The poems were only just accepted and I sent out most of my apps a few weeks ago, so it's really (to me) a question of whether I send an updated CV/publication history or not. Maybe shoot an e-mail to the individual program coordinators/administrators and see what they say?
Sure, especially if the journals are well known. I would send a brief, professional e-mail notifying them of your upcoming publications and attach an updated CV. Most secretaries who handle the applications will be more than happy to print it off and replace the old one in your file. Also mention that you'd be willing to mail it to save them the cost of paper. Too, unless they've already begun the reading process, the committee members will never know about it... so don't worry about it from that angle.
and yes, i agree with what you say - that the work has to stand on its own - but even admissions committees are human and knowing that journals and editors have liked your stuff can serve to strengthen their already positive impression of your portfolio.
I agree, in principle.
The bottom line regarding publications, in my opinion:
A.) If you've placed work in a major journal (Ploughshares, AGNI, Paris Review, Tin House, etc.) it might give the committee members a reason to take a closer look at your sample -- if, at first glance, it doesn't blow them away. Yes, they claim to give each sample the same amount of attention. But think of it from their perspective, in practical terms. Some of these people have hundreds of submissions to go through. They're looking to weed the stack down to a few dozen promising candidates as quickly as possible (without being careless) and spend the majority of their time closely considering those. You want to be in that second stack.
Note, however, that I didn't say a major publication will push your application over the top. Good journals publish bad work all the time. The committee members will know this. But what it can do is keep you in the game a little longer.
What a publication credit will not
do (and I think this is the primary fear of most applicants) is elevate a good sample that happens to be published above a great one that isn't. In the end, as has been said here ad nauseam, it's all about the writing.
B.) If you've placed work in a lesser-known journal, the fact that you've published at all indicates to the committee members that you're at least serious enough about your work to submit. That you have a work ethic, that writing isn't just a hobby for you, etc. They'll know you've likely been rejected five to ten times more often than accepted. They'll know this because they're writers, too, and they've been in the same boat (if they aren't still). Perseverance is a major asset in this profession, perhaps even (at the risk of sounding too Tony Robbinsy) the most important one. "A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit." Richard Bach said that. A smart dude.
C.) If you don't have any publications yet, don't worry about it. Because in the end it's all about the writing anyway.
What do you guys think about mentioning other achievements in the resume or elsewhere in the app--things like Division I athletics or winning international competitions in non-literary endeavors? Would it help or hinder?
Sure, it could help. It certainly won't hinder. Don't lose sleep over it, though, because... wait for it... it's all about the writing.