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Graduate Application Cheat Sheet


Dear, As-Yet-Unmet Writer,

As you are considering graduate school in Creative Writing, here is some advice on how to save yourself time (for your writing), money (to support your writing), and energy (for your writing) as you assemble your application.

Here are the five component parts to our application. I list them in approximate order of relevance to this reader: 1) the writing samples, 2) the statement of purpose, 3) the recommendations, 4) the transcripts and test scores; 5) the stamp.

  • The writing samples. I don’t speak for every admissions reader here, but when I sit down it’s the creative sample that I want to see before learning anything about the candidate. What am I hoping for? A fresh impression. A glimpse of the writer’s talent and perception and intellect that gives the work a vivid, memorable quality. An original sensibility or means of expression, or subject. It might be the angle from which the writer looks at other people is unusual; it might be a lapidary sense for the facet and fit of words; it might be the energy or urgency to the storytelling coiled in the sentences and similes. But whatever it is, it is yours. I also hope to see a general appreciation for the art, showcased by technical competence (misspellings and poor punctuation are a poor sign). Satisfied that there is a there there, I turn to the essay (if you are applying for the PhD). This should be an exercise in clarity, well-reasoned argument and, hopefully, engaged with some aspect of the literary traditions or theories or writers you intend to study further.
  • The statement of purpose. The statement is an exercise in the use of cliché. Every writer likes books and writing. I take it as implicit that you do, too. Hence your application. What I want to learn about is your particular relation to your writing and why you wish to study here. This is a good time to show off some mastery of metaphor or even the thumbnail biographical sketch. Reveal yourself, your personality and sensibility, within the confines of the statement. Recalling the moment you began to write is a good place to begin your ruminations. How does it relate to your engagement with the world? To your aspirations? You have a page or two to make an impression; not so different from the opening few paragraphs of a book.
  • The recommendations. These are something of a screening mechanism, their hyperbole notwithstanding. We don’t want personalities in the workshop that are disruptive and contentious in the wrong way. We want to know that you will hold up your end of the bargain if you teach here. We want to know that you play well with others, that you have a track record of functioning like an adult, that you’ve worked jobs that have informed your character and professionalism. Recommendations from professors are welcome, but a supervisor who knows you well and cares to write more than a short paragraph is also worthwhile.
  • Transcripts and test scores. I scan these to see how many writing classes the applicant has taken—does it reveal anything about their growth? I’m also curious to know the fields and subfields you’ve explored. Do you hold a separate degree in microbiology? Did you assiduously pursue certification as a Doomsday prepper? Good to know. As for test scores, likely you will score high in verbal aptitude. Math, well, who knows. You need a GPA of 3.0 to teach, though in unusual instances we can appeal this. If you are pressed for time, use more of it on your creative writing samples rather than cramming for the GRE.

The process. We thoroughly read applications and record notes on scoring sheets that hold space for three readers’ comments. We score each application on a scale of 1-5, with 5 as the best. Generally you need to score a perfect 15 to be admitted, which is to say you impressed a minimum of three faculty members. After this, the other faculty will look at the highly scored finalists before meeting to debate the mix of the incoming class. And here it grows subjective. There are always more qualified applicants than we can accommodate or fund. Many many more. We try to balance our class wholistically. The style of the writing, the traditions it engages, the writers’ intellectual and aesthetic interests, personality types, regions, backgrounds. Our goal is to create a diverse classroom that will integrate well, exposing everyone to many differing perspectives. The only commonality should be excellence and a love for writing and literature.

Good luck, good fortune, favorable winds, et cetera. Write, write, write.

All the best,

Alex Parsons