Applying to graduate school is not easy.
There are countless hours of writing and rewriting your personal statement, crumpling it up out of anger & throwing it in the bin — only to run after it and flatten it out under one of your undergrad textbooks you never used.
There are countless hours of reading and rereading, handing your personal statement to your friends & family and reading it aloud to your pets, hoping they’d acknowledge that it’s good (or bad).
If you’re applying to an MFA Program, there’s the addition of writing, rewriting, reading, and rereading your manuscript. That’s the fun part, said no one ever.
So, I’m going to try and help you get through this tough time of MFA Applications the best I can. I’ve been there; I’ve done that; and I (somehow) survived it all.
The Guide to Not Losing Your $h!t While Applying to MFA’s
Before the (Actual) Application Process
- Choose Your Schools
Do your research. Google is your friend. However, PW.org is your best friend! They have an entire stockpile of MFA programs across the U.S. and other countries, including Canada and the U.K. Start this process roughly a year before you intend on applying. MFA programs tend to only accept once a year in the fall. Also, think about the following:
— Do you want a full-residency or low-residency program?
— Do you need financial aid whether it be from FAFSA, scholarships (private and university), teaching assistantships, fellowships?
— Do you have any preferences in terms of location? Do you hate the summer heat or the bitter cold of winter? Are you more of a neutral person who loves spring/autumn? Big city or small town? East Coast or West Coast? National or International?
— Are there specific professors in your genre you’d like to work with? Any of your favorite authors teach at a university?
- Letters of Recommendation
Do you have a professor that you really liked and the feeling was mutual? Do you have a boss that’s totally awesome and again, the feeling was mutual? They are your key to recommendations. If you’re going for an MFA, you were probably an English major in undergrad. Graduate school may have been spoken about during your last semester. Most professors (especially of English) won’t have any problems writing you a recommendation. They’ve written tons before and have the perfect vocabulary to real sin your praises to an admissions counselor and/or committee. You will, more than likely, need up to three letters of recommendation. Once you’ve made your list of professors, employers, etc. that you’d like to write you a letter, contact them as soon as possible. Write them an e-mail or stop by their office, explaining that you’re applying to graduate school / MFA Programs and you’d love for them to write you a letter. 8 out of 10 times, the answer will be positive.
- Prioritize Your Time
This should be a given, but it needs to be said. This process isn’t simple & stress-free and time should be dedicated to each application and all the components to it. It’s easy to say, “Hm, I’ll do a draft of my personal statement tonight!” And not do it. Personally, I am madly in love with my Erin Condren planner and once there’s something written in there, it is going to happen. Wake up at 05:30am to shower and have enough time for some coffee & a nice read? In the planner. Classes from 08am to 02pm? In the planner. Date with my partner? In the planner. Everything needs to be scheduled. During my time applying to MFAs, I made sure all of my stuff was planned: write, rewrite my personal statement; read, reread my personal statement; write, rewrite, edit my manuscript; so on and so forth. This is important and this is your future. Make time for it.
- Review Your Chosen Schools
By now, you should have a nice list of schools you’d like to apply to. After I made my initial list, I made sure I printed out the actual webpages of: tuition fees, necessities for applying, degree requirements, and a few professor bios & their work(s). Go over these things multiple times and really scale your list down to five to ten schools. My list was split in a few different ways: Dream schools, Reality schools, and schools that were safety nets. Arrange your chosen schools by application deadline, that way it’s easier for you to know which applications you should get to work on immediately and which ones you could wait a bit on. In order to also be looked at for teaching assistantships, fellowships, and/or scholarships, some deadlines will be as soon as December 1st, some December 31st, some January 5th, and others February 15th. These are the most common dates that I’ve seen.
- (Optional) The GRE
If your schools require the GRE, make sure you sign up for this pricey standardized test. I had one school that required the GRE and it wasn’t on the top of my list, so I booted that school and saved $195 for application fees. Most Ivy Leagues want the GRE and some schools use this test to determine if you’re eligible for a fellowship or teaching assistantship. In my personal opinion, it is totally okay to not take it if it isn’t required. I don’t like standardized testing and I don’t think tests should really determine your intelligence, especially ones that have a ton of math when you’re applying for writing, y’know? Again, this is all personal. I do suggest you take it if you have your heart set on a school that requires it. You could sign up for a GRE Prep Course or look around for some free resources like on Kaplan GRE Test Prep.
