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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
How to Apply to an MFA Program
Before I tell you how to apply to a graduate program in creative writing, you should know that I have never actually attended such a program myself. No, no, no. I got my MFA out on the streets. My thesis advisor was a garbage bag filled with overdue library books. My stipend was a collection of Canadian quarters that I stole from my nephew. My teaching assistantship was an elderly possum named Spoons who I trained to rob food carts. My office of the bursar was, well, I didn’t even have an office of the bursar. However, it is important to remember that, though I have never gained admittance to an MFA program, I have applied many, many, many times. That is why I am more than qualified to instruct you on the finer points of completing your application. Let’s begin:
1) LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
Much like the royal courts of the yestermillennium, MFA programs will not grant you an audience unless you approach them with proper letters of introduction. That is why it is of the utmost importance that you secure two to three letters in which your former teachers recommend you as a human.
When requesting these letters from your teachers, you must be sensitive to the fact that teaching is demanding work and leaves very little time for writing letters. A polite thing to do is to create a generic letter to which any teacher can simply sign his or her name. I have included an example below:
I am writing to recommend that you accept Seth Fried to your creative writing program.
Seth was a star pupil in my (please circle one) REMEDIAL MATH COURSE/ANGER MANAGEMENT CLASS/BASIC HYGIENE INTERVENTION. Based on his performance, I am able to say with a high degree of certainty that you would be a fool not to accept him.
I found his intelligence to be so intimidating that after grading his work I was often unable to perform sexually. Frankly, I’m not even certain that he shouldn’t be writing a letter of recommendation for me.
He would truly be an asset to your program. Not only is he talented and focused, but he also does not do hard drugs and has never been convicted of a violent crime.
2) TEACHING STATEMENT
Many MFA programs offer teaching assistantships, which can provide financial relief for MFA candidates as well as valuable teaching experience. For this reason, many applications must be accompanied by a statement in which you outline what you would be able to offer your prospective students. Under no circumstances should you use any of the following words or phrases in your teaching statement:
real estate opportunity
hit it and quit it
3) WRITING SAMPLE
With the notable exception of the bribe envelope, the writing sample is by far the most important part of your MFA application. Each school will provide its own guidelines regarding formatting and word count. But if you want your writing sample to stand out, you should ignore these guidelines at all costs.
Any applicants who are boring enough to send their writing samples printed out on white computer paper in 12-point Times New Roman deserve the form rejection letters that they will all inevitably receive. Against this! Show the admissions board that your application is not to be ignored by printing it out on some nice sheets of pumice-smoothed vellum in 22-point Zapf Chancery.
Though, make sure to include special instructions so that your writing sample will be stored in a special low-humidity environment, otherwise the vellum will begin to develop a fungus almost immediately. When placing your writing sample in the mailing envelope, also make sure to include roughly one half pound of glitter.
4) THE GRE
Some MFA programs may require you to take the GRE. Like all standardized tests, the Graduate Record Examination is an objective measure to determine as discretely as possible whether or not you are rich and from Connecticut. If you are in fact rich and from Connecticut, then you will have plenty of fun at the testing center, letting out short bursts of reedy laughter as you are asked to define various privilege shibboleths like “fusillade” and “inerrancy.” However, if you are a normal person, taking the GRE may require weeks of preparation. A handy mnemonic device for remembering some of the more arcane vocabulary words is to pretend that you are insufferable and own a boat.
Remember when you were taking all those classes and your teachers kept warning you that if you didn’t stop making fart noises and setting your desk on fire that they would give you a bad grade? And you would just sit there laughing to yourself and thinking, “WHAT’S A GRADE!?”
Well, it turns out that grades are a series of letters that correspond to levels of achievement in a given course. Though it might seem shocking, every teacher you’ve ever had has been evaluating your performance and assigning you one of these “grades.” All the grades you have ever received have then been compiled into a master document called a “transcript.”
Your first impulse will naturally be to find this document and destroy it. Unfortunately, many MFA programs will ask you to send a copy of it to them as part of your application. The only thing you can do to get around this requirement is to make sure that your transcripts are sent to the school in question on Opposite Day. That way all your failing grades will legally have to be regarded as passing grades. Also, any reference to you being removed from a class for making fart noises will have to be replaced with a special commendation in which you are recognized for having abstained from any noisemaking that could be considered fartish in nature.
There you are! That is all the information you will need to complete your MFA application. Once all of these materials are submitted to the program or programs of your choice, you can relax by sitting in front of your computer in a tuxedo and refreshing your email inbox every 30 seconds for the next six months. If you do end up getting rejected, just remember that it’s not the end of the world. Unless you’re speaking in hyperbole and by “end of the world” you are just trying to say that it’s incredibly soul-crushing and disappointing with no upside. In which case, I see what you mean.