Getting Letters of Recommendation for Your MFA

It can feel like you're jumping through a bunch of hoops just to get your MFA application complete. One of the things I worried over the most: letters of recommendation. For starters, I had been out of college for seven years and I wasn't a liberal arts major to begin with. I didn't know who to ask or how to ask them for what I thought was a BIG favor.

So, I made it as easy on them as possible by almost writing the letter for them. I figured my letter writers were busy and that I wasn't the only one asking them for a letter of recommendation. But, I didn't have a problem getting my letters. Why?

In each case I moved the due date up by at least a month. Instead of saying I needed the letter by December 15th I said I couldn't have it later than November 15th. This created some wiggle room if we needed it. Without fail, all the letters came in on time.

Even if your letter writers know exactly who you are, you should make it easy for them to write specifically about you and your work. This is doubly so if you are asking someone to write a letter who only has a faint recollection of you and/or your work. So I wrote a muscular paragraph in my Ask Letter on the following things:

  • I wrote a paragraph on why I wanted to get an MFA and why I was ready now.

  • I wrote a paragraph describing my work.

  • I wrote a paragraph stating my literary influences.

  • I wrote a paragraph telling them exactly what I wanted to accomplish in an MFA program.

  • I wrote a paragraph telling them the most interesting things about my background so they could know me better.

Now that I am asked to write letters of recommendation, I ask students who reach out to me to address the bullet points above. I'll often adapt what they write and add my own perceptions from the time I spent with them and their work. If you include this information in your Ask Letter you'll eliminate a step for your letter writer and make it easier on them to get you the letter you need for all of the schools on your list.

And, in the end, you shouldn't worry too much about the letter of recommendation. Yes, you need them. So make sure you get them. But the people you ask to write letters for you have been in your shoes before. They know you're nervous about asking for the letter and they expect to write some every fall. I know I do. And I don't mind, as long as I get the request with enough advanced warning.

As long as you don't ask for the letter a week before the real due date and you give your letter writers enough info to work from, you should be good to go. So finalize the list of places you're going to apply to and ask your letter writers sooner rather than later.

Oh, and don't forget to ask for their mailing address so you can send a hand written thank you note.

If you have any questions feel free to contact us. And if you'd like some help getting your application in order this year we'd love to work with you. Just let us know. Our instructors have MFAs from Iowa, Michener, UC-Irvine, Michigan, and beyond. We'd love to help.

Tips For Your MFA Application

First, let us encourage you. Applying to MFA programs isn't fun, though it often feels like the right next step. We know. We've been in your shoes. An MFA gives you time to develop and an audience of attentive first-readers for a period of time. And that is valuable and wonderful and the very reason you should apply.

But people can't tell you what they're looking for before they read it, so spend the most time with your sample and send in work you're proud of. It will show.

It sounds obvious, but your writing sample is the key.

You need references and a statement of purpose and all the other stuff, but only the sample matters.

So, rely on your voice and style in the writing. The only thing we have as writers is our point of view and our voice, and that is what makes us unique. Don't prune the elements of your writing that make it distinctly yours. Don't write toward a workshop aesthetic or what you think people want to read. Take risks. Prize the sentence and the story. And be you. The best MFA programs are looking for a spark in your work that will make them excited to add you to a chorus of distinct writers who will most benefit from time and attention.

As you're getting your work into shape, let people who understand what you're trying to do encourage you. Support is invaluable. Hopefully you have a few first readers who can help you strengthen your sample before you send in your application. If you don't already have a community, find and take a workshop in your town. You can also find a bunch of online classes where you can be part of a cohort and receive valuable feedback.

Below are a few quick links we think you might like:

IWW graduate Carmen Maria Machado's story "The Husband Stitch" in Granta. Treat yourself to a great piece of fiction.

Where Great Writers are Made and a List from The Atlantic.

Advice on the Statement of Purpose

MFA Programs Database

5 Uncommon Tips on Your MFA Creative Writing Application

This lecture by Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories demonstrates that everything has already been done except through your particular point of view. So work on being more you in your work.

Okay, we'll be cheering you on! If you'd like a second set of eyes on your MFA Application feel free to contact us here or click on the button below. We'd be happy to help.