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Volunteer Karolina offers advice about applying to MFA programs.

What happens once you’ve decided to apply to an MFA program in creative writing? If you’re anything like me, the application process can be a little daunting. There are so many details to take care of—filling out the actual paper or online forms, paying the application fees, sending transcripts and GED scores, getting recommendations, choosing and tweaking your writing sample, and writing your personal statements.

While I can’t fill out the endless forms for you (I know, sorry!) I can offer you a little bit of advice about the rest since I’m applying to MFA programs now—I’m almost done!—and I’ve gotten plenty of advice from professors, mentors and advisors about the application process.

One thing I cannot stress enough is to get everything done early. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but it’s especially important with grad school applications because you never know how long something might take you. For instance, maybe it takes you a little longer to write those personal statements than you anticipated. Or maybe you write something brilliant that you just have to include in your writing sample but you need time to edit. Or maybe your undergraduate institution takes a while to get around to sending out your transcripts. Whatever it is, plan for extra time. You won’t regret it.

Here’s another important thing to think about: personal statements. As if writing about your accomplishments in an original way (that doesn’t repeat your resume) weren’t cringe-worthy enough, you’re applying to creative writing programs, so your personal statement better be interesting and polished—no pressure, right? But it doesn’t have to be so intimidating.

What’s helped me get over that initial dread was to first stop looking at writing a personal statement as an essay. Remember, you’re just telling a story. Only this one’s about you. Second, just get something out on paper. Anything. Once you have something, it’s much easier to revise. You might’ve heard this one before, too: writing is mostly re-writing. And it’s true. So tell your story. Then come back to it, and write another draft or two. Just treat it like you treat the rest of your writing.

What about your writing sample, you may ask? One thing I’ve thought about is choosing the type of pieces that speak to the kind of programs I’m applying to. Many program websites showcase their faculty members’ or even previous or current students’ works. If the websites don’t do that, chances are you can find a short story or poem online by at least the faculty. I’ve read through as much as I can to get familiar with what type of work each program produces. While I’m not necessarily using these examples as steadfast rules, I probably won’t be sending any experimental stuff to the schools that favor traditional writers or vice versa.

Another thing I’ve been keeping in mind is that writing programs get a lot of applicants, and chances are, the programs won’t want to read more than what they asked for. I’ve been paying close attention to page requirements and not going over the limit. Quality over quantity. In any case, I’d rather not irritate anyone reviewing my sample.

Here’s some good advice my writing professor gave me about editing my work: first, think about the process of writing your particular piece. What is its “past?” As in, where did the idea come from? Did you do any research? What were you trying to convey? Then, think about the “present” of your piece. What do you like? What could use some improvement? Finally, think about what you would want this piece to be like if you had more time. Chances are, after you’ve done all this thinking, you’ll have a pretty clear idea of whether or not your writing sample needs any sprucing up.

Once you have all of your materials together, get them in early! I’m planning on having all of my applications completed by the earliest deadline—which beats my latest deadline by a few months—just to have some peace of mind. Another bonus: a lot of the programs I’m applying to review applications on a rolling basis as they come in, which means I might hear back sooner, too! After everything is mailed in, I’ll be able to just sit back and relax (or at least try!) while I wait for my responses.

Good luck! And please feel free to email me with any questions or comments here.

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