The Application Process, Part I: The Nitty Gritty

There’s much more to the MFA application process than submitting your portfolio. There are a number of important steps to complete before your work reaches the eyes of the faculty. Fulfilling all of the requirements properly before deadlines pass is essential.

You will likely be applying to more than one university, or rather, you should be. Based on my experience and advice I’ve received, somewhere in the three to five range is good. This allows you to keep your options open as you learn more about each program through the application and interview processes and increases your chances of acceptance and funding (by means of probability and experience!). Multiple applications can become confusing because each university’s application process will vary so it’s important to keep all requirements and deadlines straight.

Most universities will require that you send materials to: A. the Graduate School and B. the School of Art/Art Department/College of Art/smaller entity in the university that houses your program (I will refer to this as the “department”). To clarify, the Graduate School is an overarching administrative entity that encompasses all graduate programs at that university. The Graduate School will make sure that base or minimum guidelines for admission have been fulfilled, such as transcripts showing a completed Bachelor’s degree and minimum GPA, a paid application fee and confirmation that all application materials have been submitted by the deadline. Their task is similar to that of Undergraduate Admissions, which you passed through when you applied to college the first time. However, at the graduate level the individual department and its faculty will have a lot more to do with your admission because they are much more invested in a smaller number of applicants, especially in studio art. For example, the department may be able to override a low GPA that didn’t pass through the Graduate School’s requirements.

The first step will usually be an online application where you state the program you are applying to and provide all of your basic information. (Make sure to write down all usernames and passwords.) Some schools will also have you submit essays or other required documents here. This information will go directly to the Graduate School and possibly to your department as well, depending on the university. Beyond the online application you may need to submit digital or hard copies of other materials to both the Graduate School and the department separately, or provide certain materials to only one or the other. I recommend keeping a chart with the requirements and deadlines of each university all in one place. For example:

Application spreadsheet.png

Tips for each of these requirements:

Transcripts: Most universities require transcripts from every single undergraduate, postgraduate or graduate institution you have listed on your online application, whether you graduated from that institution or not. This includes universities abroad. Write down how many transcripts you will need total and where they need to go. Order them all at the same time. Keep in mind that ordering official transcripts can take weeks or even months for overseas universities. Check with International Admissions for any translation requirements for non-English transcripts or degree transfer requirements for non-US degrees.

Recommendations: Choose people who can vouch for more than just your artistic ability. The university will see your portfolio and what you have made, but a recommendation can speak to your creativity, problem-solving skills, work ethic, teaching skills, organizational skills and overall ability to succeed in graduate school. Universities usually require 2-3 recommendations so choose people who can attest to different aspects of why you’re great for graduate school. For example, an undergraduate professor can talk about your creativity and self-motivation while an employer can talk about your work ethic and organizational skills. Always give those you ask plenty of time to complete your recommendation and send a polite reminder (disguised as a thank-you!) as deadlines approach. And a handwritten thank-you note goes a long way!

Essays: The Statement of Purpose is a very important document, not only for admissions purposes but also for you to sit down, contemplate and put into words why you want to go to graduate school, why you’re ready for it and what you plan to do there. (If you’re not sure of these things, refer to the “So You're Thinking about an MFA...” discussion.) Think of it as a business plan for the next two to three years. Talk about your background and goals but also give your reader an idea of who you are and why you’re so passionate about your field. If you’re unsure about structure, there are hundreds of online resources outlining the Statement of Purpose that can easily be adapted to studio art.

Resume: Again, there are hundreds of online resources that can show you how to write a resume. Include any and all skills and experience that make you an appealing candidate. If you are applying for assistantships this definitely includes work experience, whether or not it was in an art-related field.

Portfolio: I will discuss this in detail in my next post.

In summary, start your applications early and don’t let the small stuff slip through the cracks. Keeping an organized chart where you can check off what you've done and see deadlines will be a life-saver. These required items should be a positive supplement to the main event – your portfolio! – our discussion for the next post.