Michener Center Personal Statement
Rufi Thorpe, author of The Girls from Corona Del Mar (Knopf), was a senior in college and “touchingly foolhardy” when she began applying to M.F.A. programs.
“I applied to John Hopkins, Iowa, and NYU. I suppose I was not familiar with the concept of a safety school.” Though she was eventually accepted from NYU’s wait list, she’d recently left New York City, escaping a “pretty torturous love affair,” and couldn’t afford to return. The next year, slightly wiser, she applied to five programs, writing a separate personal statement for each.
“I wrote my applications like love letters,” she says. Eventually, she wound up at the University of Virginia, where she studied with Ann Beattie and Christopher Tilghman (the latter was a particular influence) and lay the intellectual groundwork for her first novel.
Choosing a Program
M.F.A. programs have become as competitive as first-rate medical and law schools (in some cases more), but many writers still choose where they apply based on a combination of intuition, ego, geography, fandom, and other circumstances. Thorpe’s application trajectory, full of emotional asides and gut decisions, doesn’t much sound like the kind of advice published on the Poets & Writers Speakeasy (an online forum where applicants can exchange advice) or the M.F.A. Blog. There, you’ll find experts who suggest creating spreadsheets to keep track of supplementary materials, advise applicants to consider schools with great funding in remote locales, and encourage prospective M.F.A.ers to increase their slim odds of acceptance by applying far and wide. Tom Kealey’s The Creative Writer’s M.F.A. Handbook (Bloomsbury), a comprehensive guide to tackling the M.F.A. application process, instructs writers to consider funding, teaching load, student-run publications, among other factors.
Like Thorpe, Matt Sumell didn’t get accepted at UC Irvine’s competitive M.F.A. program (graduates include Joshua Ferris and Michael Chabon) until his second year of applying to grad school. “When I first applied, I was bumming around San Diego and picking my schools based on faulty criteria: girl to guy ratios and was there good surf,” he says. Following a round of encouraging rejections, he did what M.F.A. forums expressly suggest you do not do: he pestered faculty at the places where he was rejected for feedback. The following year, he was rejected everywhere again, except UC Irvine, from whom he received a letter, signed by Geoffrey Wolff, explaining that he was on the wait-list.
Though their strategies ultimately worked, both Matt Sumell and Rufi Thorpe do not advise proceeding as they did. Research is necessary, more so now than ever, with new programs appearing every year. Most schools have a wealth of information on their websites. Online, prospective students can find out who is teaching and when (check closely, since some sites list emeritus faculty members who never actually enter the classroom), how much funding is offered, what the course structure is like (some programs are more academic than others—one tip-off is often how much importance a school places on the GRE), whether students are asked to teach, and the size of the student body. Some programs, like NYU’s, offer live info sessions for applicants who can make it to campus. Would you go insane in Ithaca, N.Y., trapped under four feet of snow all winter, stuck with the same handful of writers for three years? If so, don’t apply to Cornell—though for many, it has been a focused writerly utopia.
Meghan Daum, author of, most recently, The Unspeakable, applied only to programs in New York City. “I wanted to go to Columbia. I didn’t care, obviously, if it was funded or not.” Her M.F.A. experience and the debt it left her with taught Daum to hustle. “I learned how to write for money,” she says. That lesson would keep her afloat, and her thoughtful writing about money—not having it and how she spent it—has become a kind of anthem for many young writers and readers. The takeaway is, perhaps, that applying to and attending an M.F.A. program is a major life decision, and no matter how prepared applicants are, there will always be a measure of unexpected fallout.
Jeffrey Alan Lockwood, an instructor at Wyoming’s two-year M.F.A. program, which enrolls roughly three to four students per genre each year, points out how programs look at applicants holistically. “We do not use a standard or systematized approach to weighting any element of the application. In fact, the elements interact in complex ways and can’t be sensibly isolated into parts,” Lockwood says. “The writing sample is the most important element in most cases... but because all applications are read by two faculty, idiosyncrasies are moderated.” Unlike law school, where a student with high LSATs and a perfect transcript would likely get into all her top choices, M.F.A. applicants sometimes get into the most competitive programs and are rejected from purportedly easier schools. There’s an element of blind luck—of finding the right reader at the right time.
So what are the boxes nearly all M.F.A. applicants will have to check off? Once they begin their application? In addition to transcripts and, sometimes, GRE scores, almost every M.F.A. program asks the following of its applicants: a writing sample that’s around 30 pages (usually slightly less for poetry), a personal statement, and letters of recommendation. Some schools, like Columbia, also ask for a critical essay. Guidance regarding the writing sample tends to be rather hands off. Iowa asks that students submit 30–80 pages, but no more than 100—they do not explain how students are to format this work, other than that it should be double-spaced, and do not specify a preference for novels or short stories, traditional or experimental writing. Brown’s Literary Arts Program, widely known as a hotbed for experimentation, obliquely notes that writers may bypass the double-spaced format if “an alternative format is integral to the work.” Reviewing these guidelines, the subtext emerges. M.F.A. programs are seeking talent, and they know that there’s no catchall way to explain exactly what that is. Again and again, program administrators encourage prospective students to focus most of their energy on their sample. Peter Nelson, an administrator at Brown, says that “99%–100% of the decision is based on writing sample.” M.O. Walsh, director of the M.F.A. program at New Orleans University, agrees: “The writing sample is the most important thing. We are looking for vision and potential.”
