Questions to Ask When You Write Your Cover Letter or Personal Statement
What faculty members do you want to work with (or share interests with)?
- Take time to familiarize yourself with faculty members, and then find a couple matches. This takes time, research, and intuition. For example, Michelle Herman at Ohio State works with teenage writers in addition to teaching in the MFA program, and she also has a background in chemistry. Amy Hempel at University of Florida is a known dog lover and has worked in rescues and written about working in a dog rescue. Cynthia Hogue at Arizona State University is currently working on a French translation of Joan Darc by Nathalie Quintaine. There may be an affinity here with a person or two on faculty. Maybe you also love translating French experimental poetry! Or maybe you’re writing a novel from the perspective of a teenage boy. Research the writer’s style, content, and interests, and this will help immensely with the statement and your personal understanding or feel of the school.
What additional literary opportunities does the school offer?
- Look at each school’s offerings. Almost all have a special reading series (name it specifically if you’re mentioning it in the cover letter). Others have public studios or programs where students can interact with the community, or literary reviews and journals through which writers can gain publishing experience.
Questions to Ask When You Are Admitted to School(s)
What other funding opportunities does the school offer?
- Some schools offer competitive scholarships in addition to the full funding. And there may be additional teaching opportunities, too. During my MFA studies, I taught winter intersession courses as well as summer sessions to make extra money. I also won a little money from a contest that the university library put on. You may not learn of some of these additional resources until you get there, but find out as much as you can.
What do current students and alumni think of the program and courses?
- Once you’re accepted, you can ask the administrator or faculty member for some student contacts. It can be extremely insightful to get a student’s take on who the best teachers are and why (great writers don’t always make the best or most organized teachers), how demanding the coursework is, how formal or casual workshops are, what teaching is like, what it’s like to live on the stipend, and where the best places to live are.
Do you have the means and time to visit before making a decision?
- Some writers may have the luxury of visiting one or more schools before choosing where to go. This will give you a feel for what it’s like in the program, and you’ll get a chance to meet faculty and students, and see the campus and surrounding environs.
In my experience with applicants, the question of how to choose schools often arises. The most important question to ask is really what is important to you. You may be open to any city in the United States, or you may be unwilling to live in a big city or a remote area. You may value school prestige over location or class size, and so on. For most writers, funding, faculty, and location are the primary criteria. I would also suggest investigating what styles of writing a school supports though it isn’t always evident.
Questions to Ask When You Select Schools
Where will you have the best funding?
- A school that offers $12K a year vs. a school that offers $20K a year makes a big difference. Select schools with great funding so you won’t feel pinched all year long. The location will matter, too, since $12K in Idaho will take you much farther than $12K in New York City.
- Consider additional funding through the department’s scholarship and summer or intersession teaching opportunities, too. These may be very helpful down the road.
How intimate do you want your experience to be?
- Cornell admits 8 students per year while Iowa’s Writers Workshop admits 25. Consider how much attention you want in workshops, and from faculty and other classmates.
How many classes do you want to take, or how much time do you want to write?
- Some schools require rigorous literature coursework in addition to workshops while other programs require very little coursework. Determine how academic you want your MFA career to be, and how much time you’ll want to spend writing. Some writers work well with a lot of structure, while others need lots of what I like to call “loafing” time. Figure out what you really need, and not what will be easiest.
What kind of writing is the school putting out?
- Take a look at faculty publications, and spend some time researching their interests. For instance, some schools lean more towards formalist poetry. You can find this out by Googling the writers and sampling their work, or by doing the same with alumni work. The school may be somewhat narrow in their style or they may be quite diverse, but knowing a little about the school’s aesthetic leanings can help not only in school selection but narrowing down who you want to work with when you write the personal statement.
How much does school prestige matter to you?
- A reputable school name looks good on a resume. In the outside world, if you decide to teach after the MFA, Cornell may speak louder than the University of Iowa. A department chair who has spent the last two decades immersed in medieval studies may not know much about MFA programs.
Where are you willing to live?
- Consider whether you’re willing to move to a rural area, a big city, a coast town, or the middle of the country. If you’re open to any location, then this won’t be a factor. Some writers are unwilling to relocate too far, or to opposite types of living environments. But in any case, it’s only for 1-3 years, and you’ll have holidays, winter breaks, and summers off to return home or travel, so you could also look at it as a short-term adventure.
What are your chances of getting in?
- Admission rates can range from .05% to about 10%. Apply to as many of your dream schools as you can afford, and apply to a couple with higher admission rates that you would be happy to accept if given the opportunity.
- You can find admission rates on Affording the MFA at the bottom of each school page. Sometimes schools also report their figures on their websites.
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
Things to do with the writing sample (from Inside Higher Ed)
- Stick to page requirements. Our site says to submit no more than 30 pages of fiction, which is meant to be double-spaced—something we need to say on the website
- Format in a standard font and type size, use generous margins
- Proofread. A lot
- Make the writing good. That’s the frustrating catch-22 of applying, isn’t it? You want into a program in order to hone your craft, but your craft has to be recognized as being at a certain level in order to be admitted. Writing and reading develop these skills, as do good writing groups and community workshops
- All I can say is that it’s as obvious as a gator in a kiddie pool when a story is working toward something significant, when the words have been chosen with care, when the music of the prose shows someone has an ear for it. This is what marks the prose as competent, let alone excellent. As someone mentioned once in a comment here at the blog, Robert Frost said, “To judge a poem or piece of prose you go the same way to work—apply the one test—greatest test. You listen for the sentence sounds. If you find some of those not bookish, caught fresh from the mouths of people, some of them striking, all of them definite and recognizable, so recognizable that with a little trouble you can place them and even name them, you know you have found a writer…”
- Put your best work up front. I read hoping it will continue to be good. If you have only 20 really solid pages, send those. Better not to pad.
I hope that you all enjoyed the holiday! With deadlines fast approaching, I wanted to offer some reminders and advice for your final weeks of applications. Continue reading “Advice for the Final Weeks”
With the opening of fall in a couple weeks and most deadlines approaching in December and January, this leaves about 3-4 months to complete a manuscript, application, and personal/teaching statements in addition to requesting and collecting recommendations. Continue reading “How to Organize Your Time This Fall”
Q: Thanks for this incredibly resourceful and helpful interview, Ryan, Tom, and Robin! What’s the single most important thing you learned during your MFA that you don’t think you would’ve learned elsewhere? Continue reading “Question from a Rumpus Reader”