Faculty Interview West Virginia University

Picture of Mark BrazaitisAuthor: Mark Brazaitis, professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia 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?

The writing sample is both the first item we tend to look at and the most vital. It’s crucial that an applicant’s work be strong. We like writing that breaks rules and succeeds anyway. We like writing that follows all the rules and succeeds anyway. We’ve been fortunate to receive excellent applications. It’s never easy deciding on an incoming MFA class.

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?

I do agree that the writing sample is the most important element in the application. The other elements come in a strong second.

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?

Don’t be clever. Be honest. And make sure your writing is strong, clear, and grammatical.

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?

Applicants should submit their best work, however they define this. If it’s one long piece, great. If it’s three short pieces that show a range of styles, terrific.

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?

See above. But do recognize a difference between your “favorite” work and your “best” work. Don’t know what your best work is? It doesn’t hurt to seek the opinion of the writing teachers you’ve studied with.

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

It’s always a pleasure to read accomplished writing and to invite that writer into our program.

I don’t know that any part of the process is tedious. The hardest part of the process is having to say no to many outstanding writers. I often wish our program were much, much bigger so we could accept all the talented writers whose work we read.

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

So far, we’ve had ludicrous-free applications. But we’ll see this year!

 

Mark Brazaitis is the author of four books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Incurables: Stories, which won the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize from the University of Notre Dame Press. His book of poems, The Other Language, won the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in The Sun, Ploughshares, Witness, Confrontation, Notre Dame Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Poetry International, Poetry East, and elsewhere. A former Peace Corps Volunteer, he is a professor of English and directs the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.