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Learn from My Mistakes: Advice on Applying to an MFA Program, part 1

2012 May 22
by Timothy

This is the first post in a four-part series on applying for an MFA.


It should be noted that everything in this series is advice I would give to myself if I could go back in time to fall 2009 when I first began seriously considering pursuing an MFA in Poetry. I might be off the mark on some things, but that’s why there’s a comments section. Everything in here are things I would have found helpful when I was applying. My only hope is that someone else finds them helpful, too.

Right. So. You want to apply for an MFA in creative writing. Great! It’s not as easy as it sounds, and you’ll probably feel wholly inadequate for some/much of the time you’re applying. Awesome! With any luck, you’ll look back at the application process as a positive learning experience that will prepare you to actually enter an MFA program. A feeling of inadequacy stopped me from applying twice before I actually managed to pull it off.

I want to say this right off the bat: applying for an MFA takes a lot more time than you think. Give yourself at least a year to get everything done. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I applied was waiting too long to begin. You’ll need a few months to research programs and draw up a list of schools you’d like to apply to, even more time to make sure your portfolio is up to snuff, and you’ll want to give enough time to the kind people who will write letters of recommendation on your behalf.

Consider this: most applications are due between December and February. Giving yourself a year to get ready to apply means you’ll want to start researching in the fall. From that point, it’ll be two years before you actually begin an MFA program. Starting now and assuming you don’t apply this coming fall means you’ll enter a program in the fall of 2014. It seems like a long way off, but an MFA is a huge step, so making sure you’re prepared is what the next 24 months are all about.

So where do you begin?


First things first: do you have a portfolio? How much writing would you actually be willing to share with people? When it comes right down to it, your writing sample is what will make or break your application, so unless you have a significant chunk of work you feel shows who you are as a writer, don’t bother looking at schools. Let me say that again: your portfolio is the most important part of your application. Start writing and revising, take a class or two, join a workshop, anything to bolster your portfolio. Of the programs I applied to, the bare minimum I needed was 6 poems, though most asked for 10-20 pages. It’s best to have more than enough (I aimed for about 30 pages) so you can select poems that might appeal to the sensibilities of those reading. Yes, you’re playing to the judge, but that’s the point: you want them to like your work, otherwise you wouldn’t be applying.

Playing to the judge will also help determine what programs you’ll apply to. If your portfolio leans toward the experimental then you probably won’t have too much luck getting into programs that are taught by and produce more conventional writers. That doesn’t mean you should try to write conventional poems if writing surreal prose poems is what you really want to be writing. Just be yourself and find programs that want to support writers like you.

But you won’t know what programs to begin looking at until you have something written. Seriously. Get to work. Go write something right now. Revise it, and put it away, then write another. Revise that one and put it with the first. Do this process again. Repeat as needed. Write a bunch of poems or stories. Then ask people to read them and give feedback. Ask specific questions about what you’re looking for. Here at Hazel & Wren there’s even a monthly Open Mic where you can receive feedback from others (a number of poems in my portfolio were first read in these Open Mics). Then use that feedback. Revise everything again and again until you have a body of work that you feel represents the best writing you can produce right now.

I’ve learned that I often don’t know my own work as well as I think I do. Just when I thought I was ready to submit my applications, I met with my writing professor from college. Over the course of two hours, we picked apart my portfolio and wrote down questions and things to think about and work on. Then I went home and spent another week reassembling my body of work. In the end, my portfolio was much stronger than it had been and I felt much more confident about my application.

So you’re applying for an MFA. That’s great! Before you go any further, take another look at your portfolio. And remember, the next Open Mic is on June 13th.

Check back next week for advice on finding a program. In the meantime, share your tips and questions about revising and compiling a portfolio!

Part Two


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