Last year I interviewed a number of directors and faculty at MFA programs, asking, “What do you look for in a candidate and application?” Here is what they had to say. To read the full interviews, select “Interviews” under Topics. (Chang’s answer is from a Salon interview.)
Kate Daniels, Vanderbilt University: More than anything else: Excellent writing; plus, a strong sense of the applicant’s reading life; evidence of involvement with contemporary literature; some sense of the applicant’s dedication to writing and reading, and why he or she has made the choice to attend an MFA program. We are most interested in people who are passionate about and dedicated to writing who also cannot live without reading…
Michelle Herman, Ohio State University: Excellence in the writing; evidence of a gift, and of potential, of a basic mastery of craft. There is a minimum GPA that can, in the most extraordinary cases, be waived; likewise the GRE is required but we don’t care very much (though the University does–again, we can make a case for a waiver for an extraordinary writer). Evidence that the writer is serious and committed to becoming a writer, which is why we rarely accept MFA students straight out of their undergraduate programs (unless they have been “nontraditional” undergraduates).
James Livingood, University of Virginia: More than anything, we’re looking for someone who has taken the time and effort to develop themselves into a serious, beginning artist, and specifically, an artist who would benefit from two years in the UVA MFA Program. A faculty member once said something along these lines: “We’re not looking for perfect, publishable work, but we are looking for interesting mistakes.”
Beth Ann Fennelly, University of Mississippi: Regarding what we look for in students, excellence is our sole criteria. We have students of all different ages, races, economic backgrounds. The single thing that unites them is that they are all excellent dedicated hard-working writers, and it is a pleasure to work with them.
Wendy Rawlings, University of Alabama: We look for writers who are trying interesting things and taking risks. A risk might be an experiment with form, the use of an unusual voice or point of view, an interesting way of beginning or ending a story — things that show the writer is alive to and interested in what she or he is doing. We also try to discern whether or not the candidate is community-minded. We like candidates who don’t just want to improve their writing, but who want to be part of a writing/arts community.
J. Robert Lennon, Cornell: Evidence of an unusual mind. Most of the students we admit don’t seem to care what we think of them—they are just doing what they do, well. It doesn’t have to be polished, it just has to read like something only that writer could have done.
Alyson Hagy, University of Wyoming: I think the letter from our program director Beth Loffreda that can be found on our website says it best. We look for students who are willing to ask “why” and “what for” as well as “how.” We are attracted to stamina and seriousness, and we pride ourselves on the sense of community we’ve been able to build in Laramie. We recruit the most diverse class we can, and diversity for us includes aesthetics as well as cultural and geographic identity. Our program is small, flexible, and allows for exploration across genres and in the sciences and fine arts. We are also a home for those who crave deep study in the genre of their choice. We seek students whose curiosity will allow them to thrive in a rich, expectant environment.
Jeff Mann, Virginia Tech: We look first and foremost for a candidate with an excellent writing sample. Having some teaching experience is very welcome, though certainly not required. We also look for folks who seem eager to learn and to be part of a university literary community.
Lan Samantha Chang, Iowa Writers Workshop: Well, I would say turn in your best work. That’s the only advice. It doesn’t matter what your letters of recommendation say; it doesn’t matter what kind of grades you got. We just don’t look at that. We look at the work. We’ve done that always, and it’s still true.
Marla Akin, Michener Center: Good writing. No GRE score or letter of reference will seal the deal. In terms of what we look for in the writing, it’s something fresh, but not necessarily novel—God spare us simple novelty. Willa Cather said there are only two or three stories that go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they’d never happened before. Maybe what we’re looking for is in that fierceness.
P. Gale Nelson, Brown University: 99-100% of the decision is based on the review of the writing sample. Rather than thinking of there being a particular “right” style, at any given moment, we anticipate that there will be as many different styles of writers (and writing) as there are writers attending the program.
Mitch Wieland, Boise State University: We tend to put most of our focus on the writing sample. We are looking to find both passion and finesse on the page, that magic blend of craft and artistic vision. The committee turns next to the letters of recommendation, where we hope to read comments about the writer’s dedication and commitment. We certainly want to find students who are prepared for the challenges of graduate school. While we all have that wild bohemian artist inside of us, a successful graduate student additionally needs to bring a level of professionalism to the classroom and the department as a whole. We want students who can represent the MFA program at the university with poise and dignity.
Corey Campbell, Arizona State University: The short answer is: exceptional writing ability. A more official response: “Selection is based on talent and promise, as demonstrated in the manuscript sample; the academic record; evidence of dedication and potential for growth, from the recommendations and personal statement; and compatibility of the applicant’s goals with the purpose and design of the ASU degree program.”