Interview With Solstice Low-Residency MFA

The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College

Author: Sandra Scofield

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?   We read the applicant’s essay of intent first, expecting it to be the authentic voice of the writer. As in any writing, clarity, economy, appropriate elaboration, and focus make a good impression. And, of course, having something to say is important.

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?  If I could see only one thing from a prose writer, I would choose the essay (statement of intent), because I expect it to give me an important glimpse of the writer’s dedication to his or her craft, language ability, and reading habits.

Of next importance is the manuscript. In speaking with other faculty members, it seems these two components—the essay and the writing sample—weigh fairly equally. I think faculty readers respond differently to the letters of rec and CV, depending on familiarity with persons and programs. References often emphasize personality, probably because most references are from nice people who value the applicant.

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/essay should indicate thought about how the applicant and the program might be a good match, including an appreciation for the idea of a writing community; it should make clear what the applicant hopes to achieve. It is, in effect, an argument for the seriousness of the applicant. One of the things we ask is which writers have been important to the person applying. There is no one right answer, but the question has been a good litmus test for us. We want writers who are readers, who have books in their lives. We ask applicants to address various questions in their essays, and it’s essential that they do, but these to me are the most important.

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? The writing sample corresponds to what a biologist might take from a pond or what a street photographer might “catch” at a random hour of the day. It is an interruption of a stream of effort. We don’t think our students have to come in published or with a bag of manuscripts. We don’t care if they are crazy about one genre or love different forms. Prose writers need to send pages that demonstrate a strong sense of story. We don’t expect great craft (yet), but we are put off by carelessness of presentation, triviality of subject matter, and a tin ear for language. We are excited by diverse experience and fresh perspectives—enough so that we sometimes admit a writer with a lot to learn, but also a lot to say. Poets should send what they deem to be their strongest work, knowing we hope to see—to a degree—command of language, freshness and originality, and knowledge of the relationship between form and content.

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? We simply urge people to put their best foot forward, and send their most polished and accomplished work. When trying to choose between pieces that feel equally “finished,” they should send us what excited them most as they were writing and revising it—what they like sharing. And they should not let errors (spelling, punctuation, etc.) spoil the reader’s introduction to them as writers.

What are your favorite parts of reviewing an MFA (or PhD) application? What are the most tedious? I like the essays (statements of intent), because they represent applicants so directly. But I also enjoy reading the manuscripts—it’s always exciting to read what fellow writers (even if they are artistically “young”) are up to. None of it is tedious unless it’s awful, and that is rare. I do hate messiness and odd fonts.

What is the strangest or most ludicrous thing that you have seen in an application? If there were such things, I managed to forget them.

Contact: Meg Kearney, Director, kearneym@pmc.edu