Letters of recommendation can come from writers who know the applicant’s work, former teachers, or other close professional mentors or colleagues. Maxine Chernoff, director of San Francisco State University’s M.F.A. program, finds them important, but not overwhelmingly so: “They help assure us that the applicant works reasonably well in an academic setting. Most importantly, the manuscript counts.” Walsh places a somewhat higher premium on letters, and notes that “bad rec letters can definitely throw up red flags. We’ll be living with these people for three years. If the rec letter says they’re problematic, that’s a headache we can do without.” Other peripheral materials, like GRE scores and past academic records, are also typically valued well below the quality of the writing sample. “They help shift around rankings and break ties,” says Wyoming’s Lockwood. “Personal statements that make clear that an applicant lacks collegiality or interest in others will also count heavily against a person.” In general, administrators seem to agree that factors beyond the writing sample become important in later stages of the process, once promise has been identified and a student is seriously being considered for acceptance.
Many prospective applicants who are daunted by the importance of the writing sample and are struggling to choose the work that best represents them can seek out the guidance of professional consultants (like those at Sackett Street Writers Workshop or Grub Street), often M.F.A.-trained writers themselves, to help get manuscripts in tip-top shape. There are also a number of non-M.F.A. workshops (like the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program) where writers can get feedback before attempting to enter an M.F.A. program. Austin Bunn, a graduate of Iowa’s M.F.A. program and author of the forthcoming novel The Brink, attended workshops in L.A. and a community class in Queens led by Sam Lipsyte before applying to five schools, including Iowa. “My first response was a rejection from Minnesota,” he says. “Two weeks later I got into Iowa and the Michener Center, which goes to show how highly subjective the process is.”
An element of chance will probably always factor into the M.F.A. application process, in a way that it doesn’t in other areas of study. These are writers we’re talking about, from the applicants to the faculty and often even the administrators. They are moved by empathy and by stories: the ones in the personal statement, the ones in the letters of recommendation, the ones in the writing sample, and the ones that unfold in real time, over the phone. Matt Sumell moved off UC Irvine’s wait-list for a reason that seems torn straight from a short story. When Geoffrey Wolff called one of the accepted students to inform them of Irvine’s offer, he overheard the clanking of dishes in the sink. As Wolff talked, the student kept washing the dishes, and Wolff got so annoyed that he hung up. “Lucky for me,” Sumell says, “someone got on Geoffrey Wolff’s nerves. And my life changed forever.”
Julie Buntin is the associate editor and community manager at Catapult. She attended NYU’s M.F.A. program.
A version of this article appeared in the 03/16/2015 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Spring 2015 M.F.A. Update: Choices and Voices
A guest post by Nathan Go
A couple of years ago, I made the decision to apply to MFA programs in creative writing. Compared to medical school or law school, the application process for an MFA can sometimes feel like a crapshoot, with the odds of getting into a fully-funded program hovering somewhere below four or five percent (and some programs like Iowa, Michigan, Michener—gulp—even less!). Still, it seems that every year, a few applicants manage to get admitted to a handful of programs, which brings up the question of whether the process is as random as one might initially think.
As a caveat, I’ve never served as a reader for any programs’ admissions committee (for a genuine insider look, follow Elizabeth McCracken’s Twitter and listen to everything she says!), but I happen to have been lucky enough to get accepted to several fully funded schools on my first try. Whenever someone asks me for advice, I get a little queasy, because I barely knew what I was doing back then. However, I’d like to think that I’ve had some time to reflect on the process and have spoken to many people, including students who’ve been accepted and faculty members. I’ve since graduated from my MFA and hold (at the time of writing) a Zell postgraduate fellowship in fiction at the University of Michigan.
I’ll skip the general consensus—polish the writing sample, apply to more than one school, get feedback on your materials, etc. Instead, I’ll offer some less common ones that I thought worked for me. I hope they help with your application, and I’m certainly indebted to many writers who came before me and similarly shed light on their own experiences.
1. Presenting yourself
Most of us writers tend to dislike being pigeonholed, or to accept the idea that there are certain themes or styles we keep reverting to again and again. I definitely struggled with this (and continue to) but for the application process, presenting ourselves in a way that is unified and meaningful can sometimes spell the difference between sticking out in the pile or not. I write a lot about the Philippines, where I grew up, and this location not only influences the setting of my stories, but also informs my thematic sensibility as well as my identity. My personal statement talked about my background growing up in a predominantly Christian and Chinese-Filipino family, the conflicts at the dinner table as a result of our ethnic and religious upbringing, and how these issues are explored in my work. My fiction samples were chosen with this in mind (of course, they also happened to be my best work at the time), and I imagine my recommendation letters further attested to my experience as an immigrant. As a result, I believe I demonstrated myself as someone who deeply cares about what I write and has something important to say about the world around me. A place or region might not be the element that binds your application materials together. It might be a style, philosophy, or occupation—but whatever it is, it should resonate meaningfully in all aspects of your work (you can even ask your recommenders to talk about it). If readers can come away with the feeling that they know you and what motivates you to write, then you only need to show that you also can write.
