Cover Letter Tips from “A Guy Who May Have Read Your MFA Application”

Things that matter in the cover letter (from Inside Higher Ed)

Keep it brief, good-naturedly professional, and applicable. Our “how to apply” info says to describe what you want out of an MFA program, why this program sounds appealing, and your interest in teaching freshman-level English. This could be accomplished in a single page, one brief paragraph per topic. What you’re showing is whether you can follow directions, can be concise but detailed, as well as meaningful, personable, genuine, and informed.

Applicants still fret on the message boards if it’s meant to be a business letter, a personal narrative, or some kind of statement of purpose or aesthetics. Whatever mode you use it might be better if you didn’t:

  • Use the cover letter to tell disjointed, rambling stories
  • Misspell words (including my name) or use bad grammar
  • Admit to rabid hatreds of things I might hold dear (eg, voting rights, social justice)
  • Tell me what my town, uni, and program are like, based on Googled info
  • Make a list of all the famous visitors you can’t wait to learn from and tack my name on the end. Also: Check if all those people are still alive
  • Accidentally leave in other universities’ names: Dear Esteemed Faculty of Brown University, I sure would like to come to Iowa City and study with you, Oronte, on the Gulf Coast, since skiing in the crisp cold air at high elevations really inspires me….
  • Commit one of the worst sins of correspondence: “Dear Oronte Churm.” I’ll read an app that starts this way, but afterward I give the applicant’s name to Interpol for investigation. Anyone pretending to be Ed McMahon is obviously up to something nefarious…

It might be better if you did:

  • Say that you like to read. A lot. And mean it. You’ll be asked to read a lot and to have responses based something more than personal likes or dislikes. By all means enthuse about who you do like—Ben Lerner and Jane Austen—but show you’re aware there are other things you haven’t gotten to, and that you look forward to filling in the gap
  • Know the program you’re applying to well enough so that you know the effect that “Elmore Leonard is the greatest artist who ever lived” will have on listeners
  • Believe in process, revision, and input from others. If you know how to do it all yourself, you don’t need a program, and you won’t hear or believe constructive criticism
  • Indicate you’ll try your best to be helpful to peers. Good literary citizenship is a must for this stage of your education; if you don’t believe in it, there are other paths, such as riding the rails with Kerouac and Vollmann
  • Sound confident but don’t slip into bluster or arrogance. Fact is, your peers will be talented and smart too, and if the eternal cosmic workshop teaches us nothing else, it’s that everybody has good writing days and bad writing days
  • Familiarize yourself with probable outcomes of earning an MFA in creative writing. The applicant who says he intends to publish his thesis as a book before graduation, immediately land a tenure-track job at a top uni, then dump it quickly in favor of  getting rich and famous (“somewhat famous,” someone once told me), may be placing too great an expectation on his program
  • Relax. While, “My hopeful heart smears like pate on the crackers of my spine at the thought of attending your fine institution,” has a certain charm, it makes me think of a Nabokov-loving friend’s comment: You can always count on a desperate applicant for a fancy prose style


(Art by Willard Sachs)


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