34 The past two months I've applied to multiple graduate creative writing programs. After my recent experiences with the application process I have a lot of insight to share on the subject. The semi-stressful and super hard work it required has inspired me to write about my experiences applying. If you're a reader thinking of doing a Creative Writing M.A or M.F.A or any other graduate masters level program this list of tips is for you. It's based on my past mistakes, what people who have helped me have told me throughout the application process, and things I've learned based on reading multiple articles on grad school online.
Below is a list of things I've learned from my recent experiences:
start early, as early as possible: to apply and convince the people who are reading your application that you're super eager to be a student at their university do your research and put careful thought into what's right for you. Also: the applications take time so if you rush it and do your application last minute your application's quality will suffer and your letter, portfolio, and the letters from your referees (academic and professional references) will be less thoughtful and polished than it should be. October is a good time to start because it's when all the universities are in the middle of their fall semester and update their application requirements/deadlines on their website. Starting in October also means that there's lots of time to talk to potential referees and gives the referees lots of time to figure out what to say about you; it also allows time for multiple drafts of the portfolio and letter of intent. If October isn't ideal allow a couple weeks minimum to allow lots of time on the application and lots of time for your referees to be the best possible advocates for you and the things that make you awesome.
apply to multiple places: grad school is competitive and the application process is like applying for a job. The thing about grad school that's different from all other levels of education is that for the first time they want a copy of your resume, they want a letter of intent ( a letter structured similar to a cover letter with an identical purpose: proving you really want to be there and belong there), they want relevant academic and professional references to speak on your behalf, and they want a portfolio. In other words: sending an application to grad school means leaving the decisions in the hands of a committee of academics who, based on the opinion of the majority decide if you're a good candidate for the program you're applying to. Many of the best programs are also the most competitive and accept very few applicants a year. Apply to multiple places and you'll increase your chances of somebody, somewhere thinking that you're an ideal student for their school.
Remember: When applying to grad school grades are important but not the only thing that will help you get into your program: yes, grad schools have a minimum admission average in fact some have higher admission averages than others. Despite that it's important to realize grades aren't the only thing that will get you into grad school. Some applicants have been out of school for a long time, working in either a field relevant or irrelevant to the program they're applying to prior to applying, some are fresh out of their undergrad, some are straight A students and some aren't. What many of these places have made super clear is that they want to know that you can do a good job both academically and professionally in the field you're applying to and once you've graduated you can be an alumni that was worth their time and resources, that can make them proud to say you're a former student of their university. Build up as many relevant experiences as you can: (volunteer, work, educational, community involvement, or all of the above) and make sure that your marks don't suck in classes relevant to the program you're applying for. If you can prove you have lots of relevant experiences and your portfolio is strong they are often willing to make exceptions in terms of marks especially when applying to a creative writing program.
Conduct lots of careful research in terms of tuition funding: Grad programs have a lot of tuition and living expenses funding available to you if you take initiative and are well informed enough to wow people with your awesomeness and/ or use some aspect of your identity that qualifies you for additional government funding to your advantage e.g: a disability or being of aboriginal heritage. Because the assumption is that, as a grad student you're also a potential, future colleague of the teachers at the university you're a student at (or other universities) it also opens doors to potentially getting paid work experiences that look incredible on your resume and cover tuition and living expenses, such as being a teaching assistant or research assistant. If you apply to UBC's creative writing program and actually get in (they're super competitive and specified on their website that they accept a third of their applicants) there's also a possibility of being paid to edit their literary magazine. Figure out how to apply for these things;the application process isn't identical in all universities and you won't get the assistance you need if you passively assume you'll get it. Not being strategic has a terrible consequence:you're on your own in terms of paying for tuition and grad school is expensive. OSAP is available at the grad level but it's best to avoid accumulating student loans.
Be strategic in terms of referees: Ask yourself the same questions you'd ask yourself when figuring out who's the right reference for a job. When choosing your referees ask yourself the following: how well does this person know me? How do they know me? Is the way in which they know me relevant to the field I'm applying to? Have I built up a good enough relationship with this person that I can trust them to say lots of good things about me? Can I trust this person to write a letter in a clear and coherent manner?
Help your wonderful, willing referees in any way you can with writing your letter of reference because the fact that they're willing to take time out of their busy lives to help you makes them a total angel:To make up for any gaps your referees may have in terms of what they know about you help them out by providing them with additional documentation/ hints about your accomplishments (e.g: writing samples, a resume, a simple bullet list in an email specifying some recent stuff you've been up to that's relevant to the program you're applying to, etc). Even if they know everything about you providing the additional documentation/hints about your accomplishments is helpful because it makes that person's job as your referee way easier. Because they're the ones doing you a favour you have to do everything you can to help them and make writing a letter about you easier. Also well...hate to state the obvious but they're human so helping them out by providing them with all the resources they need stops them from making mistakes or forgetting things (which could happen). This is the part of the application you have no control over because the letters are supposed to be confidential and submitted separate from your application. Some referees will show you their letters in order to clarify they're on the right track but they technically aren't supposed to show them to you and don't have to. The only part of the referee aspect of the application you have control of is who you choose, the help you provide them with, the reminders you send to make sure they don't forget to send the letter on time, and the things you tell them to help them with the letter. Choose wisely and don't send them any emails regarding the application without getting someone you know that's a good editor to look over your email for grammar, content, and tone. Your referees are your guardian angels throughout the application process so be nice, help them as much as you can, send a thoughtful expression of thanks when it's all over, and keep them up to date from the beginning to the end of the application process.
Reach out to the graduate secretaries at the universities you're applying to and ask questions: This has proven to be a great way for the people making the decisions to put a face to a name, or at the very least, when the university is too far away to visit, and there's not enough time to visit and talk to the department staff in person, you can, at the very least, give the people reading your application a chance to put a voice to a name. It makes you seem keen and eager and, when read they your application it gives them an impression through a moment of emotional connection. Why is that important? It provides them with something that's not just information on a piece of paper or submitted electronically. This is also another reason to start early: an impression is embedded in their mind that you're an eager beaver that has reached out to them multiple times and was super friendly, asking questions related to your program that aren't available on the website (without the pressure of a deadline fast approaching).
The following is a personal experiences that made me realize the power of showing up to these places in person as an eager applicant:
I showed up at one of the universities I was applying to, walked into the department that offered the program I was interested in, and dropped off a part of my application and it meant that every mistake I made when looking for the person I was supposed to give my application to caused me to meet a whole bunch of department heads and secretaries that would be reading my application and deciding if I was a worthy candidate. Specifying my reasons for being there and introducing myself meant that, within seconds there was a room full of people wanting to find out more about me and really interested in who I was. That's when I learned the unspoken importance of making that first impression when you're interested in applying as a grad student.
Well...that's all I got to offer in terms of tips. I'm currently in the step of the application process where I wait and it's all in someone else's hands and have one more application due at the end of this month. Good luck to all of you applying to grad programs and always remember that although it's an overwhelming process there's lots of people out there who can help.
Also: if you google anything about grad school there's a lot of fantastic resources out there that can help you with every step of the process. Feel free to share your insights on the subject in the comment section. Swapping stories is cool!