So. Many. Applications. So many good apps. Hundreds. Our MFA program asks only for a writing sample and a cover letter to apply. There are no fees, no transcripts, no recommendation letters, no GRE scores required until we see if the writing is a fit. Of course applicants love this, and we like getting many packets to choose from. Still, hard decisions: only four open slots in fiction for the new cohort this fall; much anxiety for applicants; the stakes high on both sides. There were 14,000 students, faculty, and publishing professionals at the big annual conference for writers last month. More are applying to go to programs all the time.
Minutes after I began to send decline notices, I started getting emails: Would you make comments on my portfolio? What could I have done differently?
I can’t speak for my colleagues, let alone other programs, but what I was looking for is both instantly recognizable to me and impossible to describe without long explication: Good writing in the fiction sample, and a cover letter that shows some combination of ability, work ethic, ambition, and the desire to be a contributing member of a writing community. Humility but also courage at the daunting scale of the task. Since it’s impossible to comment individually, I thought I’d make some notes here.
Things to do with the writing sample
- Stick to page requirements. Our site says to submit no more than 30 pages of fiction, which is meant to be double-spaced—something we need to say on the website
- Format in a standard font and type size, use generous margins
- Proofread. A lot
- Make the writing good. That’s the frustrating catch-22 of applying, isn’t it? You want into a program in order to hone your craft, but your craft has to be recognized as being at a certain level in order to be admitted. Writing and reading develop these skills, as do good writing groups and community workshops
- All I can say is that it’s as obvious as a gator in a kiddie pool when a story is working toward something significant, when the words have been chosen with care, when the music of the prose shows someone has an ear for it. This is what marks the prose as competent, let alone excellent. As someone mentioned once in a comment here at the blog, Robert Frost said, “To judge a poem or piece of prose you go the same way to work—apply the one test—greatest test. You listen for the sentence sounds. If you find some of those not bookish, caught fresh from the mouths of people, some of them striking, all of them definite and recognizable, so recognizable that with a little trouble you can place them and even name them, you know you have found a writer…"
Put your best work up front. I read hoping it will continue to be good. If you have only 20 really solid pages, send those. Better not to pad
Things that matter in the cover letter
Keep it brief, good-naturedly professional, and applicable. Our “how to apply” info says to describe what you want out of an MFA program, why this program sounds appealing, and your interest in teaching freshman-level English. This could be accomplished in a single page, one brief paragraph per topic. What you’re showing is whether you can follow directions, can be concise but detailed, as well as meaningful, personable, genuine, and informed.
Applicants still fret on the message boards if it’s meant to be a business letter, a personal narrative, or some kind of statement of purpose or aesthetics. Whatever mode you use it might be better if you didn’t:
- Use the cover letter to tell disjointed, rambling stories
- Misspell words (including my name) or use bad grammar
- Admit to rabid hatreds of things I might hold dear (eg, voting rights, social justice)
- Tell me what my town, uni, and program are like, based on Googled info
- Make a list of all the famous visitors you can’t wait to learn from and tack my name on the end. Also: Check if all those people are still alive
- Accidentally leave in other universities’ names: Dear Esteemed Faculty of Brown University, I sure would like to come to Iowa City and study with you, Oronte, on the Gulf Coast, since skiing in the crisp cold air at high elevations really inspires me….
Commit one of the worst sins of correspondence: “Dear Oronte Churm.” I’ll read an app that starts this way, but afterward I give the applicant’s name to Interpol for investigation. Anyone pretending to be Ed McMahon is obviously up to something nefarious…
It might be better if you did:
- Say that you like to read. A lot. And mean it. You’ll be asked to read a lot and to have responses based something more than personal likes or dislikes. By all means enthuse about who you do like—Ben Lerner and Jane Austen—but show you’re aware there are other things you haven’t gotten to, and that you look forward to filling in the gap
- Know the program you’re applying to well enough so that you know the effect that “Elmore Leonard is the greatest artist who ever lived” will have on listeners
- Believe in process, revision, and input from others. If you know how to do it all yourself, you don’t need a program, and you won’t hear or believe constructive criticism
- Indicate you’ll try your best to be helpful to peers. Good literary citizenship is a must for this stage of your education; if you don’t believe in it, there are other paths, such as riding the rails with Kerouac and Vollmann
- Sound confident but don’t slip into bluster or arrogance. Fact is, your peers will be talented and smart too, and if the eternal cosmic workshop teaches us nothing else, it’s that everybody has good writing days and bad writing days
- Familiarize yourself with probable outcomes of earning an MFA in creative writing. The applicant who says he intends to publish his thesis as a book before graduation, immediately land a tenure-track job at a top uni, then dump it quickly in favor of getting rich and famous (“somewhat famous,” someone once told me), may be placing too great an expectation on his program
Relax. While, “My hopeful heart smears like pate on the crackers of my spine at the thought of attending your fine institution,” has a certain charm, it makes me think of a Nabokov-loving friend’s comment: You can always count on a desperate applicant  for a fancy prose style
Things that just don’t matter much
- Aesthetic of your work
- You saying you haven’t had sex since 2002
- Conversion stories: “Until 2002 I hated books, film, painting, sculpture, dance, and all forms of music. When my girlfriend left me, though, I suddenly,” etc. We’re all believers; that’s why we’ve devoted some portion of our lives to the task. But it’s a three-year, 60-hour program, and grad students in a department of English will have many demands and responsibilities. Romanticizing won’t get you far; fostering a professional attitude will
- Family in Houston, so I can flee your town and be with people I truly like any time I want
Need to escape an oppressive regime
Things you simply can’t control, so time spent being anxious about them would be better spent writing
- Take heart. Don’t take rejections personally. I don’t even know you, though I’ve heard things. Understand that I would, all other things being equal, hope to balance gender, race, class, age, interests, styles, and whatever else might be considered to create a dynamic, rigorous, hardworking, and supportive workshop. You can’t know if my most experimental writer is graduating out, and I hesitate to add another dirty realist to the mix
The difference in quality among the top dozen or more candidates is often so small that choosing is more of a hunch, a hope, a wing and a prayer. On another day, I might have chosen slightly differently
What else to do and not do
- My preference is for no response to rejections, though a single sentence of genuine thanks for my time is fine. I won’t have time to reply but appreciate it
- Don’t bother writing to say you didn’t want in here anyway, but you hope I have a nice day
- If on the waitlist, do send a Yes, I’m still definitely interested/not; I have/don’t have firm offers; look forward to hearing from you; thanks; here are a couple of questions I thought of in the meantime about funding or teaching or coursework
Accepted? Come on down. I’ll buy you a crawfish and help you eat it