Archive for December, 2010


(Or at least apply for an MFA in Poetry)

1. Over the Summer Before You Apply: Research and Save Up

The summer is a lazy time of attending beaches and lying in bed for all hours of the day reading poetry and watching the Food Network, lusting after pasta and avocados. During this time you should do a few things, the first of which being: figure out where you want to go. In order to do this, figure out what is important to you. Location? Money? Professors? Dream school/program? For me, I knew I wanted to be within one day’s driving distance from my home in Harrisburg, PA, and that I needed the program to be fully funded for me to go.

This is another point of note: unless you have the money, I would say don’t even bother applying to schools that won’t fully fund you. Especially in this economy, especially with a major as tenuous as creative writing in terms of job-finding, choose places that will fund you. Yes, it might be an amazing experience, but if you can’t eat or go back the next year, will it be worth it?

Something I found to be super useful was AWP’s Guide to writing programs (http://guide.awpwriter.org/). I used this to systematically go through every poetry program in every state I would be willing to live in. I compiled a list of how they funded their students, and then cut the list down to twelve schools, two-thirds of which would automatically fully fund me if I was accepted, as well as give me a stipend. If you do not have a super convenient guide like this available to you: google, google, google, and ask your professors for suggestions.

I am lucky enough to have a mother who refuses to pay for grad school but did promise to pay for my applications. If you are not as lucky as I, start saving up now. Applications will range from fifty to seventy-five dollars each. That’s $720 bucks, average, if you apply to twelve schools like me. You should try to apply to eight minimum. A large part of getting into graduate school is completely random, and you want to spread your seed far and wide in order to raise your chances of landing one in some fertile dirt.

If you have time, and you care, start studying for the GRE, using online practice tests (Sparknotes will again become a dear friend). The GRE 1) isn’t that big of a deal because so few programs care about it and 2) isn’t that hard to take. HOWEVER, the questions are worded in a way you might not be familiar with and if you’re part of my class, you never had to take the SAT with analogies, so it’s good to figure out how those work too. Another thing to keep in mind: sometimes, it is the graduate school, not the department you’re applying to, who will partially decide if you get dollars, and they’re the ones with GRE requirement. You don’t want to get dicked over because of that, do you?

Save up for the GRE too: it costs 160 big ones to take and 23 to send out each to the schools that need it.

2. School starts: the GRE and the Personal Statement of Purpose

As soon as school starts, take the GRE. Or, take the GRE before school starts, and reward yourself with some buttery penne sprinkled with basil from your still flourishing herb garden. Make sure you remember four of the schools you definitely want to apply to (and who definitely require it): at the end you can send out your scores to four schools for free. That’s a savings of $92 right there. Think of the GREs like a fourth form of identification: your driver’s license, social security number, and birth certificate should pretty much cover any situation, but the GRE is like your school ID: still useful for proving who you are, even if you don’t look remotely like the picture they snapped of you freshman year.

At this point, you should have a solid list of schools. Make an extensive list of what these schools require, and what their due dates are, noting if they have different due dates for those applying for funding versus those who are not (aka, earlier deadlines). I did this in excel.

Start writing your personal statement or statement of purpose. This is what I would do: 1) write about something you believe in poetry and why. 2) Write about an author you’ve studied and how that author does this thing that you’re so interested in. 3) Then, write about how you’ve applied this thing to your own writing. With a paragraph for each, this should take you to a page and a half. With the last paragraph, write about why you want to go to that particular grad school. This method creates a flexible statement: most of the time, you’ll only have to edit the last paragraph, and if a school wants something more specific, you’re more than likely already answering the questions they have and can just rearrange what you’ve written.

Do not write about how you’ve been interested in books and reading/writing since you were in the womb. This does not prove your dedication: it’s all hearsay. Do not write about high school: no one cares anymore. Remember when they said high school wouldn’t matter? This is the first time you can tangibly see that come into practice. Write about your current beliefs and your current projects/work. Ironically: actions speak louder than words.

Get this statement thing edited by people you trust/people who know what they’re doing—AKA professors or people that got into grad school already.

3. Your Portfolio

First and foremost: this is absolutely, positively the most important part of your entire application.

But here’s the thing about your portfolio: if you have been as dedicated to writing as you should be, this should be pretty much done. All you’ll have to do is compile it so that it’s ordered in the strongest way. Again, ask for help from people you trust, not because you don’t know your own writing, but because they can tell you, especially with poems, what other people will think is the best and what other people will not get immediately turned off by. Also, make sure you know what poems you’ll be putting in the smallest required portfolios and which you’ll be putting in the biggest (my smallest was 10 pages, my biggest: 30). This is, though, in the end, all somewhat random. Keep this in mind. Do not freak out about it, but do remain diligent.

4. Curriculum Vitae and Recommendation Letters of Reference

Ask your most revered professors in your focus for letters of reference or recommendation letters, whichever you like to call them, as early as you can. Why? Because 1) god forbid they say no! and 2) you want to get it in their head that they’re doing this for you. Quite honestly, the only reason they have to write you these letters is because they like and respect your work, and by extension, you, which is a huge compliment. They don’t get anything out of this except reveling with you when you succeed and, perhaps, remembering that, at some point in time, someone did this for them too.

Then, also as early as you can, create a list of all the schools you’re applying to accompanied by due dates, how the letter must be sent out (online, with your application, or directly from the professor are the three most common). If it is to be sent with your application, make sure to supply an envelope with the schools name on the front. If they are sending it directly, make sure to supply an envelope with the address already written on it, also stamped. Make this as easy as possible for them, but make sure they know the deadlines. These letters have to get there on time too!

As for you CV, go to your career center and ask for help. Get them to edit it as many times as you need. None of that? Google it. Get someone you trust to edit it. Make sure it’s only two pages.

5. Transcripts!

As soon as you’re ready to apply, figure out how your school does this and how all your schools want them. Another hidden cost! My school costs three dollars per transcript. Gross, but necessary. Fill out all of the paperwork carefully.

6. Compile and Send

Take The List and find the schools that need to be done first. Go to the school’s website and compile everything you need into a folder on your computer labeled “School Name” inside of another folder labeled “Grad School Apps” or equivalent. Convert all of your word documents that you’ll be uploading to internet applications into PDFs so your precious fonts and spacing will not be destroyed. Follow the instructions on the website and send it in. If you need to print stuff out, do so on the nicest printer you can find and do so single sided. Then, bind with a black butterfly clip, unless otherwise noted (one school of mine required a single staple in the corner.) Follow these instructions carefully. Why? Because if you mess something up, the school may forget, they may not notice. But they might also think this person expects us to pay for their tuition, stipend, and health insurance, and they can’t even follow the simplest goddamn instructions to staple their portfolio?

When you send them away, make sure to do so in a big envelope that can hold all of your documents flat. Make sure to put on a return address in the corner, to clearly write out their address, and make sure to get your letter weighed at the post office (or mailroom) so that you know exactly how much postage to put on. You do not want applications returned because you didn’t put on enough postage.

7. Let the Birds Leave the Nest

Hand the nice ladies or men in the mailroom your application. This should be at least a week in advance, though more than that is always better. Walk away. You are, in some small way, done, unless it’s your last application, and then you’re actually done. Come March these institutes will mail you back. They will say Sorry or Congratulations. You will hope for the latter. But in the end, you will know you tried your hardest to get in. This will satisfy you.

(1) No promises on getting in, though.


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Check out my poem, “Patterning,” newly published in Outrageous Fortune HERE!!!

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