Temple University Faculty Interview

Picture of Brian TeareAuthor: Brian Teare

When reviewing an MFA application, what is the first component that the admissions board examines? What component of the application is most vital in making a first impression on the admissions board?

Speaking as one of two reviewers of our poetry applicant pool, I can only speak for myself when I say that it varies from application to application. Sometimes I happen to open a file at the writing sample and then read straight through it before moving on to the statement of intent, etcetera, but sometimes the letters of recommendation are sitting right on top of the file, and so I read those first. Since applications leave a cumulative impression, and since our admissions office doesn’t necessarily put the components of each file in a consistent order, I’m comfortable with leaving an applicant’s first impression up to chance. Of course this approach assumes that an applicant has put equal effort and intention into each component of their application.

It is generally said that there is a ranking to the different components of the MFA application. Obviously all components are important in making the final decision, but nonetheless, I have often heard these components ranked in the following order, from highest to lowest: Writing Sample, Statement of Intent, Letters of Recommendation, Curriculum Vitae. Do you agree with this ranking? If you disagree, how would you rank these components yourself, or would you even rank them at all?

Though we don’t have a strict ranking system internal to the poetry admissions board, that list seems about right to me. Because our MFA curriculum integrates literature classes run by the English Department and writing workshops run by the Create Writing Program, we do take GPA and GRE scores as indicators of whether or not a student might do well in our program. Though a strong writing sample will mitigate middling grades in terms of acceptance to the program, GPA and GRE remain crucial aspects of nominating students for funding packages—Fellowships at Temple are competitive among all applicants to graduate programs in the humanities, since they are awarded by the College of Liberal Arts, and TAships are competitive at a departmental level because we share funding with the PhD program. So I might rank GPA, GRE and transcripts as about equal to letters of recommendation.

The statement of intent is one component of the application that seems to have not one but thousands of ways to be approached successfully; and, of course, just as many ways to be approached unsuccessfully. There is no one clear path, and many of the books and websites that provide advice, often contradict one another. What are a couple of things that you would absolutely want to see in an applicant’s statement of intent? Conversely, what are a couple of things that you would absolutely not want to see in a statement of intent?

To be honest, the statement of intent, while not more important than the writing sample, is nonetheless the most crucial component of an application in terms of strategy. Because it is essentially a miniature personal essay, it is here the admissions board can discern something about the applicant’s character, or ethos, as it pertains to writing as a vocation, being a student (and teaching assistant) in a specific program, and becoming part of a new writing community. Given that joining a writing program involves entering an institution with its own culture, history and location as well as working with faculty and other students, the major mistake most applicants make is focusing on writing as their chosen vocation without addressing their investment in the particular program to which they’re applying or their interest in joining the writing community in the city or town where the program is located.

DO:

  1. Tell the admissions board why you’re interested in their specific program.
  2. Demonstrate some familiarity with the program’s faculty and curriculum.
  3. Show how your interest in and familiarity with the program are related to your goals as a writer, student and teacher of literature.

DON’T:

  1. Begin your statement with a story your mother always tells, the one about how you were writing before you were out of diapers.
  2. Elaborate all of your accomplishments and/or publication without telling the admissions board what you have to gain from an MFA at their specific program
  3. Forget to create a sense of yourself as a member of the classroom and the larger writing community.

There are a plethora of factors MFA applicants must consider in constructing their writing sample. One very common concern seems to be balancing consistency with creativity. Should the applicant attempt to show a broad range of his or her work, showing more creative potential and types of writing? Or, should they focus on a more narrow yet consistent/correlative sample?

There’s no magic formula here. Some writers are incredibly consistent—they write one- to two-page poems in a fairly narrative mode, or they write Borgesian flash fiction. Such a writer might want to build a sample that showcases the best qualities of that consistency, but they also might want to include a successful outlier that shows they’re open to change and growth. Some writers are always trying something new, and such a writer might want to simply curate the best of their various experiments in order to show that they’re capable of good writing in addition to formal variety. Some writers work on projects that have consistent themes or research foci but contain a lot of different modes or forms. Such a writer might best represent their project through judicious selection—giving a sense of the focus of the project without losing some intimation of its ambitions. The pattern here is that an applicant should have a realistic sense of their own strengths and habits as a writer, and should build their sample based on that self-knowledge.

Again on the topic of the writing sample, what are your thoughts in terms of quantity and length? When applicants are instructed to show their “best work”, should they be picking three smaller stories that they feel good about, or picking that one large short story that they feel best about? In the same vein for poetry applicants, should they be submitting multiple poems they feel confident about, or their favorite couple of poems that happen to be quite long?

Again, there’s no magic formula. The goal is to create a writing sample that is representative of the  writer’s strengths and habits—if the applicant has self-knowledge and good writing to choose from, then  they shouldn’t have a problem.

What are your favorite parts of reviewing an MFA (or PhD) application? What are the most tedious?

It’s always interesting to see how a writer’s education—their professors, their coursework, their deepest poetry crushes—comes through in their work. It’s always a lot of work to interpret each school’s version of what a transcript is.

What is the strangest or most ludicrous thing that you have seen in an application?

A 7 x 5 glossy headshot.

 

Program Website:  http://www.temple.edu/creativewriting/