclosures and thanking the director for reviewing your application)? Now is not the time to recycle an old manila envelope, and by all means, if you have a coffee cup stain on your title page, reprint the document! It’s not necessary to overnight your application (unless you’re approaching a deadline date), but consider sending it in a sturdy cardboard, U.S. Priority Mail envelope.