I’m not an expert at getting accepted to graduate school, but I thought I would share what I’ve learned during the very stressful process of applying and being accepted.
1. Find a program that teaches what you want to learn.
“Creative writing” encompasses a lot of different types of writing: literary fiction, genre fiction, creative nonfiction, writing for children and young adults, poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, writing for television, etc. You have to find a program that teaches what you want to learn. Most of the programs that I’ve come across allow you to write literary fiction or poetry only, so if you want to write sci-fi or picture books, you’re out of luck in those programs. I knew that I wanted to write for young adults, so I Googled “Writing for young adults creative writing MFA.” That’s how I found my MFA program. If you want to write poetry or literary fiction, you can Google “Creative writing MFA rankings.” This will give you a list of the top programs in the country, but be aware that these schools get a lot of applicants. It would probably be a good idea to choose a few “safety” schools that aren’t among the top programs in the country.
Both my MFA program and my post-BA certificate program are low-residency. I love it. In a low-residency program, you only have to be on campus for a few weeks every year. The rest of the time, you do your work online. You don’t have to rearrange your entire life to go to graduate school. I’d highly recommend a low-residency program if you’re not the type of person who enjoys being in classrooms.
3. Applying to graduate school takes forever.
Seriously, it takes an unbelievably long time. There are a lot of steps in the application process, a lot of paperwork that you need to get to the school, and a lot of writing samples that you need to provide. Be prepared to write. A lot. You might be able to use some of your samples for multiple schools, but every school has different requirements, so you can’t count on being able to use the same samples for everybody. If you want to apply to 8 programs, you might have to write 8 different 2-5 page critical essays. Do you have time to do that plus all the other application stuff for those schools?
4. Asking for recommendation letters sucks.
Asking for recommendation letters made me hugely uncomfortable. I felt horrible for making people take time out of their lives to write letters for me. I didn’t like the fact that the letters had to be confidential. I didn’t like that I had to rely on other people to help me do something that I wanted to do. I didn’t like that my graduate-school future was in somebody else’s hands. I also spent a lot of time wondering what would happen if all of my potential letter writers said that they couldn’t write the letters. It turned out that only one of my potential letter writers said no. I got letters from everyone else I asked.
5. Don’t procrastinate asking for recommendation letters.
Procrastination is tempting because asking for letters sucks. Don’t procrastinate. I asked for my letters 8-12 weeks before the application deadline. I made sure that my letter writers knew the application deadline. Still, one of my letters didn’t come until after the deadline, so I wasn’t able to apply to that school. Ask for letters as early as possible. Also, use Interfolio. Interfolio is a document-management service that will keep your letters confidential and mail them to the graduate schools for you. All your letter writers have to do is upload the letters to your account. You do have to pay to use Interfolio, but it’s totally worth it. You have control over when your letters are mailed, and you can mail all of them in the same envelope. You can mail the same letters to as many schools as you want. You don’t have to rely on your letter writers to mail your letters or to get the correct number of letters to you so that you can mail them.
6. Don’t freak out about the GRE.
A lot of schools will require you to do the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). You have to take this test at a testing center. It’s a hard test, much harder than the ACT/SAT. There are two different GREs. The General Test has math, reading comprehension/vocabulary, and essay writing. The Subject Test has literature, literary history, literary criticism, and reading comprehension. Make sure you know which test(s) your MFA program requires. You can find practice booklets for both tests on the GRE website. Don’t freak out too much about the GRE. I studied every day for months, and I still bombed everything but the essay writing. The tests involve a ton of reading, and I’m a fairly slow reader, so I ran out of time. The essay questions on the General Test were stupid and easy. Even though I did horrible on the GRE, I still got accepted to graduate school. I know a lot of people who bombed the GRE and still got accepted to their first-choice school. Study hard, but don’t worry about it too much.
7. Don’t freak out about your critical writing samples.
I freaked out about the critical essay that I had to include with my application. I’m not a very good critical writer. My critical essay wasn’t interesting or insightful. In fact, I’ll post it on this blog next week so that you can see how not-good it is. It didn’t matter. I still got accepted.
8. Freak out about your creative writing samples.
All of the MFA programs that I read about said that they base their decision mostly on your creative writing sample. Work on your samples as much as possible. Give them to other people to read. Work on them some more. Think about them before you go to sleep at night. Then work on them some more. Bring them to a writing workshop. Then work on them some more. After you read this blog post, go work on your samples. If you’re going to freak out about something, freak out about your creative writing samples.
9. Know how long it takes to mail transcripts.
MFA programs will want official transcripts from every college that you’ve ever attended. Two of my previous colleges mailed transcripts within a few days of receiving a transcript request. The third college took up to two weeks to mail a transcript. Make sure you know how long it will take your previous colleges to mail transcripts so that you don’t miss the application deadline.
That’s what I’ve learned from my application process. I hope that it is helpful to you.