The personal statement is an opportunity to present yourself in a straightforward and authentic way. It’s like sitting down one-on-one with a faculty reader for 5-10 precious minutes.
Continue reading “How to Write a Personal Statement”
This month, I was interviewed by The Writer Mag about Affording the MFA and its offerings for its May/June issue. But it got me thinking about the minimum stipend, which was set at $9K in 2012 to include a broader listing of schools. Since 2012, more programs have cropped up, and stipends have increased, even if only slightly. This meager $9K stipend no longer seems livable by the average standard of living. What do you think the minimum stipend should be in order to be listed on Affording the MFA? Or should our list simply set a low stipend ($10K, which all the schools on the list now meet) so that a broader list can be accessed?
(This post originally included a table of stipends listed from greatest to least. The stipend has been revised with additional information.)
Many of you submitted your first round of applications yesterday. Fantastic work and congratulations! For the past few months, you’ve been writing and revising, wrangling recommenders, and tracking transcripts and GRE score reports. But now that the first submissions are in, I’m sure that there is a sense of completion and possibly curiosity (or worry) about your manuscript.
If you’d like some feedback on your writing to address the questions that may be surfacing now, I’d be happy to work with you by providing holistic feedback (450-600 words) addressing your stories, novel excerpt, or essays as a whole. The feedback will tell you whether the heart of the piece is clear, and whether all elements–such as characterization, use of language, structure, pacing–of the narrative work cohesively. I’ll also lay out concrete steps to improving the work for revision. Overall, it’s a calm, organized, and concise way to making your writing better. For more details about creative writing feedback, you can visit my site.
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.
Affording the MFA is undergoing a comprehensive update to provide current links, and up-to-date news on funding, faculty, tuition costs, application information, and admission rates. I will also be preparing to interview program directors and administrators to offer you direct insight and information about schools.
If you find Affording the MFA helpful, please consider making a donation today! Your contribution directly funds the research and updating of school pages, as well as the original bullet interviews. Make a donation of any amount here!
And consider submitting a question you’d like answered in a bullet interview in the comments section below. My goal is to help you find answers and prepare for MFA application season in the most optimal way.
As admissions and rejections are being sent out, you may be wondering how your manuscript fared. If you would like some feedback on the novel excerpt, story, or stories you sent, contact me. My fees are listed here. It’s good to see the strengths and weaknesses in your manuscript since those waitlist and rejection letters likely won’t offer any feedback. This can give you the extra boost to keep writing, and/or to reapply.