The Applications Themselves, Part I
Recommendation Letters, the GRE, and Transcripts
Once you’ve narrowed down where you want to apply to a more manageable size, you can start working on the individual components of the applications. Different programs ask for different materials, and some may request items such as a biographical statement, a diversity statement, or an essay about your writing influences. The most common things you’re going to see requested, however, are:
a general graduate school application online
a writing sample
a statement of purpose
3 recommendation letters
a critical paper
a C.V. or resume
and potentially TOEFL scores if you’re an international applicant.
Though all programs are different, the most important parts of your application will probably be your writing sample, your statement of purpose, and your recommendation letters. But before you jump into compiling those pieces into your sample, you should first make a list of when your deadlines are, and what each program wants.
A big note, right up top. Do not be afraid to call or email an English department’s administrative assistant for questions. They likely know everything about the application process, and if they don’t, they know someone who does. This should go without saying, but always be kind and professional to the department administrative assistants. They’re the ones who really keep their English departments running, so treat them with respect and always thank them for their time.
First, you should go ahead and make accounts on each program’s application website. You’ll have to fill out a general graduate school application, and you’ll get to know how to navigate these sites really well. This general application includes things like your contact info, C.V., and any other “general” information that all students, regardless of department, have to send. Fortunately, you can usually skip around in these sections, save them, and come back to them later. Though the websites might be crummy, this part of the application is not difficult.
I highly recommend making a spreadsheet where you can keep track of everything in one place, from deadlines to application requirements. I have made a sample spreadsheet you can download here. In these examples, I have also colored each cell depending on whether the element has been completed or not, with green for fully submitted, yellow for partially done, and red for not yet done. A system like this will let you know at a glance what pieces you still need to complete.
Of all the elements in your application, there are three parts that are very time-sensitive. Those are your recommendation letters, GRE test scores, and your transcripts. (If you’re here and need to have a TOEFL score, it is likely an expensive and annoying formality, but make sure you get it if you need it, with plenty of time for your deadlines.) You should get the ball rolling on these ASAP. Because of this, Part I is going to look at these elements first.
For some, this is the scariest part of the application. It’s rarely fun to reach out for favors, but remember that for most of the folks you’re going to be asking, writing recommendations is part of their job. They literally get paid to do it.
My recommendation is to include 2 former professors on your list, at least 1 of whom was a writing instructor, and then include a 3rd person who can speak to your work outside the classroom. Don’t stress too much if you haven’t spoken to your professors recently. Being in their class probably feels more recent to them than it does to you.
Your 3rd person could be a professor you TA’d for in undergrad, someone you did an internship for, someone you volunteered for, or someone you’ve worked with in a professional capacity. Even if you’ve been out of school for a while, you can probably find someone who knows you and your work in recent years. Obviously, don’t ask folks you’ve had disagreements with, and pick people who know you closely but professionally.
Ask your potential recommenders as soon as possible, preferably at least 2 months before the earliest deadline. You are going to want to give your recommenders some of your general materials, such as your sample, your C.V., and your statement of purpose. They will likely request them, but send them even if they don’t. If you already have all these materials together, great. But you’ll probably need a few weeks to get them together and little more polished. Go ahead and request the recommendations, however.
Asking at least 2 months out gives you time to a.) hear back from them b.) compile your materials to give to them, and c.) find new recommenders if one of your asks doesn’t pan out.
I’ve broken down some suggested steps for getting recommendations here.
1.) Send the Initial Ask.
Keep it short, simple, and cordial. Put the ask up front. Give them a brief update on your life if you haven’t spoken to them in a while. Don’t copy this word for word, but it could look something like this:
Dear Prof. X,
I hope this email finds you well. I’m applying to MFA programs this fall, and I was hoping you might be willing to write a recommendation for me. Since I was in your class in X, I’ve been living in St. Louis, working at a coffee shop, and volunteering as a writing tutor for kids. It’s been great, but I’m looking forward to applying to MFA programs and starting a new part of my life.
If you’re willing, I can send you a list of the schools to which I’m applying, their deadlines, my application materials, and anything else you might like. If you can’t, I understand. Thank you for your time, and I hope your semester/summer/whatever is going well.
2.) They Say Yes. Email Them Your Materials.
When you get the yes, send them your application materials as soon as possible. Give them a deadline by when you’ll have those materials to them. You should give them at least a full month with all your application materials. Because recommenders will sometimes quote from your materials, you should make sure you’re sending them fairly polished versions that won’t change too much. If your materials do change drastically, let them know.
3.) Enter their Contacts on the Application Sites.
When you begin your applications online, the programs you’re applying to will have sections dedicated to sending out recommendation requests. Enter the contact info for your recommenders, and check frequently to make sure those recommendations have been submitted. It will likely not be a problem if your recommendation is a day late, but if it’s much longer than that, it could be a problem. So give your recommenders plenty of time, and don’t be afraid to follow up with them. If it’s a week before the deadline and they still haven’t sent it in, send them a gentle reminder. Some applications have a button where you can have a new request sent as well.
The GRE is a pain, it’s expensive, and not a good indicator of whether someone will be a successful graduate student. A lot of creative writing programs don’t even require the GRE for admission for these reasons. If you can afford it, however, I still recommend most people take it, because it will increase your application options. There is a GRE fee reduction program, which you might be eligible for.
