The Application Process, Part II: The Interview

Jessica Todd,  Home , cotton, flour, water, 2013

Jessica Todd, Home, cotton, flour, water, 2013

You may have interviewed at your undergraduate institution or gone to some job interviews over the years, but chances are you've never done an interview quite like this. Your interview for an MFA program, and possibly assistantship or scholarship opportunities, is a really unique and important one.

First, why interview? Even if you've already been accepted it’s crucial that you have an interview before you decide, for both your sake and the program’s. The interview is where you will find out what can neither be expressed nor sensed on paper – whether or not that program is the right fit for you, and vice versa. Yes, it is primarily a time for the program’s faculty to get a sense of your preparedness but it is also an opportunity for you to feel out if you will be at your best there. As I discuss in one of my first articles, “Starting your Search,” it’s not just about getting into the biggest name school with the biggest name faculty, it’s also about feel. To quote myself, “In the end a graduate program is what you make of it, and you’re much more likely to make the most of an experience in which you feel comfortable, stimulated, encouraged and above all else, happy!” A conversation with a faculty member tells you a lot more about your potential experience than a website. And whenever feasible always plan a visit to interview in person with faculty, view the facilities and meet fellow graduate students.

So what should you expect? Begin by preparing yourself for the questions that may be asked:

  • “Why do you want to attend graduate school?” This is pretty open-ended and seems innocent enough but it’s a big one. Reread your Statement of Intent/Purpose before the interview to refresh your memory. This answer needs to be better than, “because it would be fun,” or, “because I’m done with undergrad.” My article “So You’re Thinking About an MFA...” has some good questions to consider when formulating this answer. If you’re coming directly from undergrad, they’re going to want to know if you’re really ready personally and artistically for this big step. If you've taken a few years off, they’re going to want to know what made you decide you were finally ready and the ways you've improved yourself, your skills or your portfolio during that time. Convince them that you've thought good and hard about it, you’re prepared and an MFA program is the only place you want to be.

  • “Tell us about your work.” Be prepared to talk extensively about your work; this will likely be the bulk of the interview. Practice beforehand talking about your work in a clear, concise way. Have a family member or friend listen to your explanation – saying it out loud to another person is very different from saying it in your head. Reread your Artist Statement to get keywords and key phrases fresh in your mind. If you’re not confident about your Artist Statement, spend some time reworking it. I like this guide to writing an Artist Statement from Claremont Graduate University: Explain your processes as well as concepts and present your work in a fluid way so that discussion of one piece leads into the next.

  • “What do you hope to achieve in/via graduate school?” Again, refer to your Statement of Intent. Brainstorm the ways you hope to grow in your artwork as well as professionally. Be clear about your objectives – Do you want to experiment with new media? With installation? With performance? Professionally, do you hope to teach? Do retail work? Show in galleries? If you’re not 100% sure, tell them that too. Being as upfront and honest as possible will ensure everyone is on the same page and there are no surprises later on as to what faculty are open to and expecting.

And some general tips:

  • Don’t wait until the last minute. Schedule your interview well before decisions start getting made, which for Fall can be as early as February. Your application does not have to be complete. Contact faculty well before Thanksgiving break to find what works for them. Remember that nobody will be around during the three- to four-week winter break and the very beginning of the semester in January is typically a very busy time.

  • Dress professionally. This is studio art so a three-piece suit may not be necessary but aim to look mature and professional. Just because you wear ripped jeans and a dirty t-shirt in the studio doesn't mean it’s appropriate for a graduate school interview. Your outfit can show your personality but also needs to inspire confidence in your competency.

  • Bring your work. Along with a digital or physical portfolio, bring in actual work and even new/in-progress work that doesn't appear in your portfolio. Seeing work in person is a different experience and hopefully a better one, so make sure your work is ready for up-close inspection!

  • Stay calm. Take a deep breath and try not to let your nerves get the best of you. Nobody is expecting you to be a perfectly articulate professional artist – if you were you wouldn't need graduate school! It’s okay to say, “I’m not sure exactly where this is headed but I’m excited to explore a new direction.”

  • Stay positive. Let your enthusiasm for what you do shine through. An applicant who expresses great passion and self-motivation may beat out an applicant with a better portfolio but a blasé attitude. Talent only takes you so far and the faculty know that! Character plays a bigger role than you may think, especially when it comes to assistantships. The faculty are laying a lot on the line when accepting you into these small studio art programs – they need to know you can be trusted with the independence and responsibility.

  • Be yourself. Don’t try to be the person you think they want you to be, or say the things you think they want to hear. It’s about finding the right fit for both parties. Sometimes people get so set on a certain program they change themselves or their expectations to make it work. I assure you this will only end in frustration and discontent down the line.

Additionally, prepare some questions to ask them! This will not only get you all of the information you need to make a decision, but it will also make you appear intelligent and invested. (Make sure to do your research first to avoid redundancy.) Some questions may be:

  • What sets this program apart or makes it unique from other programs? (My favorite question!)

  • What is the structure of the program/what classes will I be taking?

  • Are you open to experimentation in ____ media or taking classes in ____ discipline?

  • How long is the program?

  • When will I have access to the studio? (weekly basis, over breaks, etc.)

  • What sort of professional development is offered?

  • What are some funding opportunities?

  • For Teaching Assistantships, what classes would I be teaching?

  • How would you recommend spending the next (7) months before the start of the program?

You should also meet with current grad students, privately – it’s the only way to get the real scoop. Keep in mind that some students may only have a negative experience because they chose the wrong place for them, so be sure to find out concretely why. Here are some questions you may consider:

  • What made you choose this program over others and where else did you apply?

  • Are you content in this program? Why or why not?

  • Describe a typical day for you.

  • Where do students typically live? What is the cost of living?

  • How does the school or community help promote you professionally?

  • What do you do for fun?

Overall, try not to get so caught up in selling yourself that you forget you are also shopping for a program. My professor, Kathleen Browne, describes it perfectly as a “three-year marriage” – both sides have to feel good for it to be right. I spend lots and lots and lots of hours in the studio and see Kathleen and especially my fellow grads lots and lots and lots... You get the idea. We’re human, we work long hours, we have our cranky days, but in the end I wake up looking forward to getting into the studio and working alongside them every day. We give each other feedback, we help each other photograph and set up shows and we provide each other with the moral support that’s needed to get through stressful days. From a professional standpoint, I know that I’ll be permitted and encouraged to do the type of work I want to do, and my program provides me with the experiences and resources needed to achieve my professional goals.

I have met and seen a lot of students (myself included) whose decisions changed drastically after a visit and interview. Make sure you take this vital step, all the while being true to yourself, before you make a final decision.