A student came to see me today to ask for advice on applying to MFA programs. The season is approaching. Applications are due starting in December. Here is what I told my student:
1) Do your research. Learn which program will suit you best. Find out where the writers you admire teach. (Most writers teach.) But remember, a good writer does not necessarily make a great teacher. So, be sure the program has other attractive attributes. (A full scholarship is a good place to start.) Also, just because a writer is listed on the faculty doesn’t mean he is. Check course offerings to be sure.
2) It’s all about the writing sample. A good program will care most about the work you submit—not about the GREs or grades from college or recommendations or fancy resumes. Knock their socks off. From the first sentence to the last, this should be the best possible example of your talent. I also always tell my students, as I did the one who visited me today, that short is better. An application may ask that you submit “up to 50 pages.” DON’T!! Unless they are brilliant, and even then I’d hold back. Just think of the quantity of work they are receiving, most of it not very good. A short, sharp, glittering story or two can easily be enough to showcase your style and make them want you.
3) Recommendations: the application readers are curious just as we all are. If you have the support of someone well-known it can make the reader perk up a bit, take a second look at the writing sample. But also, a beautiful letter from your English professor or from an unknown writer you took a workshop with at some local venue can do the same. In the end, it all goes back to the writing sample.
4) In your letter of application, be sure to say why you want to go to that program. Let them know you’ve done your research. Everyone likes to be flattered, genuinely. If there is a particular writer you’re eager to study with, let the school know it with a thoughtful explanation. But, again, be genuine.
5) And just to reiterate: spend 98% of your time on the work—draw us in swiftly and carry us along on the crest of your stunning prose.