Applying to an MFA program IV: Building references.

Welcome to part IV of our “Applying to a Creative Writing MFA program” series. Yesterday, we looked at the importance of organizing the application process to save our sanity. Today we examine strategies of building our reference pool.

They say it’s all who you know, and the reference process is no different. Even in an unofficial capacity, you’ve been networking all your life, and now it’s time to figure out who you feel you could ask to represent you with confidence. Consider that…

References and letters of recommendation = NETWORKING.

You should have been doing this all your life, especially during college. You need professors and professionals willing, nay wanting, to write glowing reviews on your behalf. Look back on your college career and determine which professors you shared a friendly rapport with while maintaining good academic standing. This combination is the key – someone who knows you’re a good student but doesn’t know you personally will write a stiff letter, and someone who knows you well but saw you struggle as a student will have a difficult time writing a proper letter.

For my letters, I reached into the way back machine for a screenwriting instructor from my undergrad days and a fiction/nonfiction writing professor I was working with as a non-degree seeking grad student. They were both helpful and happy to oblige, provided I…

Give your references TIME!

Never forget, your references, particularly those writing letters on your behalf, are doing you a favor. They have busy lives and as much as they like you, there’s no reason for them to drop everything and write you a letter and mail it off all in an hour just because you didn’t talk to them until the day before it’s due. That’s unprofessional and doesn’t instill confidence in those who should already be nicely confident in you.

Letters of recommendation could, in fact, be your first step in this process. That magic window between Thanksgiving and winter break is a good time to ask for letters. Some people will prefer giving you the letter to look over first, while others will want to give it to you sealed or send it directly to the program. Follow their protocol, not your preference. Whatever they finally write, you do have potential to…

Tell your references what you’d like them to highlight about you.

Your references know you want them to speak highly of you, but what they may not know is you have a varied pool of references to cover varied aspects of who you are. Ask one to speak of your writing or interest in pursuing the craft, one to speak of your classroom behavior, etc. There’s nothing wrong with doubling up here and there, but this is one way to get all of your bases covered.

On my resume reference page, I have a brief sentence for each reference saying what I feel they could explain about me. For example, some of my references have seen me teach, some haven’t. That’s why writing “Diana can speak to my teaching skills, writing skills, and text analysis skills” and “Keith can speak to my professional supervision, student interaction, and management skills” will save the program time and my references unintended bafflement.

Today’s Action Item: Draft an email to a potential reference!

Draft an email until you’re satisfied with it. Mention why you’re applying for an MFA and tell them why you think they’d be an excellent reference for you (they’ve seen you in the classroom, they know your writing, etc.). If you haven’t seen them in a while, remind them how they know you. Work on this until it’s right; t’s all about creating a correspondence that’s both personal and professional. When you think it’s ready, send it off! Yes, it’s Christmas, but only hard workers interested in their education and development as a writer would send a reference request on Christmas!

Tomorrow we’ll have a word on why visiting grad schools is worth your time, effort, and money.


[tags]mfa application, creative writing mfa, grad school application, letter of recommendation[/tags]

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