Having just graduated from the University of Connecticut and heading to the University of New Hampshire’s MFA Program in Creative Writing this fall, I would like to share my experience in the process of applying to MFA programs. Even though my focus is poetry, I hope that my information will help those applying in the genres of fiction or creative nonfiction as well. It is a process that takes time, but if you start working on this during the summer months, it will benefit you greatly when the applications become due. I applied to eleven programs and was humbled to be selected into seven programs. Two of these were fully funded, three offered partial funding, and the other two had no funding available. Most of my applications were completed during winter break, and I started with a list of around twenty possible schools before I narrowed it down to the final eleven. My advice to you is not only from my personal experience, but also from the creative writing professors that I was fortunate enough to have worked with at UConn.
The most important part of your application is your writing sample. Most schools look for anywhere between ten and twenty-five poems or pages of your manuscript. Each school’s website will provide the exact amount. To prepare for this I suggest that this summer you spend a lot of time not only writing, but also reading. You should not only focus on your particular genre, but also delve into others. Last summer, two novels that were instrumental in my poetry writing were Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and Andre Dubus III’s memoir Townie. Yes, reading other genres is important. Also, since the main part of your application that will be looked at is your writing sample, get feedback from professors that you have worked with. It is not only the quality of your work, but also how it is presented, to include the ordering of your pages.
Do seek feedback from your professors on your writing, sit down and have a discussion about your strengths and weaknesses. Your creative writing professors are your greatest assets. They may point you towards schools that you didn’t think about, or may tell you that you need to take a year off from school before you begin the process. Either way, do not be discouraged. The professors have your best interest in mind. Ask them about books you should read, or authors you should focus on. Also, some may know of colleagues who work at specific programs, and can match up your style of writing with certain programs.
Ask yourself the question, “Where do I want to write?” Do you enjoy the energy of the city? Or, do you find the desert or mountains a place for inspiration? Remember, your main reason for going on to a MFA program is to write. Apply to places that you would feel comfortable to spend a bulk of your time writing. Also, do not get into debt while attending a MFA program. Many programs offer full funding either with a full tuition scholarship, or a GA/TA position.
Poets & Writers http://www.pw.org website was very helpful to me in my process. They list all MFA programs, both full-residency and low-residency. When you click on a particular school, they provide helpful information that will not only provide a link to the MFA program, but also pertinent information about the program. They list how when the program was established, program size, application fees and deadlines, and also core faculty. Look into the core faculty member’s work and writing style, are they people you may want to work with? A supplement that I found very useful beyond the website was purchasing The Poets & Writers Guide to MFA Programs. This book provides an Index of both full-residency and low-residency programs, and breaks them down into categories of popularity, selectivity, and funding.
Two other areas that you can also start working on are your CV and personal statement. How involved are you with the creative writing program? Have you interned for the program or been an editor at the literary magazine? Have you done readings or are you involved in other extra curricular activities pertaining to creative writing? These are excellent skills that you can use to build your CV. If you have not been involved, come up with a plan to do so during the next year. This brings you more into the community within the creative writing program, but also can catapult your writing to another level. With your personal statement, work with a professor who knows you and your writing. Plan on completing five or six drafts. In your personal statement it is important to mention not only areas that you feel strongly about in regards to your writing, but also areas that you would like to improve upon. Really be creative with this. Really be honest with this. Also, make sure that you have also established relationships with at least three professors who know your writing. They will be the people you will rely on for letters of recommendation.
My last piece of advice is to talk with the graduate admissions department of the programs you will be applying to. Get to know the people who work there. They can assist you if you are looking for a possible waiver in grad school application fees, and also provide you or help assist with getting current MFA student’s phone numbers. You should call enrolled students to ask about their experience at that particular program. They can also explain what they went through in applying to MFA programs as well.
It can seem like a daunting task, but it can be done. The main thing is to start now, and use all the resources that are available to you. Also, you should be organized in this process. Remember application due dates, and make sure that your personal statement is being addressed to the proper school. Start with a list of about twenty schools and try and narrow it down to around eight to ten. Keep reading. Keep Writing. Enjoy the summer and good luck!