Faculty Interview With Minnesota State University, Mankato

Author: Richard Robbins, Program Director

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 statement of interest probably makes the strongest impression for us, since we look at that first. It’s in the statement where we hear the applicant’s voice, and it’s there we get a sense of how an applicant thinks of where a graduate program will fit into the plans for his or her writing. The most important component of the application, however, is the writing sample that follows it.

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?

This ranking pretty much follows our thinking as well. The writing sample has to show some sustained excellence within a particular genre, so the sample has to rise above being merely a collection of “things I wrote recently.” The work needs to have achieved a level of polish that convinces us that, with your effort, we could help you take your writing further. The statement, as I said, let’s us hear you speaking in your own voice about your reasons for considering graduate study. The letters of recommendation and transcripts help reassure us that you’re ready to take on some of the academic rigor of graduate study and/or that you’re ready to assume the duties of a graduate assistantship, if one is available.

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?

We ask applicants to address their background in writing and their interest in working in a graduate creative writing program, so at minimum we would like to see these issues addressed. An MFA program offers a fine-arts apprenticeship, and so if an applicant is not temperamentally suited for working in a community of writers, with a certain amount of assumed give-and-take required (we call it good citizenship) in order to make the community work, then that person will probably not be a good fit for us. The program is about, first and foremost, working on the improvement of one’s writing. So we like to see in a statement that the applicant understands this going in. If we get too much of a feeling that one thinks of an MFA program as merely a means to an end—to some connection/job/reward beyond the program—then we are skeptical. We have had students like this, and they often don’t get any further in their writing than they might. We are realists, though. We know graduate study is usually part of a larger vision for oneself, which includes getting gainful work that will support one’s art. We just hope that central to this is a larger vision of oneself as an artist. We also know that one’s vision for oneself may not be fully articulated (if it ever could be) at the point of applying to a program, so there’s little one can say in the statement that might cause us to do a 180º if we are otherwise enthusiastic about the writing sample.

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?  

We don’t pay as much attention to the aesthetic range of the writing sample as to its sustained excellence over the course of the required number of pages. Sometimes you will have ten pages of poems, for example, the majority of which seem to be fully realized. Even if a few don’t seem to be up to the standard of the others, we will be encouraged that most do achieve a high standard in terms of image, language, sound, and form. Likewise in prose, if a 20-page sample—which may be a complete piece or a sampling of separate pieces—can sustain a high level of polish, we may be encouraged that the applicant is ready for the next step and that we can teach them something.

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?

It doesn’t matter to us whether we are looking at one piece or a number of short pieces, as long as the writing sustains a certain level of polish throughout. So we would probably say, “Show us your best work.” What we do discourage, though, is mixed-genre submissions, unless it’s a mix of creative nonfiction and fiction. In the case of a fiction/CNF mix, we can see sustained prose polish, but it’s hard to see sustained polish if the sample is half poetry and half prose. Generally, one genre is best for us, though.

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

My favorite part of the process is going into it without any particular expectation and being surprised by the quality of the applications. Once we have decided on whom to offer admission to, I get excited about the people I might be working with the following year. The most tedious part of the process, for me, is internal to the department:  trying to increase the number of assistantships for our students, trying to get offers out as soon as possible before applicants accept offers elsewhere, and so on.

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

I’m sure there are some things I could include here, but fortunately I have forgotten them all.