Interview With Oklahoma City University

The Red Earth MFA Logo

Author: Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Director. The Red Earth MFA Program at Oklahoma City 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 first component is examined by university admissions: presence of an undergraduate degree. When our program receives the application, we examine the writing sample first.

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 think this ranking represents our general approach. Reading the statement of intent / personal statement after the writing sample and after the transcripts (which are missing from the above ranking) helps us determine if low grades and/or craft problems with the writing arise from lack of access to good writing education, especially when the writing shows imagination and talent. We don’t require a CV, and unless the letters of recommendation are negative, we don’t give them as much weight as we do the personal statement and writing sample.

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?

I absolutely want to see an exploration of the applicant’s relationship to writing. Some discussion of the applicant’s ability to be a self-starter is also important, since we’re a low-residency program. What I don’t want to see is so much braggadocio that the applicant appears to be unteachable.

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?

Personally, I like to see range–within genre, since we admit students in a genre and chose mentors by genre. We can teach consistency and craft–we can’t teach curiosity, creative drive, and desire.

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?

Our application specifies twenty pages. As far as length vs. what the applicant feels good about, that is a choice entirely up to the applicant. I have no preferences. However, I suggest that the applicant ask a handful of trusted writers (teachers, other students, friends) to review a packet of two possible writing samples, because we are not always the best judges of our own work, and that might be especially true for students and for those who are anxious about their application–which would likely be everyone who is applying.

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

I love reading the personal statements; the best ones make me want to admit the student immediately because his or her relationship to writing is profound and inspiring. Most tedious? The forms, I suppose–but even those are tinted with the color of discovery!

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

So far (we’re a young program), nothing has been strange or ludicrous. There has been some imaginative strangeness in writing samples, but that’s a good thing.