While some of those schools don’t require the GRE for acceptance, the graduate school might still require the GRE in order to be considered for teaching assistantships. Don’t be one of those folks who gets into a program only to find out they can’t get a funded position because they didn’t take the test!
If you’ve already decided not to take the GRE, be sure to read very closely over both the departmental website and the graduate school website to make sure you’re not missing important funding opportunities. Sometimes schools have funding opportunities that are “unspoken.” You might not apply for them directly, but the program or graduate school considers admitted applicants for them automatically, sometimes based on demographics, geographic location, etc. Sometimes these funding sources require GRE scores.
Sign up to take the test now, because dates fill up. Make sure you sign up for the test in time for the scores to get to the programs you’re applying to (at least 15 days before, according to the GRE website). Be sure to apply for accommodations or extra time on the test if you’re eligible.
Studying for the GRE as an MFA Applicant
Folks may tell you that you’re GRE scores don’t matter as an MFA applicant, but this is only sort of true. Many graduate schools require a certain threshold for teaching or research assistants, even if the creative writing professors on the admissions committee don’t care what your score is. (And yes, Math can be a part of that.) The scores last 5 years, so if you have to reapply or want to apply to another graduate program right after your MFA, that score will likely still be good.
If you’re going to be shelling out money for the GRE, you might as well do it right the first time. At the same time, you shouldn’t put time an excessive amount of time into studying for the GRE, because that time could be better used on other parts of your application. So here is the strategy I used both times I took the GRE, which I recommend.
One to two months before the test, get 1 general GRE study book that covers all portions of the test, and 1 set of good GRE vocabulary flash cards. Make use of the free practice tests on the GRE website. There are also different apps and free study resources online, but be sure to look at their reviews (as some of them can be inaccurate).
For the verbal reasoning parts of the GRE, you’ll be asked vocab questions and reading comprehension questions. If there’s one place you put a lot of time and energy into studying, make it those flash cards you bought. There are words in here you’ve rarely heard and will rarely hear again that will show up on the GRE. Spend a few hours studying them every week, putting aside the cards you have no problems with. These cards will be well worth the money.
Use your GRE book and the free testing on the GRE website to practice the reading comprehension sections. One big tip most books mention is to read the questions before you read the passage. This way, you can already be looking for the answer during the time spent reading.
For the quantitative (math) portions, use your book to brush up on some of the math you might have forgotten since high school and early college. You’ll be surprised at how much of it comes back to you. Some folks don’t study for the math portion at all since those scores matter less than your verbal, but I feel like this is a mistake. You might as well invest just a few hours into getting a decent score, because the math portions will contribute to your overall score.
When you’re going through the book and practice tests, make a list of the equations you need help remembering, such as some of those on this cheat sheet. You probably don’t need any help remembering how to calculate the area of a square, but you might need remembering the Pythagorean Theorem, which will definitely show up. Memorize some of these. As soon as your real GRE test begins, write them down on your scratch paper. This way, you can refer to them throughout your test. This little bit of effort might put you in the 60th percentile instead of, say, the 25th, and give your overall score a bit of a boost.
For the writing portions, look over the Published Topic Pools on the GRE website. The questions you get are guaranteed to be on these lists, and a surprising number of them are just reworded versions of the same question. You’ll have 30 minutes each to write the two essays.
Using the topics on the published issue and argument lists, spend an hour or two practicing writing a standard 5-paragraph essay (just like in high school) within 30 minutes. The most important thing is that you finish, so keep it simple. If you forget how to spell a difficult word, write a simpler one instead.
Remember, most of the people taking the GRE aren’t writers. Because you’re a writer, though, you might have a tendency to actually overthink what you write. Don’t do this for the GRE! The folks who grade this are given only minutes. They do not care if you’re a great thinker. They only care if you have an argument that’s cogent, has a beginning, middle, and end, and that you finish.
Overall, I’d recommend spending at least 5 hours a week studying in the month leading up to your test, especially those verbal flash cards. Do your best, but don’t fret too much. If you do the things listed above, you’ve already prepared for the GRE more than a lot of MFA applicants.
Transcripts are easy to deal with, but you want to make sure they get in on time nonetheless. You’ll probably have to email or call your undergrad or previous graduate institutions, so do that before crunch time. Some schools request official transcripts when applying, and some request unofficial transcripts.
An official transcript is one that is sent directly from your previous institution(s) to the school(s) to which you’re applying by email, fax, or in a sealed and signed envelope. Sometimes you can send the school one of these signed, sealed envelopes yourself, but your old institution will probably just email them over to the school(s) you’re applying to. You might have to pay your old school a fee to do this.
In order to find out how your old institution handles transcript requests, simply google ‘X University transcript request,’ and it will likely be the first thing that pops up. The programs you’re applying might ask for a cover letter to be attached, in which case you’ll want to send your old institution this cover letter along with the transcript request.
Some schools only require unofficial transcripts for your application (and an official one if accepted). An unofficial transcript is as simple as a .pdf or scan of your college transcripts. If you went to multiple colleges or universities, you’ll need transcripts from all of them. If you still have access to your old institution’s website accounts, you can usually download these there.
Universities and colleges all have their own arcane ways of doing things, so make sure you don’t miss a deadline because of some processing delays. When in doubt, call the Registrar’s office or the English department assistant to make sure everything is going smoothly.