Written by Kimberly Faith Waid, Edited by Halie Rosenberg
Applying for an MFA doesn’t have to require a prescription to Xanax. It can be daunting but when done right can also be a lot of fun. In 2010, Kimberly Faith Waid graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from her top choice of schools, New York University. She is now a working writer in Savannah, Georgia. She hopes that this article helps writers that are struggling with the big grad school application process!
Acing the GRE
Let’s go ahead and address the bull in the corner, which is none other than the dreaded GRE (graduate record examination). Thankfully, there are many graduate schools that do not require these scores. If you just can’t bear the thought of the GRE, many reputable schools from Brown to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop do not require it. If you do decide to take the test the most important advice I can give you is:
Mark out the easy vocab words and make note cards of the more difficult ones. As you begin to memorize them, it will behoove you to refresh your knowledge of prefixes and suffixes. That way if you are faced with the word “etymology” in a multiple choice question, you will have at least learned that the suffix –logy means the study of a field.
2. BUY A GUIDE
Most writers are not exceptional when it comes to numbers. Several schools offer refresher courses, but the cheapest way to get back into the swing of things is to pick up a GRE guide from a bookstore. Many come with interactive CD’s or DVD’s to help you regain that knowledge from the dark back corners of your brain.
As for the essay section on the GRE, practice makes perfect. You are given a topic on the whims of the computer and limited time in which to compose it, check it for grammar and syntax. I would suggest after reading the proposed topic, to break it down into an outline and charge away. You can begin with a question, a quote, or a vivid image that supports your thesis.
The hired readers of essays read a large stack daily. The more captivating the opener, the more likely they will mark your essay higher. Filler points can be items you disagree on or at least two examples to explain your thesis. The conclusion should re-state the issue simply and wrap up all of the thoughts with a call to action or a general idea of resolution.
4. BE WELL RESTED AND WELL FED
In conclusion, there is a brief break between sections but I would advise eating an hour before and getting decent sleep. They do host afternoon tests and occasional Saturday tests if those are possibilities for you.
Picking the Right School
When looking for a graduate school program there are assorted factors to consider. Make a list of what your ideal scenario would be and what you are not looking for. Consider:
1. If you want to be in a small city with less distractions (Iowa Writer’s Workshop)
2. If volunteer work is important to you (NYU)
3. If you are concerned about making publishing connections (NYU or Columbia)
4. Their financial aid package--what do you need to make this work?
Another suggestion is to read the faculty’s writing. Just because it is a school of unquestionable reputation doesn’t mean you are going to have a good time. If you aren’t excited about your professors or feel they cannot help you personally, it's probably not a good school for you. Libraries stock information on all the schools and you can even read excerpt pages on Amazon.com these days.
Perfecting Your Personal Statement
For me, the personal statement was about as daunting as the mathematics section on the GRE! Let’s face it, you are selling yourself! Basically in two pages, the school wants to know who you are, why you started writing, and what you are working on now. Some other things to mention could be what you are reading lately or what novel or writer made you want to start writing. This is not the place to explain your resume.
In my personal statement I reflected on my very first writing experience, explained my current project, and talked a bit about my favorite novel and how it excites and challenges me as a writer. Websites generally don’t give you a list of what to discuss but I followed their advice of just enlightening them on myself and it appears to have worked!
Wrangling Your Writing Sample
The writing sample is really hands down the most important part of your application. Every aspect counts but the quality of the writing is the final decision on acceptance always. For poetry and fiction, reviewers like to see diversity.
When I was going through my recent work I submitted two, sometimes three stories (depending on the requirements) always mindful of the contrast. I submitted a story with an eleven-year-old protagonist and a story with a twenty six year old protagonist. The first was a bit more comedic yet still filled with drama and the second was dancing with disturbing. I recommend submitting diverse pieces. If anything, it shows more skill, a wider palette.
I also encourage you to share your pieces with friends and fellow writers. Sometimes they will catch basic grammar you missed from looking too many times, and then sometimes they will bring a perspective that can really affect a problem you are having with a piece. But in the end, if you don’t like their structure changes listen to your gut. Trusting yourself is huge and sometimes too much editing can make a story or poem stale and heartless.
Gathering Letters of Recommendation
Submit your recommendation letters as early as possible. This can be hard as you are depending on someone outside of yourself to write the letter. Hounding your recommenders to get the letters in on time is better than it getting in late and affecting your chances or just generally stressing you out.
As for who to choose for recommendation letters, every school that I considered required at least one professor from undergraduate studies. I did not study writing in undergraduate so don’t let that scare you. Find a professor who may have had some connection to your writing. In my case, I selected one who advised me on a senior play thesis so she knew at least that realm of my writing ability and dedication. You can’t go wrong with people who are cheerleaders of any aspect of you.
Don’t Forget to Read the Fine Print!
You really must follow the directions. While the school may not reject you for not putting your name on each page, if you are in a toss up with another writer who did do all that the other writer may get the upper hand. Pretend you're back in kindergarten and follow the directions to a T!
Best of luck, don’t be afraid to apply to several schools and most importantly, keep writing!
Barron’s Vocabulary List
Root Words & Prefixes/Suffixes
GRE Official Website