Mar 28, 2009, 6:55 PM
Post #1991 of 2662
Re: [noby1] Low-Residency MFAs
[In reply to]
I am on the admissions committee of a low-residency program. This semester I have read and rated a great number of applications. Patterns have emerged, some of them dark and self-destructive. I'd like offer some advice for those of you applying to or choosing between low-residency programs:
1. Tailor your personal essay to each program you apply to. Generic personal essays automatically take their author down a notch in any school's estimation. In some cases we received letters of recommendation tailored to our program, but the personal essay was not. When that happens, it says the people you ask to write letters for you are taking more care than you are. Don't ever send admission materials addressed to another school.
2. If your letter of recommendation comes from someone who knows both writing and your writing, it helps. Family friends, your supervisor in the mortgage office, your spouse/children/siblings are not good sources for recommendations. A professional writer who knows your work is the best recommender, but they're hard to find and often ill-tempered. A recommendation from a writing teacher who knows your work and workshop behavior will be taken seriously.
3. Research the faculty. Read their books. Look at their websites. Your decision is going to change the direction of your life, so it's worth while to figure out who will be on the other end of what will be intense and intimate writing relationships. The best personal essay will list the faculty members you've read and give reasons why you think they're going to help you to say what you want to say. It will also let you focus your choice before you pay all those application fees. Three or four well-chosen schools are enough. You can only go to one. There are huge differences between schools and it's usually because of the faculty, not because of technical differences between programs.
4. Have something that you want to say. Don't be shy about revealing an obsession with social justice or environmental catastrophe or economic black holes if that's what's turning your crank these days. We're looking for personal essays that stick in our minds, that have voices and emotions and rough edges and life.
5. Send in your most intelligent work. It sounds ridiculous, but lots of applicants are so frightened of being rejected that they send in work they don't care about. You can guess what our response to that sort of work is.
6. If you blog, know that the first thing many of us on admissions committees do is google your name and read your blog. I've turned down otherwise acceptable applicants when they listed our program as their backup on their blog.
7. Never send a manuscript out without proofreading it. Your writing sample is Exhibit One in your application. It should be relatively new writing. It should not have been workshopped to death or sent out with last year's MFA applications. It should, however, be in its fifth or sixth draft. If you've never written a sixth draft, here is your opportunity. People who depend on first- or second-draft genius are, to my mind, never geniuses.
8. If you're accepted into a program, realize that you're not going to have much time at the residencies to explore the local geography. Residencies are incredibly busy and always cause frustration because there are more events you want to attend than there is time to attend them. So program location/prestige isn't anywhere near as important as people think. You'll get your eventual teaching job or book on your own initiative/merits. Once again, the faculty is the territory.
9. The top applicants to a program are seldom the top graduates from the program. Admissions committees have moments of shuddering horror at graduations, when we remember that the shining student that is carrying our hopes and dreams into the future was argued about and wait-listed, and was only admitted at the last moment because of a death in someone else's family. What an acceptance means is that we think you will engage in a deep conversation with our writers for two years and will benefit from it. It means we think you will be able to take the concentrated knowledge you get at a residency and unfold it over the next six months. It means we think that you come to writing with humility and dedication, just like your faculty. It doesn't mean we think you're perfect. In fact, if we think you're perfect, we suggest you go somewhere else.
10. If you get rejected, look at items 1-9 above. Admissions committees love to accept good applicants, and if you study a program carefully and decide that it's the one for you, you'll get our benign attention.
Hope this helps.