Faculty Interview Virginia Commonwealth University

Gregory DonovanAuthor: Gregory Donovan – Director of Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University

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?

Our most important admissions criteria is the quality of the submitted writing sample, so it’s important for applicants to send their best work.

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?

That ranking is roughly accurate. However, I would say that an accurate admissions decision does take all of those factors into account, creating a rounded portrait of a student. Another factor not listed there is the academic record of the applicant, which is significant in terms of both what courses have been taken as well as performance (grades or evaluations achieved), and that would rank above the Curriculum Vitae.

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?

The statement of intent is primarily a way to introduce yourself to a group of faculty writers who are considering taking you on as a kind of apprentice writer. Writing artfully and clearly in a generally friendly and informative manner is a good idea—treating the statement as a joke is not. The statement is a place to tell a bit about yourself and your interests, to sketch a brief but interesting autobiography, and to explain any anomalies in your educational history or life story, if that would seem to be needed (why you left school for two years, for example, or had one disastrous semester). Writing something like “greetings from the next William Faulkner” or including other ridiculous, excessively self-conscious statements would not be wise—faculty members are somewhat wary of applicants who seem to be remarkably difficult or possibly unstable. Simply let people know who you are.

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?

Consistency is not the determining factor in a writing sample—quality is. An attempt to show all the different sorts of writing you might be capable of doing is not nearly as important as including what you (and perhaps your mentors) have determined is your best work. There’s a matching-up process going on, and if the program’s faculty members don’t much like what you consider to be your best writing, then perhaps you didn’t want to attend there anyway. Trying to second guess the faculty and send what you think they might like is not such a good idea, then, if it means you’re presenting yourself falsely—you may not be happy there even if you do get in.

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? On the same vein for poetry applicants, should they be submitting multiple poems they feel confident about, or their favorite couple of poems which happen to be quite long?

With regard to fiction, I’d say that two or three relatively efficient short stories is a good idea, while a longer work of genuine excellence may need to be wisely excerpted or compressed—overworked faculty members aren’t likely to read an extremely long piece of writing, or at least not completely. With regard to poetry, it’s a similar idea—eight to ten poems is a good-sized sample, while an epic poem of great length or many sections is less likely to be read in full because of understandable time constraints. Including a very long work in either genre has the risk of your gambling everything, so to speak, on that one piece of writing.

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

Reading the writing sample is the most enjoyable aspect, of course, but I often enjoy encountering the people I discover in personal statements—as well as in reference letters that are well written. As might be expected, reading anything that is written carelessly or with little energy and creativity can be tedious, but the prospect of bringing remarkable, talented people into our program makes reading applications not seem tedious, although it’s a lot of work to do it well.

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

I allow such things to sink below the troubled surface of the stormy oceans of memory. We all make mistakes, and it’s unpleasant to take pleasure in recounting anyone’s unfortunate missteps. Strange can be quite good, of course, but the strange is expanded and improved by actually meeting and working with the person who wrote something in an application that was wonderfully strange, helping them to become even more astonishing and strange.