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Learn from My Mistakes: Advice on Applying to an MFA Program, part 3

2012 June 5
by Timothy

This is the third post in a four-part series on applying for an MFA. See part 1 here and part 2 here.


If you’re applying for an MFA, you probably have some well thought out reasons for doing so. If you don’t, writing your personal statement is the time to stop, reevaluate, and articulate why you want to further your education. If you can’t articulate why, beyond “I just want to write!” then you might not be ready. You can write successfully without getting an MFA (and many wonderful writers have), but an MFA will help you with other aspects of your writing life, beyond simply writing poems or stories.

In thinking about getting an MFA, I read many blogs and articles about why I shouldn’t get an MFA, and many of them were very convincing. Ultimately, I decided that there are certain paths I’m interested in taking that are much easier to pursue with an MFA. I used these goals as the framework for my statement of purpose, and illuminated those goals with past experiences that led me to articulate those goals. This isn’t your undergraduate application essay, however, and the readers aren’t interested in reading about your trip abroad. Write about personal experiences that changed your writing process, and how getting an MFA will continue to help you grow as a writer based on those experiences.

Your portfolio is the main thing that professors will consider when deciding whether to accept you into their program, but your statement of purpose will give them a better understanding of you as a person. Without a solid statement of purpose, your portfolio is just a collection of good writing. Here are some questions to consider as you write your statement (but keep in mind, these questions were what helped me; you may find other ways to approach laying out your statement of purpose):

  • What are you interested in exploring with your writing?
  • What are you interested in pushing against?
  • What experiences do you have that influence your writing?
  • What is surprising about your process that might interest others?
  • What questions will you be asking of your work and process while pursuing a degree?
  • Are you interested in teaching in the future? Why, and how will an MFA help you?

Think of your statement as a chance to introduce yourself to the readers. You can describe what brought you to where you are, why you’re choosing their program out of every other program out there, and what you plan to do once you’re there. This is your chance to stand out from all of the other applicants as a person, not just a portfolio.

Here’s a tip about applying for an MFA: organize. Beyond your statement of purpose and your portfolio, there are a million other things to think about, including transcripts, application fees, letters of recommendation, and, in some cases, GRE scores. Each program you apply to is going to be affiliated with a university, and each program and university is going to have different requirements. Find out what’s required for each program you’re applying to, and write it down on an easily readable sheet. For me, having a ton of checklists allowed me to focus on one task at a time. This is Time Management 101, but it really helped me when I started feeling too overwhelmed. All I had to do was glance at my checklists to know what needed to be done next.

In the introduction to this series I advised starting the process a full year before actually applying, and the above list of additional requirements is exactly why I suggest that. It can take a few weeks for transcripts to be sent from your undergrad, and then you have to follow up and make sure they’ve arrived. All of this stuff takes a lot of time, energy, and planning, so the sooner you can begin organizing the pieces, the easier it will be to drop them into place.

Next week—the last part in this series—is about the intangible things you’ll encounter in applying: being overwhelmed and worried, and reminding yourself WHY you’re applying. Right now, share some organization tips, and share some tricks about writing a great personal statement!

Part 1
Part 2

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