DEARLY BELOVEDS IN THE MIDST OF THE STRESS-CLOUD THAT IS APPLYING FOR BIG AND SCARY THINGS. For the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of screening fiction applications for a high-ranking MFA program. So here – because I love you and am rooting for you very hard – are a few notes on how to put your best foot (or avoid putting your worst foot) forward when applying to MFA fiction programs, residencies, and grants. Click here to read.
Make sure your headers are correct and that you correctly address the program you are applying to. This sounds painfully obvious, but I’ve seen this incorrectly done more times than I can say (largely because I’m too busy rolling my eyes and grumbling to keep count). Dear ones, don’t spend $50 on application fees only to open your submission with something that’ll make your reader grumble. It is irresponsible on many levels.
Submit your best work and only your best work. A professor once advised me, “Programs are looking for a reason to say no.” This is true. If you’re one of 500 applicants for a program that accepts 10 people, screeners and admissions staff will by necessity be looking for a reason to shave you off the list. It’s not personal – they have to. It’s a numbers game. So if you have one story that you feel is far and away your best, submit this one and only this one, even if you have 3,000 words left in the maximum MS length. More times than I would like, I read a brilliant first story, but end up rounding an applicant’s overall score down because their second story is just okay. The tl;dr: Don’t send “just okay” work to reach the word or page count limit.
Corollary: If you’re submitting a story that does something very particular with voice, such as Naive Child (which is admittedly very difficult to pull off; I’d personally advise extreme caution submitting this for something as high-stakes as an application), DO submit another piece, or pieces, to show your range. Otherwise, there’s no way for the reader to tell if the diction in your piece is brilliant narrative characterization, or if you are a naive child.
Like bold voice choice, humor can be very, very tricky. What strikes your ear as hilarity may fall completely flat with somebody else. This isn’t to say your story can’t contain humor, but submitting a madcap absurdist/satirical farce is a risk. Proceed with caution.
If your writing sample is an excerpt of a longer work, submit the first chapter. If Chapter 16 is the best chapter of your work, then friend, you need to go back and work on Chapter 1. (Think this through: Chapter 1 is the first sample of your writing that an agent will see when querying. Moreover, it’s the first chapter a reader will see when they pick up your book. Readers are busy. They don’t have until Chapter 16 to decide they like your book. If you can’t hook them with Chapter 1 – and they aren’t your mom – you’re going to lose them as a reader.) When I see late-chapter excerpts in writing submissions, even if the prose is fine, it raises a flag for me.
Again: submit your best work. There is a very good chance that your preliminary screener may only read your writing sample. So you’ve got to kill it. Don’t rely on a dazzling personal statement, publishing history, or recommendation letter to carry any weight. Don’t skimp on these pieces –they are important, and they do come into play in the final round of admissions – but if your writing sample is weak, your application will likely be eliminated before it ever reaches those vaunted halls. (A note on letters and personal statements: a publishing history is shiny, but the admissions committee at any program worth its salt is concerned with building a warm community of writers who will be helpful to each other, or who, at the very least, won’t suck to work with for the next 2-4 years. Do make sure to indicate your interest and experience in being a good community member. In the famed words of Victor Lavalle, offering our Clarion class his best piece of writing advice, “Don’t be an asshole.”)
Finally, a piece of completely unsolicited life advice for undergraduates.
If you’ve just graduated from an undergraduate program, consider taking some time out of school before applying to an MFA program. This is, again, life advice more than application advice, so feel free to take it or leave it. But here’s my reasoning:
Writing is partially, yes, the deployment of powerful language. But partially, too, it is the encapsulation of powerful thought and experience. This is not to say, my dear undergraduates, that you do not have powerful thoughts or that your experience is somehow invalid or lesser-than. Many of you are remarkably talented writers. But writing is the rendering of experience into words, and right now, your experience – yes, with exceptions, yes, your experiences are your own and is unique and valuable – mostly consists of being in school. And if you dive immediately into graduate school, your experience will be nothing but more school. And it will show in your work.
So this is my final piece of advice, which you are free to take or leave. Go out into the world, have wild and challenging and miserable and _____ experiences, and then return. Your self and your writing will thank you for it.
I hope this helps, dear ones. You’re in an exciting and stressful and potentially life-changing period of life. Don’t camp out and endlessly refresh your email. Don’t, for the love of God, get emotionally involved in those MFA acceptance Facebook groups (a quick route to depression and hating the world). Most importantly, do not stop writing while you’re waiting to hear back from programs. You are a writer, whether or not you’re accepted, rejected, or waitlisted – the most vital thing in the world for you to do is keep writing regardless. Life, and all you hope to accomplish in it, doesn’t stop for this.
With love & sympathy, k