2. Range and length of sample
This might sound like a contradiction to the above, but it really isn’t. Rather, this is the part where you get a chance to display your skill and flexibility as a writer. For my sample, I chose three stories with varying styles: fabulist, comedic, and straight realist. They also differed in their lengths: short, medium, and long. What kept them all together was the setting of the Philippines, which again referred back to my personal statement and kept them from feeling haphazardly chosen. You might wonder if this is a good idea, since schools often just ask for 25 to 30 pages of creative sample, and might even say something to the effect that they’re looking for “a demonstration of sustained, quality work.” I debated with myself on the correct approach, and you might not agree with my conclusions: If programs clearly ask for just a single story, and if they feel more traditional in their aesthetics, then perhaps sending a longer story is better. However, the risk of sending one story is the risk of increasing subjectivity, and has to do more with the practical reality of the selection process than anything else. We all know that readers have different tastes, and if for some reason they don’t connect with the first few pages of your work, they most likely won’t read on. If you present them with a shorter work first, they might be willing to read the beginning of the second story, and if they still don’t like that, then the third. If each story is different stylistically, you’re increasing the chances that one of these would be appealing to the readers, and they might reconsider the stories that they passed on the first read.
I’ve heard anecdotes of applicants being turned down because the admission committee thought they were “overqualified” to be studying in an MFA program. This probably doesn’t apply to most of us, but the principle remains: administrators are looking for people they believe can get something out of the two-to-three-year experience. In other words, they’re looking for writers’ potential as much as writers’ ability. I can certainly speak to this. When I applied, I’d barely taken any creative writing workshops. I’d just started writing literary fiction and I was unpublished. I took screenwriting as an undergrad (a related field, I know) but I still emphasized the things I anticipated learning from an MFA, including the benefit of being in a community. I did not downplay my background in screenwriting (and as it happened, also journalism), but I was able to articulate how each tradition influenced me as a writer. You might be someone who’s majored in creative writing as an undergrad and knew for a long time that you want to write literary fiction. That’s okay (in fact I think that’s great!). But you still have to find a way to communicate your limitations while playing to your strengths. To a large extent, it seems to me more of an attitude check: nobody wants to be with the writer who feels privileged and entitled to a seat at the MFA table.
Sometimes, perhaps because I got in on my first try, I wonder if my acceptance was a fluke, and if I was really ready for the MFA experience. Of course, I’ve heard many people who felt similarly, some who even have a lot of creative writing background under their belt. The impostor syndrome aside, I do think that it’s good to gain as much exposure to the literary world as possible before applying to an MFA program. This not only gives you a better sense of why you write and what you write (going back to my first point), but moreover it increases the likelihood that once you are accepted, you’ll know how to make the most out of your time and the resources being offered. I had a wonderful experience at the University of Michigan—indeed, I’ve never read or written more in my life than I did at that point, and I could not have asked for a better set of cohort or mentors. I have grown exponentially as a writer. Rightly or wrongly, though, I did consciously set myself apart as someone who was a beginner, who had the most to learn about writing literary fiction. This attitude has enabled me to develop in leaps and bounds. At the same time, I could see how—had I been further along in my progress—I could’ve used the MFA in a different way: writing that novel I’ve always wanted, giving more thought to the direction of my career, the business side of the industry, finding an agent, etc. I think there’s something valiant and admirable about finding yourself as a result of experimenting during the MFA years, but it might also be worth considering and being aware of the different trajectories in entering a program. As a suggestion for preparing yourself pre-MFA-application, I highly suggest going to a conference (the Napa Writers’ Conference, Wesleyan Writers Conference, and the Key West Literary Seminar being some of the more well-known ones I’ve personally attended and recommend).
5. On success
My final note on the application process is less of a tip and more of a reminder. When the time comes around to February or March, and should you find yourself not getting into the programs of your choice, recuperate from the rejections and take them in stride. View the result both as a sobering reminder of the odds stacked up against anyone applying for an MFA, and also as an opportunity to become better prepared, so that if you do get in later, you will be in an improved position. Similarly, should you be fortunate enough to get into your top programs, view the achievement as the means to an end, and not the end in itself. If a study were to be conducted on MFA admittances, I’m almost sure that the findings would show that acceptances to programs are in no way predictive of future success in publishing. Only diligence and perseverance are positive indicators of writerly success, and in this sense, we all can take comfort in the fact that all of us have a fair shot if we’re in it for the long haul.
Nathan Go holds an MFA in fiction from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Previously, he was a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. He is currently at work on stories and poems about the Philippines. Follow Nathan on Twitter.This article was originally posted on Michigan Quarterly Review blog; reproduced with permission.