The Application Process
- Gather Your Transcripts
Most undergrad universities have two types of transcripts: the unofficial and the official. The difference? Not much, except the official version does not touch your hands at all and it has your undergrad school’s emblem embossed on the paper. Other than that, all the information is the same. Some schools, like my own, charge your for the official copy to be sent to your graduate school. Mine cost $7 per copy with a $2 shipping fee. I applied to nine schools, so simply just making sure an MFA Program received my official transcript cost nearly $100. Ask your school’s registrar about official copies. As for your unofficial copies, my school had this (horrible) online component to print out your transcript. I was able to save it as a PDF & upload it into my applications; regardless, they still need the official copy. If your school has an online component (hopefully, it isn’t as bad as mine was), peek around and do some clicking. I’m sure you’ll be able to view your transcript unofficially.
- Spreadsheet That Ish
Your life will become ten times easier once you organize your schools on a spreadsheet. I read article after article on how to prepare for your MFA and jotted down the things I should organize. The end result was a beautiful, long spreadsheet of schools. In it, I included:
— Application due date
— Application cost
— Manuscript pages/words
— Statement of purpose / Personal statement requirements (word/page count, content)
— Does this school need a Curriculum vitae (CV)?
— Number of recommendations
— Tuition per year
— Application complete? (Seeing that lil’ red checkmark made me feel so, so accomplished)
— Link to the program’s website
- Curriculum vitae? Whuh?
The professional definition of a curriculum vitae (i.e. CV) is a brief account of a person’s education, qualifications, and previous experience, typically sent with a job application. Basically, it’s a resume with a bit more focus on academia. Most MFA programs that I’ve looked at have this as an optional document. I supplied mine to the schools I applied to because I wanted them to see that I was a well-rounded student and because I linked my blog that’s dedicated to writing; the point of that was to show that although I applying in Fiction, I am proficient in other genres, as well. Here’s a copy of mine that you could use as a template: CV Template for MFA
- Statement of Purpose / Personal Statement
Besides the manuscript, this is probably the most crucial part of your application. This is the first piece of writing the admissions committee will be viewing from you. This is where you are human and show them who you are… in as little as 500 words or as much as 2500 words. This was the most difficult part of my application process, and if it wasn’t for Gotham’s MFA Mentorship with BC Edwards, I would’ve probably sent these MFA programs some really crappy version of what I had. Everything I read said not to start your statement with the following: “I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” “J.K. Rowling made me want to write,” so on and so forth. Here’s a copy of my Statement of Purpose / Personal Statement to Kingston University in the U.K. (that I was accepted to within two weeks of submitting): S.o.P—Kingston
- The Manuscript
THE. MOST. IMPORTANT. THE. MOST. CRUCIAL. PART. OF. YOUR. APPLICATION.
Can I make it any more obvious? No, seriously, this is 50% of your application. Maybe even more. If you’ve been writing throughout undergrad, you should have something. This isn’t the time to begin writing something new, that hasn’t been workshopped and reviewed countless times by your mentor or overseeing professor. Most MFA programs have their manuscript requirements at 20 pages. Some are 15 to 20; some are up to 30. I gave them 22 — not too much, not too little, and within guidelines (and guidelines are important; if you don’t follow them, it’s clear that you’re not good at following any type of directions). If you’re a short story writer, gather two or three short stories that you believe are your strongest and edit them with your mentor. If you’re a novelist, take a chapter (particularly, the first and/or second chapter) that will introduce the who, what, when, where, why, how of your novel. Always, always stay within page limits. On top of that, take note if there are any schools that want something very specific like page numbers (and their location), a cover page (and what to include), or a table of contents. With my manuscript, I typed it all up in one document on Google Docs so all my revisions were saved & I could always look at them. I edited my manuscript and tailored it to the needs of each school. Later, I downloaded it as a PDF into a folder specifically for that school. Talk about organization.
- The Submit Button
Don’t upload everything, smile, and blindly hit Submit. No, no, no. Don’t do that. Reread everything: Manuscript, Statement of Purpose, CV, and any other documents. Make sure you’re clicking the correct document to upload. You don’t want to upload the wrong document. That’d be embarrassing (and that was my worst fear). Have a credit card or debit card ready because you are going to be paying application fees galore (sidenote: I personally find it ridiculous that I have to pay for an application to a school in which I might be rejected from… but whatever, those are the rules). Click Submit and take a shot. You did good, buddy!
You thought I was done, didn’t you?
I’ll post more about the Post-Application Process and choosing a school later on. Look out for it.